When you log into a computer, the first picture that usually comes on the screen is called the “desktop”–a term that conjures up a flat wooden surface with cubbyholes and jars of pens and pencils, but that is not what a computer desktop is. On a computer desktop are all sorts of little pictures, called icons, which represent the various programs that you’ve got on your computer– there may be a 4-paned window drawn in perspective that represents Microsoft Windows; there might be a blue lower case “f” representing Facebook, or a little picture of a bird for your Twitter account.
When you click on any of these icons, you are given entrance into that whole program– when you click on the blue f, Facebook opens up and you can see pictures of your friends or grandchildren, read what your co-worker is doing or is passionate about, read the upcoming announcements for the week from Second Congregational Church, or read a false newsstory, like “the Pope just proclaimed we should kill all Muslims.” What you do once you’re inside that program is up to you, but you can’t do anything until you’ve been given access to it.
Just as a computer desktop bears only the faintest resemblance to an actual piece of furniture, so the term “icon” – these pictures that appear on a computer screen and are, essentially, the entrance points into computer program– is a far cry from the original meaning of the term, which is a religious image through which the devotee might gain deeper understanding of or even encounter the god or religious figure the icon represents. If you walk into an Orthodox Church or chapel, like the one up at New Skete in Cambridge, you are instantly surrounded by icons and images of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Mary the Mother of Jesus (or Mother of God), a whole cloud or procession of saints, and, in the case of New Skete, figures of people like Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day, painted in the iconic style, all of whom invite further meditation and contemplation. The Native American trinity hanging outside my office door is an icon, painted meditatively, inviting meditation.
It is that same word–ikon–that Paul uses in his letter to the Colossians, probably quoting a hymn sung by early Christians.
He [Christ Jesus] is the ikon of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers–all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the first-born from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.
Just as clicking on an icon on a computer screen gives you entrance into the world of a computer program, so, says Paul, does faith or trust in or ” entering into” Christ–the image or icon of the invisible God– open up for the Christian an experience of God, gives us entrance into a way of experiencing and seeing the world infused with the Holy, recognizing that all things, including all thrones or dominions or rulers or powers are actually created through and ultimately for God. This is not the same as simply looking to the earthly life of Jesus of Nazareth and trying to follow his example. Christ as the icon or image of the invisible God is a meta-physical–”beyond the physical”–coming together of divinity and humanity, the intersection of human and divine.
The readers of Paul’s letter would have heard echoes of the Hebrew figure of Lady Wisdom–Sophia–and the Greek Word, or Intention, or logos, there with God at the beginning of creation, infused through all things. We might also imagine the radiance and energy of God in all beings – “God is everywhere, within me and around me.” “In him all things hold together.”
“All things hold together.” There are days–weeks–years–when it seems like things are falling apart, aren’t there? Not only on a global or national scale, but in our own lives, when our bodies seem to be falling apart, or our relationships are strained to the point of breaking, when our jobs seem fragile or unbearable, or we’re failing a course in school, not to mention the refrigerator, microwave, and car which all seem to fall apart at the same time. “In him all things hold together.” What could that possibly mean?
Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron wrote a book called, “When Things Fall Apart–Heart Advice for Difficult Times.” In it she warns about too easily telling a story about the things that are falling apart in our lives. One woman, for example, told how her life and marriage fell apart when her husband revealed that he’d been having an affair for 8 years and left her and her two children. She had been telling that story at a conference or retreat sometime later when someone overhearing said, “You know, it sounds like you have really found your true self since that happened. You are here at this amazing retreat, you have a new relationship with your kids, you’ve made some important decisions about your life. Maybe your life came together instead of fell apart.”
Now, I have no doubt that the sense of betrayal and loss and disorientation were real for this woman and her children. This was no doubt an incredibly difficult time to go through. But the icon or lens through which she came to look upon that experience made all the difference in how she would face and experience her life from now on. Left behind or empowered? Victim or person with agency? Sadder or sadder but wiser? Lost love or newly discovered larger love?
Just so, looking at life and the world through the icon or lens of Christ allows us to see not just things falling apart but all things held together and infused with the Love and Light of God; it enables us to see presidents and prime ministers, kings and cabinets as having power and influence of their own but ultimately bowing to the power of God whose kingdom–or kin-dom–is coming and already is in our midst. When we know we are “in Christ,” we know that we are still loved and valuable, even though we lose our job or fail a test. When we know we are in Christ and Christ in us, we can meditate upon the radiance and healing of God flowing through our bodies, instead of only blaming or cursing our bodies for not working the way we think they should. When we know we are “in Christ”–fully open to God’s presence and power in human lives–we know we are wondrously connected to and in relationship with our loved ones who have died. When we are “in Christ,” we can work to transform our world, from a deep place of peace and power and love, not from a place of fear or anger or hatred. All things hold together, even if, even when, the “rulers,” the “powers and principalities” seem to have the upper hand.
This icon or image of Christ Jesus–including his death on the cross–gives us entrance into an experience of God, even when things fall apart, even when–maybe especially when–we feel broken by life. The great song writer Leonard Cohen, who died last week, wrote, “There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” “God has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son…” Paul says.
So as we come full circle in the year today, this year that perhaps has done its best to break us, as we remember those who have died, who have gone on to that greater shore, we are assured that “all things hold together in him,” assured that we have access into that Reality in which our loved ones and we are held. “May you be made strong [Paul wrote] with all the strength that comes from God’s glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks to God, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light.”
All things hold together in him. May these words be hope and courage and strength for us for the living of these days. Amen.
Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark