The image featured in this post is from the famous, and highly complicated, 20th-century English artist, Sir Stanley Spencer. The work is titled Travoys Arriving with Wounded at a Dressing Station at Smol, Macedonia. I first encountered this painting reading a book by a Cambridge theologian named Michael Banner. It has stuck with me ever since, and I often think of it around Christmas time because it suggests that Jesus’ birth changes everything.
The painting features a scene from World War I that the artist himself experienced. It is a dressing station (medic’s tent) buzzing with activity during the bloodbath of battle. If you look closely, you will see doctors and nurses treating the wounded, and if you know much about that war, then you know that they must have been overwhelmed. No matter how fast they worked, the wounded kept coming. These men and women were working against impossible odds, and they could easily have given up, thinking that their work was in vain.
However, the dressing station is portrayed in such a way that it recalls the nativity scene from the gospels. The doctors and nurses stand over a patient in an illumined room, as other patients pulled on stretchers by horses look in on the work being performed. At first glance, it recalls the animals and visitors looking in on the scene of Christ’s birth as we see in nativity paintings. The entire image seems to signify that the incarnation of Christ gives meaning and eternal significance to the work performed by the medics in that dressing station. Because Christ came into the world to heal, they labor in the most impossible of circumstances to do the same. Did they labor in vain? Was it sentimentality that inspired their pursuit of a noble and yet seemingly hopeless cause? The way we answer these questions depends, a great deal, on what we think of the Christmas story.