Selfies with the Cross

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Kevin Lee Light, dressed as Jesus, takes a selfie in London (Click for story)

I don’t know how hip you are to current trends, but in case you’ve missed the last few years of pop culture and technology…selfies are a thing. This phenomenon created by having cameras wherever we go that can be used to easily take self portraits have elevated the concept of a selfie to our almost daily vernacular. You may have seen this photo last year…

86th Academy Awards - Audience

Apparently, it “broke” the internet.

So, here we are in a culture where people are taking pictures of themselves in (what they deem as) notable situations and sharing them publicly for all their friends to see (yes, I’m still thinking about all this social media stuff). What strikes me as interesting about the selfie is that it allows people to connect themselves to certain people and places. On one level, the selfie is “proof” that you were there, you touched them, you climbed it, you ate it and/or you saw it. But, I also think, the selfie subtly and subconsciously communicates that we are attempting to identify with whatever or whomever is also featured in the selfie. Sure it’s about the moment, but what does that moment say about who I am, where I’ve gotten and who I’m with?

Selfies communicate identity. 

Or, at least, our concept of what our identity is.

I began thinking about the selfie on Sunday during the sermon at our church. Our pastor shared this painting of the crucifixion by Rembrandt.

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Rembrandt, Raising of the Cross (c. 1633) Alte Pinakothek, Munich.

In this painting, there are many highlighted people. It was odd for me that even though this is a painting of Jesus on the cross, my eye was not immediately drawn to Jesus. I saw the odd man wearing a turban in the back, the man in the blue hat/beret holding up the cross and even the soldier pulling the cross up before my gaze ended up at Jesus. Our pastor pointed out that the man in the blue hat helping raise the cross was actually Rembrandt. Rembrandt had included himself in his painting helping hoist up the cross with the crucified Christ. Some people even say that the man in a turban on the horse is also Rembrandt overseeing the crucifixion. Many painters did this as a sort of signature or simply that their face was the most readily accessible for reference. Either way, it is very interesting to me that Rembrandt included himself in the action of the painting. He is not detached from his work, he knows he is involved in it. From the choice of colors to the setting (which is decidedly not first-century, Roman occupied Palestine) Rembrandt is a part of the work and he has included himself in it.

In this painting, Rembrandt has identified himself with the crucifixion (like a selfie) but he has also involved himself with the action. He is part of raising the cross, he is part of the crowd, he is part of the action.

I see this as a strong challenge to our “selfie” culture, especially within the church. Often people just want to identify with Jesus or with the traditions of the church. But, the true challenge of Jesus is for his followers to, “deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.” Selfies are often not about involving yourself, or picking anything up but a camera. Followers of Jesus are invited into his story and seek to identify with his humility, service and sacrifice. This involves not only picking up our own cross to bear but, much like Rembrandt, realizing our culpability with powers and oppression that allowed God in Christ to be executed and crucified.

We carry our cross at the same time we acknowledge our participation in raising Christ’s.

We are not just bystanders observing, letting the world know we were there by snapping a photo. We are to see ourselves as part of the crowd, yelling “Crucify him” and “Give us Barabbas!” We are Simon, called out of the crowd to help Jesus make his appointment with the executioner. We are Pilate washing our hands of the matter, and (hopefully) we are the centurion acknowledging that “Surely, this man was the Son of God.”

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