The power of an image

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Sermon for Sunday, February 2nd, 2020

Readings

 

 

This is a photograph of my uncle that died last month. I got it when I was down in Florida.

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Now, on one level I can tell you that this is just a piece of paper; some photographic paper with ink on it. But, I think we all know that pictures mean so much more to us than that.

 

Pictures are more than just ink on paper. When you see an image of someone or something that is significant to you it evokes something within you. It touches something inside you.

 

I know that this little piece of paper isn’t actually my uncle, and yet I can hold it up and say “this is my uncle” and you would know exactly what I meant. When I see it, it brings a little of him back to me for a moment. It’s paper and ink, and yet with the right image on it, it becomes something else. It becomes something powerful.

 

When I was down home a couple weeks ago, I ended up sitting down and flipping through some old picture albums. It is amazing how easy it is to forget little details: like the wallpaper in the front hall of the house you grew up in, or the curtains in your grandma’s living room, or that favorite jacket you used to always wear. There are so many little things that you forget, and then you start flipping through pictures and it all comes back to you. You hadn’t completely forgotten it, it was just hiding somewhere in your mind. Then you see an old picture and it takes you right back to that time and that place;

 

in your head, for at least a couple seconds you get to go back there.

 

There is something almost magical about that.

 

There is something almost magical about how a simple image can take you on a journey. You see an old picture and you go on a journey through time. Distance and time don’t matter anymore. Looking through my old photos, I am transported to a time and a place that I can’t touch any other way. Sure, I can try and remember things, but memory fades. We forget things. Daily life pushes old memories aside. Pictures and images help to keep them alive.

 

Pictures also help me experience things that I never got to see with my own eyes. Like the way my grandfather looked as a young man; Relatives that I never got to meet; places that I never got to go. But when I flip through an old photo album, I get to go there, at least for a second. It is the closest thing to time travel that any of us will probably know, and you probably take it for granted. Pictures and images are powerful and sacred things.

 

This little piece of paper is not sacred to me, but the image it bears sure is. The image has power, even if the paper doesn’t.

 

I know that the beginning of today’s service may have seemed a bit odd for some of you; for some it may have even been uncomfortable. We began with a blessing of candles and with a procession of this statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary and Jesus around the church. Why? Why would we do such a thing?

 

Do we think that Mary was feeling cramped over in the shrine and felt the need to stretch her legs a bit? Do we think that this statue of Our Lady of Walsingham has special powers?

 

Well, not exactly, no.

 

I can tell you that this is just a piece of carved wood with some paint on it. The material that was used to create this statue is in no way sacred or special, but the image that was created is special, and completely sacred. It is sacred because we all know it to be an image of our Lord and his mother. When we look on this image our thoughts are drawn to Jesus and Mary. We are transported to another time and another place. When we look at this statue we can imagine, in our minds, what it might have been like to look in the face of that child, or to witness how his mother embraced him. The image gives us a place to focus our devotion, but the devotion isn’t to the wood, the devotion is to the image that it bears and what that evokes within us.

 

You may ask, then why lift it up and carry it around? Why surround it with flowers?

 

Well, why do we put pictures in fancy frames and mount them on the wall in places of honor in our homes? Because the image they bear is important to us. When put images on display in eye-catching and beautiful frames because we want to see them, and be reminded of someone we love. We want others to know that this image is special. This image really means something to us.

 

The image is sacred because of who it draws us to. The power of this statue is not that it brings Mary and Jesus to us; we can’t control God that way. The power of this statue is that it brings us to Mary and Jesus. It takes our thoughts, or hearts and our minds to them. When we look on this image, we are the ones who are transported to another time and another place.

 

That is the irony of this service today. We took this statue on a little walk, but we are the ones that really went on a journey. We went on a journey in our minds. We were invited to imagine the story that Luke paints for us in the gopsel. We had a visual reminder of a day thousands of years ago, when a young woman carried her newborn baby into God’s holy temple to give thanks for the life of this child and to give thanks for the fact that her life had been spared too.

 

Maybe we can imagine ourselves following her through the crowded streets and up to the glorious temple. Maybe we can see in our minds her nervously handing him over to the old priest. We might even imagine Joseph handing the priest the appointed sacrifice of two turtledoves, which was all they could afford. Then maybe we can hear the old priest Simeon saying those words which Luke recorded:

 

Lord, now Lettest thou thy servant depart in peace,

According to thy word;

For mine eyes have seen thy salvation,

Which thou hast prepared before the face of all people;

To be a light to enlighten the gentiles, and to be the glory of thy people Israel.

 

One look into that baby’s face, and old Simeon had seen all that he needed to see. All that he had hoped and longed for was now right in his hands. This child would be a light to enlighten the gentiles and would be the glory of his people Israel. What a holy and sacred moment that must have been.

 

We weren’t there; none of us were there, but for a few moments today we can see this image of Mary holding Jesus and we can imagine it. We can let this painted piece of wood take our hearts and minds to that sacred scene.

 

Maybe for some people this feels like idolatry. I get that. This may not be everyone’s preferred way to worship and that’s OK. But we should remember that idols come in many forms. Merely avoiding sacred images won’t keep you from being an idolater. Anytime we place more focus on something we have done, rather than on what God has done, we are idolators. Anytime we give something that is not God the adoration and respect that belongs to God alone, we have become idolators.

 

An idol is something that draws you farther away from the true God, not something that draws you closer to him.

 

For me at least, this statue of Our Lady and Our Lord, much like this picture of my uncle, draws me closer to someone that I can’t see with my eyes right now, and for that reason it is sacred, no matter what it is made out of.

 

Now, if a painted piece of wood can help us see Jesus, if an inanimate object can draw us closer to Christ, what could real flesh and blood do? Sure, people can get a glimpse of Jesus and Mary when they look at this statue, but can they also see Mary or Jesus when they look at you? Does your life draw people closer to God? When people look at you do they see a glimpse of divine light burning in a dark world, or do they see something far more wooden?