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I’m just about to start a photo-a-day challenge. Among other things, the organizer, Michelle Favreault, predicts it will “allow you to expand ways of integrating visual arts into your ministry.” Even before I signed up for it, it had recently occurred to me that I could build an entire worship service around Annie Leibovitz’s photograph Susan Sontag, Petra, Jordan.

This photo is one of dozens on the postcard rack that lives in our house. We have many more postcards than display slots, so most are hidden behind others, emerging at different times. When we got back to our house after a month’s absence, this one was visible and turned toward the sofa, from which I have been contemplating it. I recommend backing away enough that your experience of it is something like mine when I look at a 4″x4″ square image from a distance of a few feet.

I won’t write the whole sermon today; I’m a bit preoccupied with the one I’m giving on Sunday. But my thoughts, to give them in the vague and chaotic form they take before they’re pulpit-ready, include:

  • it’s a vivid example of negative space, compelling the eye to travel between the foreground and the background. Which one is the subject? Or is neither one the subject?
  • at least three elements balance here: the very small human figure, the very tall buildings of Petra (built by people), the massive rocks (built by no one) that dominate the foreground.
  • it suggests a relationship among the natural world, human-made artifacts, and humans.
  • furthermore, one of the most memorable points about human beings and Petra is: there aren’t any there. The people who created it are long gone, and we’re not sure who they were. The only living person in the photo is a mere silhouette.
  • the overall shape of the glimpse of Petra is evocative of a standing person.
  • the three elements occupy different time scales. In the scale of Petra, Sontag’s life is a blink of an eye (she will in fact be dead ten years after this photo is taken); in the scale of the living rock into which Petra is cut, the buildings and the civilization that carved them are no more than that; and what is the lifespan of the rock, in galactic terms? Nothing more than a blink either. I’m thinking “Ozymandias” would be an appropriate verbal text to go with the visual “text” in this service.
  • the building seen in the photo is called the Treasury, evoking questions of where and what treasure is. The fact that it was probably not a treasury at all, but a mausoleum, only deepens the questions of what we claim has value, what really has value, and what any of it means in the face of impermanence. Knowing that no one and nothing lasts forever, how would we answer the question: what is most precious?

That’s enough. If I actually develop the sermon, I’ll give a heads-up here.


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