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Tuesday, July 16, 2013

SongStories 12: Christ the Icon (WLP, 2005)

When I heard the second reading from Colossians Sunday, I remembered that I had seen it when I was preparing the music for the day, and consciously decided not to use my song lest it distract from the power of the parable of the Good Samaritan.

What was I thinking?

There is a line of exegesis about this parable that gives it a Christological interpretation, that is, that the "Samaritan" who stops to help the injured Jew is Christ, the God from whom humanity is alienated and enemy. I don't have any right to say this, but the interpretation is sort of a theological jump, right, from the invitation of the gospel to act in this world as though we've misjudged our enemy from the beginning, and learn that to be a neighbor is to act with mercy toward anyone in need, regardless of personal feelings? But that theological jump is exactly why it might have been appropriate in the light of the parable, and because of the parable, to have sung "Christ the Icon." Why? The answer, like all good theological answers, is "the paschal mystery."

The song "Christ the Icon" developed in my imagination as I reflected on that first verse of the Colossians hymn and what it means in the context of the paschal mystery.
He is the image of the invisible God.
That word "image" translates the Greek word eikon, which comes into our language as the word "icon." An icon is really not just an image in the way we usually think of an image. An icon carries with it the reality that it suggests. It is a portal between worlds, a visual metaphor that invites the beholder into the reality it portrays. Something of the active nature of icons can be seen, surprisingly, in the way we use the word "icon" to describe a part of the user experience of a computer, the GUI. Our desktops are full of icons. They're little pictures that represent thousands, even millions, of lines of binary code. On that level, they are like words or signs, they simply represent an image, sound, or program. But once we click on the icon, information begins to load into active memory and, if we're lucky, we can start playing. Or working. The icon represents and enables a whole series of events, some of which are undetermined, that we can unleash by interacting with the image. The computer icon metaphor is just offers a fragment of the rich biblical and cultural connotation attached to the word eikon, translated as "image" in the text above.

More to the point is Schillebeeckx's indispensable christological insight into the word "sacrament" in his groundbreaking Christ: The Sacrament of the Encounter with God as I write these words. In that book, the Belgian theologian set up the marvelous equation that can be expressed something like this: Christ is the visible sign of God's action in the world; the Church is the visible sign of Christ in the world; the sacraments are the visible sign of the Church's action in the world. Each part of the equation, the encounter with Christ, Church, and sacrament, is an event in itself, but it points to a reality beyond itself as well, ultimately to the reign of the God of healing, reconciliation, and kenotic love. In the sense that Schillebeeckx uses the word, a sacrament is an eikon, visible manifestation of an invisible reality.

"Christ the Icon," seeks to explore the first element of this equation, that is, that Christ is the sacrament (eikon) of the invisible God. Somehow, to know Christ is to know who God really is, stripped of the idols of human fantasy and skewed desire. When our concept of God gets too far astray from the revelation of Christ in himself, it ventures into territory fraught with danger. Because God is an absolute to us, the corruption of our idea of God can create absolute evil; hence the warning against graven images which create God in our image and likeness (eikon!) So the refrain of my song wants to hold the center of the paschal mystery, which is to say, Christ crucified and risen, as the point of departure.

Christ is the image of the unseen God,
Our life, our peace, and our lasting.
Praise and thanksgiving to the crucified,
Who endures while the mighty are passing.

Then, the verses simply form a litany of the scriptural witness about Christ from the gospels, sung by a cantor, with the choir and assembly singing the response "eleison, the image of the unseen God." For example:

"Who did not grasp equality with God,
But who emptied himself, became a servant,
Who became like us, and made his home among us.
ALL: The image of the unseen God.
Who became the son of poor working people,
Who was born into a dominated nation,
Who was born far from home in a stable,
ALL: The image of the unseen God." Refrain...

My thought was to sing the story of Jesus and just have time to reflect on Christ as the image of the unseen God. In some ways, that seems so obvious, but some images of God have stayed with us, or crept into our thinking, from the influence of empire, unnuanced by the gospel imperatives to service, universality, and kenosis. God, for many of us, looks more like Charlemagne than a foot washer. This song, like a lot of my music and, I hope, like parables and the example of Christ, is trying to illuminate an alternative vision.

The music for "Christ the Icon" is scored for piano, flute, SAB choir, cantor, and assembly, with optional parts for string quartet. It is available as a collection of octavos and on CD from WLP in Chicago. The entire recording is also available on iTunes (link below).