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A gift from God

04 January 2013


TO START off in a cemetery, considering exactly where one's own grave will be located, and hoping that one's arrival there will not be much longer delayed, is so contrary an opening for a Christmas Day broadcast as to win some kind of prize in itself; but Sister Wendy and the Art of the Gospel (BBC2) overturned more cultural presuppositions as it progressed.

This was a marvellous programme, made by Randall Wright, who is clearly fascinated by this extraordinary woman and her insight. Ostensibly an account of the significant moments in the life of Christ, as depicted in her favourite paintings, it was, in fact, a meditation on the mystery of Christian vocation, and, above all, on the love of God.

Her life seems one of unacceptable deprivation: solitude, silence, poverty, chastity, rising daily just after midnight so that her hours of prayer will be uninterrupted. Yet she considers all this an extra- ordinary gift from the God, on whom she is entirely focused. Her profound expositions of the paintings are deceptively simple.

Surely, most people would be deeply moved by this programme, and drawn to the conclusion that there might be more to this Christianity stuff than they had ever thought.

Christmas Day offered another transparent and compelling presentation of the heart of the gospel, also by an elderly woman. The Queen's Christmas Day broadcast becomes ever more religious in tone: this year, the Jubilee, Olympics, and Paralympics inspired a celebration of, and appeal for, self-giving service, a sermon, and a prayer, concluding with Christina Rossetti's "What can I give him? . . . Give my heart." Had the Synod vote gone the other way, I suspect that there would be an overwhelming movement to place Her Majesty on the throne of St Augustine; and her two-minute clip of the Diamond Jubilee River Pageant was so superior to everything the BBC managed as to force the conclusion that she might also take on the post of Director General as well.

If Sister Wendy shows us how to do religious TV, then I am afraid that David Suchet: In the Footsteps of St Paul (BBC1, 23 and 24 December) shows us how not to do it. These were well-meaning films, following up an obsession that Suchet has felt for the Apostle and yet they were essentially Christianity-lite - a feel-good, Michael-Palin-style approach to this greatest of theologians and philosophers. Not once, for example, did they consider such issues as the historicity of Acts, or the authorship of the epistles.

I reckon that, oddly, Christmas television's most moving religious moment came at the conclusion of Friday Night Dinner (Channel 4, Christmas Eve). This scabrous sitcom treated the celebration of the incarnation with all the angst we could expect from its protagonists - a dysfunctional family of north-London Jews. Should they even be keeping Christmas in the first place?

Yet, after a day of squabbling and recrimination, Jim, the neighbourhood lunatic, warbled "Silent Night", and effected a total transformation in them all. This moment of pure grace was an extraordinary change of register, and a sign of great dramatic and comedic skills - and the power of the message.


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