One only has to think of the controversy about Doctor Who, and the casting of Jodie Whittaker as the 13th Doctor back in 2018, to be reminded that there’s nothing like the overhaul of an old favourite to divide opinion. As 2021 drew to its close, a friend of mine posted a photograph on social media of a sheet of wrapping paper that he had encountered being sold in a high-street store;. At first glance, it appeared to depict a nativity scene, a statue of the Sacred Heart, and Our Lord with his disciples at the Last Supper. An ideal choice, then, for wrapping up that tartan scarf, or those marzipan fruits, or Antonia Fraser’s latest.
The glossy sheet nestled between its neighbours, which were covered with the usual robins, holly, baubles and trees. On closer inspection, however, it was clear that the religious imagery was not quite what we might be used to. In all three pictures Our Lord wore a party hat; St Joseph also had one on, and was carrying a birthday cake. The Sacred Heart had been replaced with a Christmas present; instead of the sacred species, Jesus was distributing birthday cake to his disciples. Unsurprisingly, this did not go down at all well in some quarters.
The scale of opinion ran from disappointment to outrage. At one end the comments went along the lines of “I prefer to stick to the traditional”, “my goodness”, “I’m not impressed”, and “oh dear”. A monosyllabic category included “weird”, “garish”, and “hideous”. Further along came “disrespectful”, “in very bad taste”, and “what a shame”; they ended with “mockery” and “sacrilege”. A familiar cry of indignation also presented itself; which I have decided is best rendered as “they wouldn’t dare behave in this way towards other religious groups!”
About the last I take a thoroughly cynical view; of course, businesses would dare to behave in this way towards other religious groups, if they thought it would turn them a decent profit and if at the same time they thought that they could get away with it. In this particular instance, they know they can get away with it, because no commissioning executive seriously thinks that offended Catholics are going to march into their offices and start taking hostages. Furthermore, for two millennia, Catholics have utilised images as teaching tools in a way that other religions have not; perhaps that is at least partly why so many well-known scenes seem fair game.
While it may not be ideal that a major purveyor of seasonal tat chose to make light of such precious teachings, perhaps we should nevertheless be slightly impressed that someone, somewhere, had joined the dots and linked all three bits of interconnected doctrine to Christmas before sending the product into the marketplace; one respondent felt that “whoever created this knew exactly what they were doing”. In that light, the most challenging response came from someone who asked: “Are these things meant to test us?” In our reaction to this sort of thing, a bit of theology, a sense of humour and an eye for an opportunity for evangelism might serve us well.
With a bit of gentle unpicking, maybe that naughty wrapping paper might be harnessed for good; here’s where I got to after a bit of applied thought. Perhaps St Joseph wears a party hat and carries a birthday cake because the saints rejoice in Christmas, too. Perhaps the Sacred Heart appears as a wrapped gift because its burning love is the Christmas present we all need. Perhaps the Last Supper takes on festive overtones because the Eucharist prefigures the celestial banquet, which is the party to end all parties, to which all are invited and for which admission has already been paid. In any case, without the Incarnation, Maundy Thursday would be meaningless; so would be Good Friday, Easter, Ascension, Pentecost, the sacraments, the lot.
Was this wrapping paper in poor taste? Probably. Was it intentionally sacrilegious? Possibly. Was it provocative? Certainly. Could it be harnessed as a moment for a spot of guerrilla catechism? Absolutely. As ever, we can either stomp away grumpily from such things, or engage in a way that turns them to advantage. I would normally be the first person to take the former route, muttering under my breath as I went. This example caught me off guard and in a particularly generous mood, so I was minded to be positive about it. That’s Christmastide for you, I suppose.
This article first appeared in the January 2022 issue of the Catholic Herald. Subscribe today.
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