Christ the Icon is a collection of songs that I wrote or arranged over a period of about three years, between 2002 and 2005. What I’d like to offer in what follows is a bit of insight on my thought processes as they came into being. I don’t want to suggest that the songs need explanation. Was it Mae West who warned, “If you have to explain it, it’s not much of a kiss”? I can’t track down definitively who made that crack, but artists including Picasso and Louis Armstrong have warned against “explaining” art. Just as knowing more about a new friend’s life can deepen our appreciation of her more, so the experience of singing or hearing one of these songs might be somewhat enriched if you know a bit more about its origin, and what kind of thoughts and events catalyzed its existence. At least, that is my hope in writing this blog post, as it has been for the previous fifteen. (NB: note that album 16, which is actually Terry's Family Resemblance, has been postponed for now until I (hope to) convince her to do a guest blog post about it. She chose the songs for the recording, she's a very fine writer, and you could use a break from my voice, I'm sure!)
I’d like to talk about my experience of the song “Christ the Icon” first, because some of what I write about the other songs will make more sense when you see the theology which I am embracing that underlies this song. It seems to me that as human beings we are obsessed with power. This is generally because someone else has it, and we want it, or we have it, and we don’t want anyone else to have it. When we come to think of God and interpret the biblical story in light of our obsession, we think of God as “omnipotent,” and by that omnipotence we imagine the kind of power that we would like to wield: both irresistible force and immovable object, able to do anything we want to anyone we want, full and absolute control over the universe in all its parts.
The trouble with this, of course, is the problem of evil. If God is so great, critics of Christianity can rightly claim, why do so many bad things happen to so many good people? With so much evil, disease, and violence in the world, why doesn’t the omnipotent God do something about it?
The other problem is the Christian story itself. Even though the confluence of Christianity and empire lasted from Charlemagne to the Enlightenment, and arguably survives vestigially in the papacy, there is no evidence within the biblical tradition in the story of Jesus of Nazareth that such a confluence was warranted. Rather, as David Power has pointed out, when Christians say “Jesus is Lord,” we don’t mean that Jesus is like the lords of earth. Our kerygma is that lordship is defined by who Jesus is. That is a world of difference. The kingdom of Jesus “is not like those of this world.”
Furthermore, by the claims that the evangelists and apostles make about Jesus the Lord, we are invited to rethink who God is, what God is like, and just what “power” means. In the letter to the Colossians, St. Paul writes or quotes the astonishing hymn that begins, “He is the image (eikon) of the invisible God.” That is to say, to look upon Jesus, dead and risen, is to see who God is. The One who loved so much that he “did not deem equality with God something to grasp onto,” this one who emptied himself, giving himself up to death on a cross, this is the image of the invisible God. It draws us back to the Jesus of the gospels who assures the disciple that “whoever has seen me has seen the Father.”
I think there’s enough material in those insights to last a lifetime. Contemplating that ought to reshape our definitions of power and transform our relationships. For someone like me, formed by the Church of the catechism and trained for a while in the seminary crucible of Catholic apologetics, it is a revelation. If God can give up god-ness to be with people, to stumble along and pass out the fragility of one’s own life so that others may have life and have it more abundantly, then why on earth do I have to hold on to “being right” in some theological or political battlefield? If even god-ness isn’t worth grasping, apologetics is just silly. It is precisely why “love covers over a multitude of sins,” because what matters is the extent to which we are like God, to which we abandon the right to be ourselves and to preserve our own lives for the sake of being for other people. Where Paul uses the language of kenosis and icon, John’s simple formula says the same thing in three words: God is love.
So, what I wrote in “Christ the Icon” is simply the verse from Colossians 1 to which I referred above, as part of a refrain that anchors the entire text in the paschal mystery:
Christ is the image of the unseen God,The verses of “Christ the Icon” are sung by a cantor, and invite the singers to reflect on the gospel in the light of that insight from St. Paul. At the end of each half-verse, we repeat the words, “the image of the unseen God,” and the choir provides a texture of musical prayer by singing “Eleison” (have mercy!) through the verses as they recall image after image from the story of the Messiah. My hope is that, as we sing the song together through the communion procession, or during the veneration of the cross, or whenever the song might be used, the story of Jesus, the eleison’s, and the refrain that draws us back to the insight of St. Paul will help reform our values to the values of the gospel.
Our life, our peace, and our lasting.
Praise and thanksgiving to the Crucified,
Who endures while the mighty are passing.
“Be Perfect” is a song I wrote from the intersection of the parish travails of a good friend and colleague of mine and my reading of the French-American anthropologist Réné Girard. Part of Girard’s thesis about the origin of societies and religion in violence, a thesis generally termed “mimetic desire,” is that we don’t want things in themselves, but we want them because others have them. We learn to desire from others, and want what others have because they have them. Girard’s theory, while complex and necessarily oversimplified here, is that this desire escalates into violence unless a “scapegoating mechanism” is triggered, and the violence within society can be focused on a single person or group and thus released. Girard, a Catholic, sees the Paschal Mystery as the way out of the cycle of escalating violence and scapegoating by revealing our violence for what it is, an assault upon an innocent victim. Scapegoating only works by associating God with the accusers, by making a demon of the one cast away. But in the Christian story, Jesus is revealed in the resurrection to be both innocent and the Son of God. The false religion of sacrifice is revealed for the murderous thing it is. By refocusing our desire after the desire of Jesus, to be like the Father who loves unconditionally and “makes the rain fall and sun shine upon the just and the unjust,” we can be part of the emergence of the reign of God.
The passage upon which the refrain is based, taken from the Sermon on the Mount, is almost invariably watered down by homilists afraid to imagine that it might be possible to act as Jesus does, and imitate the perfect love of God.
There is a certain sense in which the admonition to “be perfect” has been understood in a semi-Pelagian way, that is, that we need to keep practicing our spiritual exercises until we get them right, and arrive at some state of sinlessness reserved for the true spiritual Olympian athlete. This sort of thinking denies both the perfection of divine love, which loves us right in the midst of our sinfulness, and the divine initiative, by which we mean that grace precedes and enables the response of repentance. But there’s something even more important here: to be perfect means to be like God, to make being-like-God the object of our desire of our loving imitation. And this is not being like just any God, but being like the God of Jesus, who “makes the sun to shine and the rain to fall on the just and the unjust alike.” To keep Jesus’s admonition before us to “be perfect” is to resolve not to forget the admonition to love our enemies and to do good to those who hate us. It keeps the church honest, and helps us to recall that it’s not enough to “be nice” and to love each other in our families and communities of intention. The gospel call is to love everyone with the divine love, the love that puts the good of the other first, even if, especially if, the other is our enemy. This seemed to be particularly cogent as our nation began to prepare to go to war again in late 2002 and we were hearing the community discourse in Matthew that harkened back to the Sermon on the Mount. More immediately, as I briefly indicated above, a good friend of mine had experienced tremendous alienation, betrayal, and vilification in a parish job experience, and through that ordeal, never lashed out or retaliated against those who were doing the persecuting. I was moved and amazed by the restraint and love that this person was able to show in the situation.
You can hear a little of Girard again at the beginning of “Let Us Go to the Altar of God,” when the words of Psalm 42 are invoked, “Who will fight my fight when the mob surrounds?” The song goes on to describe the altar of God as both a sanctuary and a gathering place for those who want to answer the call to “gather with friend and with foe” around the table of Jesus. Christians are not immune to any of the doubts, troubles, or afflictions that anyone else suffers, but the hope offered by solidarity, by gathering around the altar-table at the summons of the gospel, is the good news that we have experienced and can offer to others. The lyric of the song points directly to political upheaval:
When the winds of war through the land increase,I tried to connect with both my personal apprehension about a cancer diagnosis I had received, and my exasperating spiritual bankruptcy in the lyric as well, knowing that I am not alone either in sickness nor in sin, appealing to images from Psalm 23.
When they call your children my enemies,
Where will I draw strength to proclaim your peace?
I will go to the altar of God…
Who will find a way? Who can rescue me,Again I nod to Girard’s celebration of the cross as hope for the end of violence in the fourth stanza, in which the Crucified “breathes his spirit out” upon the killing fields of the world, summoning all the persecuted and desaparecidos to the holy mountain on which there is no death or injury.
Caught between the Pharaoh and hungry sea?
Though I’m sick and broken, alone, unfree,
I will go to the altar of God… And if I should stray from all I hold dear,
And I’m left alone in my shame and fear,
Where will sun shine warm, streams of hope run clear?
I will go to the altar of God.
“You Have Built Your House” was commissioned by a parish in Naperville, Illinois, for the dedication of their house of worship. Strangely, my own parish of St. Anne had built a new church only three years or so earlier, and though it had been a priority for me, I did not, could not, come up with a new piece of music for our own dedication. But I had thought long and hard about what such a piece ought to include, and when the folks at Holy Spirit asked me to write something for them, and my inquiries revealed a community there similar to ours, with similar musical forces, I was energized to make a new attempt.
The lectionary texts for the dedication of a church are so rich! There is a nice cluster of images that works something like this: Jesus Christ is the meeting place of heaven and earth, the temple of the new covenant. The temple of the new covenant is a Christ. Christ has, through the Spirit given to us in baptism, called us to be living stones in the temple. Just as Israel discovered after the destruction of the temples in Jerusalem that the permanent abode of the Most High was not in a building but in a people, so the People of God of the New Covenant are the lovely dwelling place of God. God has built our house for us, not the other way around. This is the key image for me: it sets the relationships right among us, and puts our efforts at “building a church” in perspective. “You Have Built Your House” describes that reality, and offers a kind of corrective to our hubris and a celebration of the truth of God’s diverse people on mission together, “streaming in” to remember who they are and be fed for their continuing journey.
"Every Generation Calls You Blessed" was commissioned by the community of St. Mary's in Port Washington, WI, for the 150th anniversary of their parish, dedicated to Our Lady of the Assumption. Originally, what I wanted to do was a triptych of pieces, beginning with this one. The other two were an arrangement for the same group of choir and instruments of a mid-20th century plainsong hymn called "Mary and Christ," a litany that takes the form of fulfillment, as in,
Mary the Dawn,
Christ the Perfect Day.
Mary the Gate,
Christ the heavenly way....
I knew this song from my childhood, but as it turned out, after I had the song completely arranged, I came to discover that it was not anonymous at all but had been written and published around 1950. One website says the following:
"Mary the Dawn" was first published in 1949 under the pen name 'Paul Cross', believed to be a pseudonym for Fr. Justin Mulcahy, C.P. (1894-1981). A Passionist Priest from the St. Paul of the Cross Province, he studied at the Pius X School of Liturgical Music in New York and eventually earned a degree in Church Music from the Pontifical Institute of Sacred Music, Vatican. The haunting melody of Mary the Dawn is an adaptation of Gregorian Mode IV. In some hymnals, the text is attributed to 'Anonymous', while others show the author as Paul Cross.At any rate, rather than trying to track down a pseudonym, I just gave up on trying to get it included with "Every Generation." I may try again, now that I see that the original version was recorded by Richard Proulx's Cathedral Singers for GIA. The third piece in the triptych was a canon on the text "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb." Again, as it turned out, the whole thing just got to be too much like work, and I bagged part three as well. Mercy. Such a quitter!
I wrote a set of verses for St. Mary's entirely based around the feast of the Assumption. Reading through some of the apocrypha about the Assumption, by the way, is a very groovy experience, particularly the story as recounted in the Dormition of the Mother of God by pseudo-John, complete with the Virgin being taken up on a couch, and an angry Hebrew trying to hold her back and having a seraphim cut his arms off, leaving them dangling from the couch. You can't make this stuff up. But it also doesn't belong in a hymn, right? The editors at WLP (rightly) decided that it would be a more useful song if the verses were about a cross-section of Marian mysteries, so I provided another set of verses of general use.
The call-and-response form of "Every Generation," with refrain, makes it an easy song to use for communion or at any other procession. The melody is dynamic if somewhat serpentine, but I think within reach of most assemblies without much rehearsal. Please give it a try! And while you're at it, perhaps investigate the setting of Psalm 45, the responsorial for the Assumption feast day.
Christ the Icon also includes a setting of Fr. Peter Scagnelli's translation of the "Pentecost Sequence," which is set to a chant-like melody reminiscent of Bill Withers' classic "When She's Gone," hence the melody's name, QUANDO ITA. Very fun to sing, and I think it fits the spirit of the day, as it were. There is setting of French noel Il Est Né which I did for my choir a few years back. Such a charming little melody, and all I did really was set it for SAB choir with a cello and flute accompaniment and ritornello. We recorded the verses as equal-voice duets. Je l'aime beaucoup! And don't miss "Let the Children Come to Me," which I wrote as a song for the sending of children to Children's Liturgy of the Word in the parish, but it has plenty of verses to make it useful for First Communion and certainly on Sundays when that passage in the synoptics is part of the liturgy. (The links in the above paragraph go to the pages at World Library for each song, where you can hear a clip of the recording.)
I need to especially acknowledge the amazing cover art on this recording. My brother-in-law, Gary Palmatier, created this mural on the exterior wall of the Ammon Hennacy House of Hospitality in Los Angeles while he was doing alternative service during Vietnam as a conscientious objector. Although the structure had to be demolished and rebuilt after an earthquake, photos of the mural survive. In the picture on the album cover, you can make out the individual bricks in the lighter-colored sections. Gary painted into the shadows of the crucified Jesus the faces of the homeless and hungry people who visited the food kitchen every day. It is an amazing icon of the meaning of Christ, and the continuing presence of the Crucified among the poor and those who serve them.
Christ is at the heart of these songs, Christ who is mediator Dei, both the image of the unseen God and as the image of a humanity called to “be perfect” and built into a living house of praise and thanksgiving. As a songwriter in the Church, I can only hope that by putting them at your service through the ministry of this publisher, they will help you and your community find ways of expressing the resonance between life in the modern world and the abundant life that the Spirit offers through the gospel of Jesus Christ. Thank you for trusting all of us songwriters and other artists in the church who have staked our lives on the hope that this might be possible.
As I wrote this article, I've been listening again to Christ the Icon, and I have to say that Gary and crew did an excellent job recording these songs for World Library, the listening experience itself is a joy. So consider a visit to iTunes, or to WLP to purchase the CD, and thanks for reading.
(songs that have their own "SongStories" post, with Soundcloud clips, are linked to those posts here.)
Christ the Icon
Let the Children Come to Me
Il Est Né
Every Generation Calls You Blessed
Psalm 45 for Assumption
Let Us Go the Altar of God
Mass of St. Aidan
Lamb of God (Living Stones)
You Have Built Your House
(Note: Mass of St. Aidan was revised in view of the 2010 Roman Missal, and has been re-released as an octavo and CD.)
(Parts of this article appeared in AIM magazine, and is used with permission from World Library Publications.)
Christ the Icon page at World Library Publications.
Christ the Icon on iTunes, and the revised "Mass of St. Aidan"