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
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.