Every year, around this time, the Oxford English Dictionary people list the ‘new words’ that have come into existence in the English language. And each year, they pick one word that summarizes the changes in the culture that produced the new words. Recent winners include “Unfriend”; “GIF” which is a series of pictures documenting an event and the phrase, “Squeezed middle”. And so it goes. The word of the year is always for them, an editorial choice, meant to spark conversation and discussion about our world and society. They hit a home run in that regard with the 2013 choice. The word is:
< Take selfie > Selfie.
A selfie is “a photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically with a smartphone or webcam and uploaded to a social media website.” There are 57 million photos bearing its hashtag — #selfie — on Instagram alone. It is a word that captures for some the self absorption of what they perceive this tec-savvy generation is about. Who really cares what my or my friends face looks like from an arm’s distance away?
But if there is an ugly truth to be proclaimed here, isn’t it this: Each generation has had their own ‘selfies’ – their own experience of the world that focuses on them and their own needs, often to the exclusion of others. Whether it is economically, politically, or socially, however we name them, selfies are each generation’s and each individual’s propensity to look at/interpret the world always in relationship to how it impacts ME, for better or worse, and to evaluate accordingly and respond accordingly. Even the church has been guilty of selfies – from the Holy Roman Empire to the Inquisition to the enshrining of the institutional church over the individual believer.
Into that cultural and individual experience comes three correctives this Sunday, three people into whom the notion of selfie never even made it to the radar screen.
Isaiah invites us to realize that it is THE WHOLE WORLD that God cares about. He proclaims the dream in the heart of God where the afflicted and poor will be treated with dignity and exaltation; when violence will be done away with; and when even all of creation will be at peace. And he invites us to create a world where the wolf will be the guest of the lamb and the calf and the young lion shall browse together. A world where there will no harm or ruin anywhere.
John the Baptist comes pointing to one greater than himself and cries out: “Repent – the Kingdom of GOD – not the kingdom of the selfie – is at hand…” It is time to turn from an absorbed kind of worldview to something much bigger than ourselves. It is not all about you and me: it is about the call to bring to fruition this dream that burned in the heart of God in the sending of his Son, to whom John pointed.
These days, the world rightly grieves and honors Nelson Mandela. He is someone for whom the dream that burned in the heart of Isaiah burned brightly as well. He was willing to pay a price for this dream. Imprisoned for 27 years, he never gave up on the dream to end, not just the apartheid system that kept his country enslaved, but the selfishness that keeps each of from a life of service. “What counts in life is not the mere fact that we have lived. It is what difference we have made to the lives of others that will determine the significance of the life we lead.”
So, what if there was a different kind of selfie we could take? Not with a camera or smart-phone, and not of our faces – but rather our souls? A selfie we would take in our prayer. What would we see there? Would we see anything of the life of Isaiah or Mandala or John the Baptist there? Would we see evidence that our lives are indeed turning towards the good of this world, away from merely our own temptation to self-indulgence and absorption?
Practically – the Fair Trade Fair downstairs is one step away from the consumerism of the season to a more just world. Our Vincent de Paul giving tree keeps our eyes on the needs of our closest neighbors. Praying with our choir at tomorrow’s Advent concert opens our ears to the world that powerful music can create. And the choice to make the ultimate ‘selfie’ in preparing for, and going to the sacrament of Reconciliation keeps our eyes focused on a Kingdom that is not us.
The Oxford English dictionary’s word of the year is: Selfie. It catches more than a self -portrait taken by our own smart phones or cameras. It reveals our temptation to be pretty narcissistic and self absorbed. But there is another way. That would be to take the ‘selfie’ that John the Baptist would have taken, had the technology been available to him: < Take selfie > Hmm. Look at that. All you see in an arrow pointing to Jesus…