16th Sunday in Ordinary Time Reflection by Paul Nicholson
Last summer, in the run-up to the presidential election, I made a conscious decision to back out of Facebook. I wasn’t closing my account, and I wasn’t un-friending everyone. But I was unplugging from the platform as a mode of interaction with friends and family. My feed had become a torrent of vitriol mostly from people with a worldview similar to my own and usually in the form of a re-post from a news source or popular television show. Not much of it was written by the people I knew. Almost all of this content came with an image or two, maybe a video clip (and the command to “make this go viral!”) and followed by a long, scrollable, curtain of text. The world would be ending soon and it was important that I know why, what to do about it, and who to blame.
In the space left clear by my Facebook departure, I stumbled into Instagram and was immediately charmed by its “non-textiness.” It has an immediacy that I was drawn to not by words and numbers but by image. It struck me how forcefully the meaning of an image could be felt in contrast to the slow accumulation of understanding and meaning when reading an article or essay. It also brought to mind again and again the realization that we are a nation that reads less and less with each passing year. (More often than not we’ve seen the movie but haven’t read the book, assuming there ever was a book to begin with.) Through Instagram, I feel closer to the lives of family and friends than I have in recent years with Facebook. There isn’t a whole lot of commentary; the pictures seem to be given most of the responsibility to convey sentiment. There is an “earthiness” about the images, an un-edited and un-scripted quality that resonates with me. My Instagram feed has something of the Kingdom of Heaven about it with its everyday and commonplace.
I was thinking about my interaction with Instagram as I read the Gospel for today. I am a product of my time and so it is almost impossible to consider a life bereft of imagery. Yet this is the life of the society in which Jesus is participating. The crowds he speaks to in today’s Gospel (as well as last week and next week) are connected to each other by daily work, shared meals, geography, and common language. They do not own books, read magazines or newspapers, or watch a nightly news broadcast. (I cannot imagine life without these things.) What they know of life is immediate, visceral, and direct. Jesus meets them exactly where this direct understanding flourishes—in the open fields and plains of Palestine, farming an arid land, surviving in a harsh environment, in a nation occupied by invaders. His stories are to his listeners as our Internet memes are to us: we get it right away. Understanding happens so quickly it’s almost subconscious. I think that’s what was happening as the crowds heard his stories.
I take great comfort in this understanding in that I believe God speaks to us, today, plainly, in ways that can be understood immediately. I do not suggest that God has only a “happily ever after” sort of message for us, or that it is a simple message. On the contrary, I believe Life will be filled with joys and sorrows, and that Mystery will always accompany our being. But God enters into all of this suchness in our lives; God enters our images and our social media feeds. And I do look for God in the images of the present moment. In a way, I use my eyes as much as my ears to listen for the voice of God and to recognize the Kingdom of Heaven here on earth.