I have come to this a bit late, but there is a tiny furore raging over the decision of Greggs (the Geordie purveyors of the steak bake and bacon turnover, among other delicious healthy snacks) to recreate, for advertising purposes, a tableau of ‘the nativity’ featuring a sausage roll, apparently in the place of the Baby Jesus.
Many people claim to have been offended by the apparent substitution of a reconstituted meat and pastry product for Jesus. It is not for me to say whether anyone is, or should be, offended, but I would like to suggest that Gregg’s ill-considered nativity scene (for which they have apologised) is not as daft as it might at first seem.
Despite occasional explosions of iconoclasm throughout history, Christianity has a long tradition of communicating through visual and artistic iconography. The annunciation, the nativity, the crucifixion, the pietà, the reflective portrait of the Virgin Mary — all these and more are images that have entered the cultural consciousness of Judaeo-Christian culture. A human figure fixed to a cross is likely to be assumed to be, at the very least, an allusion to the crucified Jesus, even though it was a very common form of execution in Antiquity and has been used by ISIS within the last couple of years.
We have seen Angelina Jolie, Kim Kardashian, Beyoncé, and even Katie Hopkins depicted in poses which very clearly borrow from the classical iconography associated with the Virgin Mary (and/or the Sacred Heart):
Whether you find these images offensive is a matter for your own sensibilities and conscience. They may even be disrespectful, but it is important to remember that they are only images (and it is worth remembering that some Protestant Christians even respectfully devotional images as idolatrous). But for those for whom images play an important rôle (mainly Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox), there is no suggestion that it is the image itself which is actually worshipped, but rather what it points towards, or recalls. Thus, while depicting Michael Jackson in a pose which is suggestive of Christian iconography is not necessarily blasphemous, actually praying to Michael Jackson would be:
Both Islam and Judaism eschew human images in their iconography, the former famously so (although there is variation here — I have seen devotional images of the Prophet Mohammed in the bazaars of Iran). Despite frequent bouts of iconoclasm in the Church, the prohibition of images makes little sense in Christianity because Jesus is himself an image — the visible, human manifestation of the invisible and unknown God. This is why the heritage of Christian art is so very rich, and why, traditionally at least, the Epiphany was the main feast of Christ’s birth, not the Nativity (or ‘Christmas’). It was important because this was when Christ was ‘shown to’ and thus ‘seen by’ the world — not just his Jewish mother and foster father, Mary and Joseph, but the world beyond Israel, represented by the Magi from ‘the East’. (Incidentally, it is the Epiphany with the Magi that Greggs chose to represent.)
Jesus, in Christianity, is visible and tangible, and therefore fragile and vulnerable. At the centre of the Christian faith is not an idea, or a philosophy, or a set of divine laws, but a person; a person that can be (and has been, billions of times) represented in art.
Anyone who has read more than a couple of chapters of the Gospels can be left in no doubt that Jesus seemed almost obsessed with food and drink. How does he show his love for the poor and hungry? By feeding them with 5 loaves and 2 fishes. What is his first recorded miracle? Changing water into wine. What does his ‘perfect prayer’ ask God for? “Daily bread”. To what does he liken his followers? Yeast and salt. What is the word of God like? Grains of wheat. To what is his teaching likened? New wine. How does he describe heaven? A great banquet. What will the preaching of his apostles be like? A huge catch of fish. And so forth. His obsession with eating and drinking was clearly apparent to his contemporaries, for he said of himself (Matt 11:19):
The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’
But the connection between Jesus and food (and drink) is far deeper than some accidental, rhetorical trope. In his public ministry he fed the hungry with bread and fish. After his death and resurrection he leaves us the gift of himself; not as words and memories, but as food and drink — the bread and wine of the Eucharist, recalling the manna with which the Lord fed the Israelites in the desert. Jesus doesn’t just talk about food, he becomes food. Yet this food does not perish. As he told his disciples (Jn 6:55):
For my flesh is meat indeed: and my blood is drink indeed. He that eats my flesh, and drinks my blood, abides in me, and I in him. As the living Father hath sent me, and I live by the Father; so he that eats me, the same also shall live by me.
In the Eucharist, we Catholic Christians receive not just bread and wine, but something which is more radically food and drink. Food and drink sustain our bodily lives. The body and blood of Christ, however, sustain our eternal lives. And it is not an optional extra of Christian observance; an amuse bouche for the cognoscenti, but something fundamental to the Christian life (Jn 6:53):
“Very truly I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.”
Even in the story of the Nativity, when the newborn Jesus is swaddled and placed in a manger, there is a hint of this future. The manger, after all, is the feeding trough of animals. Perhaps the symbolism is unpalatable: a human baby placed in the place where cattle grub for food, surrounded by the steaming sweat and dung of domestic animals. But that is a good image of the incarnation. In the incarnation, God becomes one of us, and chooses to share the bodily reality of our existence, even its filth, and even as far as death — a death that would be endured in another arena of sweat, blood and tears.
I have not written this post to congratulate Greggs, or even to excuse them. I have offered an only partially tongue-in-cheek personal opinion. But it seems to me that, entirely inadvertently (unless they have an in-house theologian), Greggs have alighted upon something with a certain amount of theological depth. In choosing to place a sausage roll in the manger of the Nativity scene, they have been crass, yes, but they have also reminded those of us who are Christians of something which is central to our belief. Jesus is food.
And that is surely how we should approach all uses (or misuses) of ‘Christian’ iconography. We are a religious tradition that deals in and makes use of iconography, so we cannot object to it on ideological grounds. Was Beyoncé making fun of the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe in the photo, or was she making a cack-handed attempt at admiration? As for Katie Hopkins depicting herself as the Sacred Heart, perhaps we might be reminded of what Jesus said, in the Gospel reading for the Feast of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus (Matt 11:28-29):
Come unto me, all you that labour and are heavy burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and you shall find rest for your souls.
Does that sound like Katie Hopkins? No, not to me either. But her vanity and foolishness does not offend Christ. He may be represented in art, but he is not reducible to any visual image. Jesus, I might remind any Christian readers of this piece who have me pinned as a secular stooge, was arrested, scourged and tortured to death. A dodgy bit of art is unlikely to bother the incarnate Son of God, who is risen and glorified. If individual Christians get upset on his behalf, then perhaps they should ask themselves whether they really think the second person of the Blessed Trinity needs people to be offended or upset on his behalf.
So in conclusion… The Greggs advertisement — was it ill-considered and crass? Yes, probably. But on the other hand it, entirely accidentally, reminded us of a fundamental theological truth. That’s how God’s providence works.