The power of image

What a camera can teach a preacher

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By Father Jim Schmitmeyer

We’ve heard the adage: a picture is worth a thousand words. In an essay for Image, A. G. Harmon probes the spiritual connections between viewers and photographs. According to Harmon, photography’s use of the “raw stuff” of the ordinary world makes viewers aware that “theophanies line the Interstate, and we are prone to walk by altars and fall asleep before reliquaries” (tinyurl.com/imagejournal).

Bag boys and blue sedans
American masters such as William Eggleston and William Christenberry are known for framing work-a-day epiphanies: a faded blue car surrounded by trash that compliments its color or a 1965 bag boy in a white shirt and black tie, his Brylcreemed profile as chiseled as a president’s image on a coin.

For the homilist, the theological significance of photographic art lies in its ability to capture the splendor of grace in an otherwise fallen world. In a homily, as in a photograph, revelation occurs when the viewer suddenly sees sanctity housed in a suburban development or the seed of conversion located in the swirl of a tattoo.

Framing the scene
The first step in the process of preaching through image is nurturing a contemplative spirit in one’s pastoral ministry. As a photographer pays attention to light, the homilist notes intensity of grace. This means that scenes are studied in terms of the “slant” from which grace falls.

What did you read in the lines on the face of the elderly communicant? What inner disposition showed itself in the posture of the inmate you visited at the county jail? What quality of hope is conveyed in the prayer request scribbled on an offering envelope?

Integrating image and message
Traditional sermon illustrations seek to explicate abstract truths. Homiletic images, on the other hand, convey a truth that is inseparable from the image itself. Among the myriad encounters of a given week, there will be moments that resonate with a biblical passage or liturgical season. A homiletic image that captures the essence of such a moment will draw listeners into the experience of a type of mini-revelation (see below: A Vigorous Savior).

In addition to the homiletic experience itself, an effective use of image entices listeners to note manifestations of grace in their own day-to-day lives. What they “see” in the words of their preacher will soon be evident in the world in which they live.

A Vigorous Savior
This excerpt from a Lenten homily contrasts traditional depictions of Christ in the desert with an image drawn from a contemporary newspaper report.

Steven Detten is a rancher, a farmer, and a volunteer firefighter. Last spring wildfires roared across the Texas plains south of Amarillo. Steve spent days fighting the fire across two counties. On the morning he arrived home, he surveyed the damage to his own ranch.

His seven horses stood beyond a draw, shivering in the wind with naked skin. They turned toward the truck as it crested the ridge. They heard its approach but could not see it. Their eyes were burned shut.

***

In traditional art, depictions of Christ in the desert feature Satan crouched before a calm and composed Savior. In such paintings, the Lord’s divinity and authority are absolute. Forty days of hot sun fail to harden the face of the Lord. No wind chaps his lips. No hunger fevers his eyes.

Not so today. Not in Texas. Confrontation with evil requires a vigorous Savior. Dust and fire singe the canvas on which this gospel passage is painted. Satan grins above the flames of burning barns and screaming horses. Lent carries the whiff of smoke, its alarm wails like a siren in the distance. It begins with ash on the face and soot on the ground.

In a world where lives and souls are threatened, the Lord’s face is smudged and drawn. His gaze is intense and alert.

Like that of a rancher named Detten.

Father Jim Schmitmeyer

Father Jim Schmitmeyer is pastor of Holy Angels Church, Childress, Texas, and Sacred Heart Church, Memphis, Texas.