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The Very Revd Dr Frances Ward (Dean Emeritus of St Edmundsbury)
10.00am Sung Eucharist
Passiontide begins today. We turn ourselves towards the events that are to come.
The Gospel reading reminds us of what lies ahead for our Lord.
He talks of grains of wheat, of lives lost and found, warning those around him of what sort of death he was to die. The losses to come would be hard and many, not only his own dear life. He sought to reassure them that they belonged within a greater story, the story of God’s saving love for the world.
What was to happen was of cosmic significance. The death he was to die meant the judgement of this world and God glorified in love.
And I, says Jesus, when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to myself
Passiontide draws our minds and hearts towards this cosmic, saving action of God in Jesus Christ.
But what are we to make of those enigmatic words of Jesus? “Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life”?
One of the delights of six months at Mirfield, as my husband trains there for the priesthood, is the weekly sessions of Greek I’ve attended. We look at the gospel reading for the Sunday to come and make our way through, drawing out the resonances and meanings in the original.
And so I discover that today’s gospel has the same word for ‘life’ – as in ‘Those who love their life lose it …’ – and ‘soul’ – as in ‘Now my soul is troubled’. ‘Psyche’ is the word in Greek – from which we get any number of familiar derivatives: psychology, the most obvious. Translated here, really rather differently, as ‘life’, and ‘soul’.
Interestingly, there’s no biblical Greek word for the ‘self’ as we commonly use it now. There’s a Greek word for the reflexive sense, as in ‘myself’, to be sure – but no word, apart from ‘psyche’, to describe who I am. My inner self.
As Jesus prays with troubled soul, he warns his disciples that unless they are prepared to sacrifice their lives – their very selves – for his sake, they would not know eternal life.
Perhaps, today, he encourages us to reflect on our Western world, and its intense focus on the ‘self’. We talk of self-esteem, self-awareness, self-belief, self-love, self-respect. And now, we have ‘selfie’ too.
Attitude specialist Janice Davies introduced a National Self-Esteem Day in New Zealand in 2006, which is now international, renamed Selfday.
In the UK, in response to concern about the detrimental impact of selfies, the first TrueSelfie Day was held in July last year. Designed to mark the 20th Anniversary since Princess Diana died, the intention is to give young people a platform to celebrate their individuality. The motivation is well meaning, but illustrates how deeply engrained preoccupation with the ‘self’ is in contemporary culture. The website tells us that there are over 1 million selfies taken each day. TrueSelfie fears that the individual person is getting lost. That young people are very concerned with body image and self-esteem, with around half of girls and up to one third of boys dieting; that over half of bullying experienced by young people is because of appearance. The Diana Award has created #MyTrueSelfie, to boost self-esteem.
If we are nationally – internationally – obsessed with our selves, I’m not sure creating a website that encourages young people to take even more selfies is going to help very much. It all sounds rather nightmarish.
An over-preoccupation with self can leave us in a living hell.
In his 2017 book Selfie Will Storr interviewed CJ. She is an extreme product of what he calls a self-obsessed age. Not every young person is like her, but her story is credible. It describes what life is like for some young people today.
CJ is twenty two. She was bullied at school, which make her parents anxious. ‘My parents just wrapped me in a bubble,’ she told Storr. ‘They were like, “You’re not going anywhere.”’ At home CJ could do pretty much what she liked; her happiness ruled. Her mother was ablaze with admiration. “You’re amazing. You’re sublime. You’re a prodigy.” CJ began to think, “Yes, I am.”
CJ now has a selfie habit. She is up to 4 a.m. editing, adding filters and selecting only the finest to post on Facebook and Instagram, alongside captions such as “Hypnotising, mesmerising me”. She spends £35 a month of storage on iCloud. She wakes at 7.30 a.m. to think about her hair and make-up, how it will look in pictures. She’ll take selfies everywhere. She’s really delighted when someone – particularly a celebrity – wants a selfie with her. She’s taken selfies at funerals. When her mum told her she was being inappropriate, CJ replied, “I look good, it’s always appropriate.”
An extreme situation? Perhaps. Perhaps not. It won’t surprise you to hear that CJ also self-harms, as so many young people do today. A way of feeling something amidst the suffocating narcissism that a self-obsessed culture perpetrates.
Of course – not all young people are caught up in this way. And it’s not just young people either. Selves are everywhere in western culture today. We see ourselves – whatever age we are – reflected back from the black mirror of my smart phone, or computer screen. The bleak possibilities are there for us all: the dark mirror that draws us in towards that over-preoccupation with self.
Our understanding of humanity is at the heart of this.
Today, as Passiontide begins, perhaps we can think of self-love, self-absorption, in this context. That when we are seduced into the selfie world – as CJ was – we do indeed lose our life, our self, our soul by loving ourselves too much. You remember the ancient story of Narcissus? How he was 16, and very beautiful. He aroused great love in all who met him, including the nymph Echo. He rejected her, as he rejected all advances, and she wasted away to the haunting voice we hear in rocks and cliffs. One day, Narcissus lay down to drink at a quiet pool in the woods and for the first time he saw his own reflection. Immediately he was entranced, besotted. He fell in love for the first time. Whenever he reached out to touch, though, the image rippled away. He could not draw himself away from the beauty before him. He wasted away, as Echo had done. No body was ever found, only the white and gold flower that nods in the wind at this time of the year, the narcissus flower.
It’s a myth with an ancient and contemporary warning. Particularly for any in danger of losing their humanity in a selfie world that can so quickly get out of hand. Someone said “When it comes to the web, we think we’re spiders, but really we’re flies.” We’re all affected – and we should be careful. We might lose more than we think. The young people around us might never know how empty existence has become.
To find our humanity, as it is shaped by Jesus, is to turn away from that world and find ourselves as we love and serve others. To hate our lives in this world sounds extreme. But there is a central Christian message here about self-forgetfulness for the sake of others that we need to learn again, and again. It’s great when so many young people get involved in voluntary action. When they campaign against violence. When – as more and more do – they put their phones away and engage with what’s around them. It’s worth encouraging this as much as possible. The place to begin is me.
To turn away from the black mirror, and turn towards Good Friday and Easter beyond, is to allow ourselves to be shaped by the Passion. It is to look on Cross and see ourselves reflected there. Reflected and shaped in our humanity by the Christ who focuses not on himself, but who radiates God’s love, for the sake of the whole world.
The cross holds the depths of human life. It is where the sin of self-preoccupation is devoured by the holiness of God. The lives, the selves we promote in this world, all our self-obsessions and narcissism taken up. Our self-absorption, self-promotion, self-this, self-that, transformed into the humanity that is shaped by Jesus Christ.
Over the next few weeks, whenever you gaze on Jesus Christ on the cross, recall your self. For it is reflected there. Our humanity finds itself in God’s love. Our true reality is here, as we forget ourselves and are drawn, through Christ, into God’s being, into the fullness and abundance of life and love. Jesus gazes at us from the cross with the eyes of God and we are seen as we truly are: our selves, our life, our soul.
We are bathed in the love that pours upon us from Jesus on the cross. It’s then that we receive humanity. We are given life. What is asked of us, is that we, in turn, give it away as we love the world. Self-giving and self-forgetful in acts of kindness and compassion.
This is the cosmic action in which the God of love makes us whole.
We find our life in the passion of Christ. The soul of our humanity. As we give as he gave, we live eternally.
 Will Storr, Selfie: How we became so self-obsessed and what it’s doing to us, London, Picador, 2017
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