Do you see what I see? Likely Not Exactly.
The theme of this year’s Advent devotion is: Do you see what I see? An array of St. Paul voices selected a photo or photos that hold very special memories to them, then sat down and reflected on what that photo means to them. What do they see and remember that others may not when looking at this photo? Through their words and stories, hopefully, you’ll see a little of what they see.
Yes. It is, no doubt about it, an unusual picture to use as the basis of an Advent reflection. A seal photobombs a party of penguins. It’s funny to us, but the penguins aren’t laughing. And shouldn’t an image for Adventacious devotion have better color to it? At least some purple or blue about which to debate? Not mostly black and white tainted with deathly jaundice, brown, and sepia?
But the seal seems to know something. Maybe the seal simply, spontaneously, or with clear wisdom about what the viewer needs—a picture holds a thousand emotions, after all—is there to bring good news, like a fleshy Angel Gabriel, to people like you and me who get preoccupied with our present predicaments.
As for me, right now, as a spiritual discipline, I choose to believe from within a long season of anticipatory and realized grief (my wife Joen died of ALS in June) that the seal is Gabriel of the best sort: fulfilling his vocation to bring laughter (or trouble) somewhere; a veritable paid jester at the sober royal court; a Joe Spicoli messing up class at my own very high school that served as the basis for Ridgemont High (Joe was, we think, Jack Rosenthal, who still thrives by surf); that unwelcome council or board or faculty member or colleague at the tiresome business meeting who believes it’s a duty to throw rocks into the pond just to sit back and watch the upset.
These and more are our experienced warrants for however we interpret the picture. But I do believe, there by the oceanic eternity by which figures wait, if not with wine glasses in hand like a Park Avenue Christmas party in required evening dress, there will come one, because there has come the one, whom many did and still dismiss as a joke. Some of the birds go about their agenda, yes, talking with one another about how the year has done them well or not and what bodes for the next. One or two have their heads down, overwhelmed or almost by some suffering. Another or two are wallflowers without a wall, introvertedly anxious just for the false sociality of it all; or maybe just wander or—really maybe—dance by themselves. And the aggregate, too, may represent every single one of us, each of us not possessing a full self-understanding.
And so maybe, really really maybe, the seal knows something that the stuffed shirt birds at this particular time do not. That the photographer of the photo is his keeper. That this smile is exactly what the photographer of the photo wants the viewer to see. That this unique Word-Made-Visible means to bring the viewer into the life of the party that, evidently, is not yet fully lived, there on the shore.
The theologian Charles Marsh writes in his stunning autobiography of his own saving immersion into real life after a stultifying and constricted life of moralistic religion. He references his (and my) hero, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. “Bonhoeffer wagered his life on the truth of the incarnate, crucified, and resurrected God, and thus on the conviction that following Christ leads to deep immersion in the world.” Quoting Bonhoeffer, just before he went to prison, “What remains for us is only the very narrow path, sometimes barely discernible, of taking each day as if it were the last and yet living it faithfully and responsibly as if there were yet to be a great future.”
Do you see what I see in this picture, that makes me laugh, seriously? I see the seal Gabriel announcing a great coming, The Advent, to us who are lodged between sepia and sea. And the photographer of the photo is God, calling us still to immerse in real life, living it even before its full time.
Duane Larson is a retired pastor and theologian living in Princeton, IA. He is writing a book on Lutheran political theology and teaches occasionally for the University of Houston.
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