By Marshall Scott
Once again, there they were, flanking the stage, huge and bright.
I was at a conference, a gathering of almost 800 chaplains from almost every tradition you might imagine. Many of our meetings and workshops were small – usually fewer than fifty. However, for plenary lectures and banquet meals we were all gathered in a large hall. And in the hall, on either side of the platform, hung two large screens. Indeed, the hall was long enough that a third screen was hung for the back third of the room. Some of the lectures and events included slides or films, and the screens allowed us to see them. However, most of the time projected onto the screens was the image of the speaker.
At first, I found myself thinking the screens provided a clear view of the speaker, and a sense of immediacy, even intimacy. I could remember conferences in years gone by, before the screens were there. To sit in the back of the room was to see almost nothing of the speaker. Oh, you could see that there was a person at the podium, and even some details of a face; but you were conscious of the distance, and of how little you could actually see.
With the screens you saw, if not everything, then great detail. It was not exactly like sitting across the table from the speaker, but certainly in the same, much smaller room. Sure, there were two cameras, and periodically the angle of view would change. But you always saw things clearly.
But, when for a couple of events I sat down front, close to the dais, I found the experience disconcerting. I could see the speaker herself at the podium – in a natural perspective, with enough distance to lose some size, perhaps. Still, I could see the person as a person, in human scale. At the same time, there above us was the projected image, large almost beyond imagining. Even across the table, the speaker would never look that huge. The projected image was distracting, pulling attention away from the real, live person. We had made the real person literally larger than life.
It seems so often that we make folks larger than life. Perhaps that's because we want to see and to feel that we are close. It can be hard to feel that close when the person is in natural scale, yet visibly so far away. That's true in our conferences and in our concerts. It's true in our church conferences and many large churches (which suggests, I suppose, that it's rare in Episcopal churches; but I digress). I was, after all, at a conference of chaplains. We find ourselves looking more often at the projection than the person. Whether we’re honoring or lampooning, we have this tendency to make the person larger than life.
Which I found ironic, at least for me as a Christian. As often as God’s action was literally cosmic, many times God's activity was not larger than life. Abraham’s lunch with the three men wasn’t larger than life, nor was Moses’ birth, and look what came of them. Vain and petulant Elisha was all too rarely larger than life (think about those poor boys!), and he was one of the great prophets of God!
Indeed, God's most important act was specifically and deliberately not larger than life. "The Word became flesh and lived among us;" and among us Jesus was not larger than life. Born in a barn, hungry and thirsty, tempted and tired, and hanging on a cross, Jesus was not larger than life. Even resurrected, he was not larger than life. If he had been, Magdalene would have known him from the gardener. Cleopas would have known him on the road to Emmaus. Surely there would have been no breakfast by the lake if Jesus had been larger than life.
We are in a season when we contemplate all that God has done. We set the Passion, Crucifixion, and Resurrection in the context of “the mighty acts of God.” However, central to our faith – indeed, central to our salvation – is the fact that these events were not larger than life. It was God in human scale who came among us, to sit at table and welcome even the least. It was not a projection but God seen with our own eyes who accepted that most universal and most terrifying of human experiences, suffering and death. When Jesus rose that that we might rise with him, we encountered it not in the shaking of the earth or the parting of the skies, but in one mistaken for a gardener and in a companion on the road. For all our temptation to the larger image and the false intimacy of the big screen, that was not God’s way. Instead, our salvation was accomplished in events that, for all their cosmic consequences, were recognizably, almost frighteningly familiar – and certainly not larger than life.
The Rev. Marshall Scott is a hospital chaplain in the Diocese of West Missouri. A past president of the Assembly of Episcopal Healthcare Chaplains, and an associate of the Order of the Holy Cross, he keeps the blog Episcopal Chaplain at the Bedside.