Sunday, December 28, 2008

The Word is Worth a Thousand Pictures

First Sunday after Christmas – Year B (BCP)Isaiah 61:10-62:3; Psalm 147:13-21; Galatians 3:23-25, 4:4-7; John 1:1-18
Sunday, December 28, 2008 – St. Alban’s, Westwood

It is said that a picture is worth a thousand words. This refers to the idea that complex ideas or stories can better be conveyed through the use of a single image, that an image can convey more information or be far more influential than copious amounts of text. This phrase, or at least the general concept, has been attributed to such varied historical figures as Napoleon Bonaparte, Confucius, and the Russian author Ivan Turgenev.

Regardless of its provenance, the modern use of the phrase is attributed to Fred R. Barnard who used the phrase “a picture is worth a thousand words” in a 1921 article promoting the use of images in advertisements that were plastered on the sides of streetcars (Wikipedia). Ever since, Madison Avenue has used this adage as the guiding principal for its ad campaigns. In the early 20th century, it was for ads on streetcars. Today, it is ads on buses, on billboards, in magazines, and on television. The concept has become so pervasive that sometimes, all you see in an ad is an image with no words. The image is meant to evoke some kind of emotional response that will prompt the viewer to buy whatever is being sold. Such images generally play on our baser human desires, on our dreams and fantasies, to sell the product. A classic example is the image of a beautiful, bikini-clad blond lounging on the hood of a Ferrari. If you buy this car, you’re fantasies will come true; you will be sexy; you will attract sexy, beautiful blonds.

Of course, at a rational level, we know such ads are pure hype, intending to play on our emotions, to reach down into the depths of our being to dredge up or tease out our deepest thoughts, feelings, and desires. That is the power of a single image. Even when not used to try to sell us something, there are certain images that evoke strong emotional responses from us.

Who among us was not deeply moved when we first saw the images on television of smoke rising from the top of the Twin Tours on September 11, 2001? As we saw those images, repeatedly flashed on our television screens, printed on the fronts of newspapers and in news magazines, who of us did not feel deep, gut-level emotions? Fear. Anger. Sorrow. Loss. Anxiety. Even today, for many Americans, seeing pictures of that tragic day, of that fateful event, brings back all those emotions, as if it just happened yesterday. For many, those images have become stronger, more powerful, filled with more of a message than they had on that fateful day seven years ago. For many, seeing those images today not only brings back the emotions felt at the time, but also brings back memories of where they were when they first heard the news, when they first saw the images, memories of the sense of shock.

And who among us has not seen the picture of a loved one, even someone long departed, and not felt a great stirring of memory and emotion. Even though she died nearly 35 years ago, seeing a picture of my grandmother brings back so many memories and emotions. The deep sense of love that Nanny always conveyed to each and every one of her grandchildren. The way we always felt cared for and nurtured when we were at her house. Her gentle, humble spirit. Of walking into her house on a Sunday after church, being greeted not only by her warm embrace and gentle kiss, but also the smells of pot roast or fried chicken, the smells of some home-baked goodie for dessert. The joy of sitting down to Sunday dinner with parents and grandparents, with aunts, uncles, and cousins. I can almost taste the delicious food she lovingly prepared, particularly the home-made chocolate cream pie. All this and much more, just by looking at a picture of a woman, a woman who died when I was only 12 years old.

That is the power of an image, of a single picture – to bring up such emotion, to recall so many memories, than could not be adequately conveyed in mere words, not even in a thousand words. Yes, a picture is indeed worth a thousand words and much more.

But there is one word whose power surpasses even that of a picture. And that is the Word (with a capital “W”) of which John speaks in today’s Gospel lesson. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” These words, the Word, carries so much meaning for us, it is difficult to know where to begin. So how about we start at the very beginning.

John’s words parallel and are intended to remind us of the beginning of Genesis. “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen. 1:1). But even before the creation story, the Word always was from the beginning. The Word was before creation. “All things came into being through him,” through the Word. This was God’s first gift, the creation of all that is, of the heavens and the earth, light and darkness, water and dry land, day and night, vegetation, birds of the air, creatures of the sea, every kind of animal and creeping thing that lives on dry land, and finally, us – humankind. Through the Word, all that we have, all creation, our very lives, were lovingly made and given into our care. All of creation is but a mere part of the Word, a mere expression of the Word, not the totality of the Word. The Word is so much more. There is so much more of the Word that has yet to be revealed.

As one clergy person noted, the Word ultimately expresses “the fellowship that is God, the intimate relationships of love that are God’s heart, have always been, and always will be” (Howell, 188). The Word expresses God’s internal fellowship, the internal relationship of the Persons of the Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, all intertwined in infinite, limitless love. In this fellowship, the Word expresses God’s inner self, God’s loving heart. It is that loving heart that was at the root of, that gave birth to, the desire for creation. The Word, God’s loving heart, expression of God’s unbounded love, ached to share himself with something other than himself. Thus began the process of creation, born of the love that is in and is through and is the Word.

But even in the full realization that creation is an expression of God’s love, in the realization of God’s unlimited love for what has been created, there was still something missing. Even in creation, the fullness of the Word, the greatness of the love inherent in the Word was even then not yet fully expressed. How to be in relationship with creation, particularly with humanity? Such relationship requires, at least for us, the created, a tangible manifestation, a physical expression of love. And that is what John’s Prologue reveals – the means of that manifestation of God’s loving heart.

As John’s Prologue reveals through its poetic imagery, the revelation of the Word to humanity is not so much a “big bang” as it is an unfolding, just as the process of creation was a gradual unfolding. The Prologue unfolds for us yet more detail about who the Word is. “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.” The Word made flesh, God incarnate. The Word made flesh, Jesus Christ. In this, the Word expresses God’s desire to connect with us, humanity, with that which was loving created through the Word, we who have always been loved. This desire is made reality, made tangible for us through God’s incarnation, through God made flesh, in His Son Jesus.

What more beautiful way for God to manifest His love for us than to become one of us, to be born as a human. God incarnated, born as a child of a human mother. Even though King of Kings and Lord of Lords, born as a peasant of lowly estate, born not in a royal palace, born not even in a proper home, but born in a manger. The Word made flesh, born among the lowest of the low, so that he might fully experience the human condition in all its baseness and grittiness. To willingly take on such an existence is truly an act of love, only possible from God’s loving heart that is the Word.

But even more expressive of God’s loving heart is the ultimate purpose for which the Word was made flesh. The Word was made flesh not merely to share our human experience, but to provide for our salvation. “From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.” Through his life, death, and resurrection, we have received the ultimate grace expressing God’s loving heart – that we might be saved, that we might be given eternal life with God, through Christ, through the Word made flesh. Through the Word, God brought about all creation. Because of the Word made flesh, we are heirs to a new creation. Through the Word, God gave us life. Because of the Word made flesh, we are given eternal life.

The Word, who was from before creation, through whom all things were created. The Word, desiring, longing to be in relationship with us, the created children of God. The Word, made flesh, to be in relationship with us and to share our experiences of humanity. The Word, made flesh in order to be the means and instrument of our salvation. The Word, made flesh, through whom we are given eternal life. In all of this and so much more that is beyond words, the Word speaks far more than could possibly be conveyed even by a thousand pictures.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

“A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words” Wikipedia. (26 December 2008).

Howell, James C. “Second Sunday After Christmas Day, John 1:(1-9)10-18, Theological Perspective.” In Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Year B, Volume 1, Advent Through Transfiguration. Edited by David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008.

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