Late last year the Oxford Dictionaries organization – our favorite and snootiest word police – identified, as they do every year, a Word of the Year. This is a word that is supposed to be indicative of the direction of the world, to encapsulate the zeitgeist of a given year, to express something about the way we see the meaning of life, or at least talk about it. And just a few months ago that word was: “selfie.”
A selfie, properly speaking, is not just a photographic self-portrait. It must fit certain criteria. It should be a photo in which the photographer is also the subject, taken most often with the camera on your cell phone. The two most common formats are the arm’s-length-selfie (in which the arm holding the camera is often partly visible), and the mirror-selfie (which I think is self-explanatory).
Another defining characteristic of the selfie is that it has been posted to a social networking site – Facebook or Instagram, for instance – and this was probably the driving purpose of the photo in the first place. A selfie is meant to be disseminated and shared over the Internet, not to be pressed quietly between the pages of a book.
There are strong feelings out there about the prevalence of the selfie. Some see the trend as an exuberant embrace of our ability to share with one another in the age of fast and easy digital communication. Others see it as a sign of the total decline of Western civilization. One writer called the selfie a “subversive twist on the traditional understanding of the photograph. Usually conducted because the subject cannot locate a suitable photographer to take the photo, like a friend.”
But this seems like an unfair criticism, since the selfie has clearly grown beyond the strict self-portrait to include others within the frame. President Obama was controversially seen snapping a selfie with two other heads of state at the funeral of Nelson Mandela. A much-seen selfie of Hilary and Chelsea Clinton has been making the rounds of the web. And the group-selfie reached what you might call its apotheosis last summer when a gaggle of teenagers posted their selfie taken with Pope Francis, who has since be captured in more than a few selfies.
On Easter morning it might seem odd to stop to consider the selfie, except that I have been wondering about the possibility of the Easter-selfie, and how it would have transformed Christian faith had the selfie been an available means of expression and communication on that first Easter morning.
To begin with, it would have saved a lot of time. We hear in John’s Gospel that there is a lot of running to and fro the tomb that morning. First it’s Mary Magdalene in the dark. She runs to get Peter and the unnamed disciple Jesus loved. They run to the tomb together, but the unnamed disciple gets there first (maybe to get the first selfie?) But Peter is the first to look into the tomb. The two of them race back home. But Mary stays by the tomb weeping, only to encounter two angels with whom she chats – a selfie moment if ever there was one. Eventually Mary, still on her own encounters a man she supposes to be the gardener, but who turns out to be Jesus. He tells her to go back to his brothers, his friends, his disciples and report to them. Imagine what the impact would have been if she could have just held out her smart phone as she stood beside the risen Lord and taken a selfie with him.
All this running around, all this uncertainty would have been dealt with in a matter of seconds. Not to mention that thousands of years of skeptics would have had photographic evidence to contend with. Doubting Thomas himself would have been spared his doubt if he’d seen the selfies of Mary with the angels and then standing beside Jesus posted on Instagram with a nice sepia filter.
But, in fact, I think the Easter selfie has greater potential than just saving time, and even greater potential than dispelling doubt. Imagine the selfies taken by Mary Magdalene, by Peter and the other disciple. Imagine Mary standing right beside the risen Christ – but not so close as to touch him. And now imagine yourself there too. Maybe, like me, you have never actually taken a selfie and posted it on line (I don’t think I have). And yet, if I was there on that Easter morning, I think I’d want to very much.
In a way the Easter selfie is an answer to the old Good Friday hymn: Were you there.
Were you there when they crucified my Lord?
Were you there when they nailed him to the tree?
Were you there when they laid him in the tomb? Were you there?
The implied answer to the hymn, of course, is no – you weren’t there and neither was I. The hymn is a lament of longing. We should have been there; we would have been there if we could; we wish we’d been there. Would something had been different if you’d been there? Who knows? But you were not there; we were not there.
The Easter selfie would provide a powerful counterpoint to this lament. On the day of resurrection it would allow us to proclaim with more than a little joy: I was there! I spoke with angels! I gazed into the empty tomb! I saw the risen Lord Jesus and heard him call my name! Don’t you believe me? Have a look at this!
Were you there when they found the empty tomb?
Were you there when the angels came to chat?
Were you there when the gardener called your name?
Yes, yes I was there! And ohhhh! sometimes it causes me to tremble when I look at those Easter selfies! Yes, I was there!
Additionally, the Easter selfie would allow us to get over our great reluctance to say anything at all about our faith. Not sure how to tell someone that you actually believe in all this Jesus stuff? Can’t find the words to describe the power of the risen Lord to change your life and the world? No need to put it into words. Just post a selfie taken outside his empty tomb – in this case take it outside of church on Easter morning - and this time leave it in color!
If “selfie” really is the word of the year; if it really does accurately capture the mood of this moment in history, the direction of the world; if it expresses something about the way we see the world, then let us at least have some Easter selfies to add to all the images that seem to say nothing more than that I am alone in the world and relatively pleased with myself – or at least that’s what I want you to believe.
Let’s add to those isolating images with the images that capture us looking hopeful by an empty tomb; that show us chatting away with friends who appear to be angels (what with that hazy filter you have added and the sun shining into the lens). Let’s post a selfie taken with the nearest gardener. And let us not be surprised on Easter, when we find ourselves in a garden where things are meant to come to life and grow, to hear a voice connected to that unknown gardener that’s calling out a name.
And let’s let our Easter selfie be one that captures the surprise and joy on our faces when we realize that the voice is calling your name, that the gardener is not the gardener at all, that the name he is calling is yours, and that the face in the picture that matters the most is not yours or mine, but the one we are somehow surprised to find there, even though he promised that after three days he would rise from the grave, and that he would be with us always.
Take an Easter selfie with Jesus, which is best done not with a camera phone but with your heart. But still, don’t forget to share it, and let us all see you smiling beside the risen Jesus, who, by the way, is very happy to be here in an Easter selfie with you!
Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
Easter Day 2014
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia