Thursday, December 27, 2007

Through the icon

(This was written for faculty devotions for the Lutheran school where I am the children’s choir director and revised for this post.)

Earlier this fall I attended Lectures in Church Music at Concordia University. The opening keynote address was titled “The Trinitarian theology as a source of inspiration for all who make music for God’s people.” The speaker was Calvin Witvliet from Calvin College and Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids.

He made the obligatory Calvin-Luther jokes. I looked at the hand-out. It was twenty pages long, with lots and lots of words. Not Power-Point slides, not bullet points, mostly hefty quotes from theologians and scholars: “I. The ‘relationality theme’: liturgy and koinonia and communion. A: Explication.”

I got out my knitting.

But letter B under each heavy theological theme was titled “Depiction.” Sprinkled throughout the handout were pictures of icons—old Russian and modern American, a 15th century painting, a contemporary stained glass window—art that depicted the Trinity.

Dr. Witvliet explained a few things about icons. The viewer is part of the icon. What you bring and how you respond are an integral part of what the icon is. He also told the story of an orthodox priest, who had watched and listened as yet another art history tour group came to view the icons in his sanctuary. “They look at the icons,” he said. “I wish they would look through them.”

When you look at the icon you see how it is made, the artist’s technique, the color, the culture’s influence on the representation of God. When you look through the icon, your imagination is engaged. God is moving and active, God gives and receives. God is omni-everything, but also working in you. The knowledge you gain is beyond words and specific symbols—kind of like the way talking to kindergartners can spin you off in a whole new theological direction.

It seems to me that our Children’s Christmas Eve service is a kind of icon. Lord knows, it’s revered like an icon, sometimes for worse, sometimes in better ways.

So it comes with the challenge to look through it, not just at it.

Now I suspect that teachers who are veterans of this Christmas Eve service know something about looking through it. If they didn’t, school would be a pretty Scrooge-y place during the last half of December. The image of God has a way of surprising us each Christmas in the children—clued-in and clueless—who sing songs, ring bells, and depict wise men and shepherds in sneakers and cotton robes worn over their jeans.

We are careful at Grace to speak of the Children’s Christmas Eve services as worship, not performance. Yet anytime you practice and practice and finally sing or ring or read or act like shepherds in front of hundreds of people, that’s a performance. It has all the urgencies of coming in on time, staying together, focusing and communicating. There is greater decorum because it’s worship. There’s no applause. And true to our Lutheran cultural heritage, we nip conceit and pride in the bud. Nevertheless, it’s not our reverence that makes those 70 minutes on Christmas Eve a worship service rather than a program. It is the presence of God that makes it worship.

The lecturer last October warned his audience of church musicians against what he called “a prevailing heresy in North American theology”—that worship is what we do for God. Our tit-for-tat minds sometimes reduce worship to something we do to earn God’s favor. When we emphasize to kids how important it is to do our very best on Christmas Eve, because this is Jesus’ birthday or because we are “singing for God,” we may be getting somewhere in range of this heresy.

I wrote down a phrase used by this lecturer to describe worship: “a whirlwind of divine activity.” Even actions that seem to originate with us—prayer, praise—are really divine actions, inspired by the Spirit, made acceptable to God by Christ’s sacrifice for us.

One of my predecessors speaks of “Christmas eyes,” a special spark of excitement and wonder in the faces of children during this traditional service. All the care in preparing this service frees them to experience it, to look through the icon and thrill to see God’s light entering every corner of earth’s darkness.