Icons and the ‘real ecumenism’

Ash Wednesday, 2017, by Ian Knowles, Director Bethlehem Icon Center

PF blessing icon gp.jpg

Back in 2014, when we moved the Icon Centre in Bethlehem to its new home in Star Street, the very street incidentally that Mary and Joseph took into the city for the Birth of Christ, our bishop wrote an email in which he effectively defined for us our charism:

Very dear Ian
Touch Wood (of the cross) I was’nt (sic) expecting to find this beauty . I thank our Lord and our beloved Mother of God . In the name of the Church I thank you and congratulate you.
I think you are a real gift to Bethlehem and to all our churches Orthodox and Catholics and others . You are also serving the ecumenism , I felt that very strongly . Thanks to all those who are helping you.With my blessings ,and wishes for a Merry Christmas and a Holy New year
+ Joseph Jules ZereyNow I have just returned from Rome, for the blessing of an Icon of the Holy Saviour by Pope Francis. It was made at the Bethlehem Icon Centre, a commission from the Anglican parish in Rome,  and its blessing with holy water and chrism came as a central part of an unprecedented ecumenical gesture in which the Bishop of Rome visited an ordinary Anglican community lying within his episcopal jurisdiction.

This seems to be a gentle ‘validation’ of the mission of the Bethlehem Icon Centre as a embodiment of what I call the ‘real ecumenism’ and I thought it an appropriate moment to make my inaugural comments on this blog.

Let me first explain how we are constituted. We are an independent, non-profit company registered under Palestinian law. We are licensed by the Palestinian Authority to teach, train and make icons and we have a company Board made up of volunteers that oversees our work. Our Patron is the Greek Catholic Patriarch of Antioch, Jerusalem, Alexandria and All the East, Gregory III and pastoral care is exercised by his Patriarchal Vicar in Jerusalem, Archbishop Zerey. However, we don’t belong to them in any juridical sense. We are thus open to take students from every Christian community or none. What gives us our central, unyielding Christian identity are the icons themselves, which I think we can see as the Creed in paint.

Christian identity is much more than doctrinal agreements or statement, though these are obviously a fundamental part of that. Because Christianity is about faith in a Person, the God-Man Jesus whom we confess as the Christ, the Son of God and the Incarnate Word, the identity which we have as followers is more akin to belonging to a family than to a club with membership rules. It is the relationship established with him that comes to define us: we are Christians because we follow Christ. That relationship is something we experience at various levels, but primarily through the Liturgy: we are ‘in’ Christ through sacraments and the liturgies which surround them. Like the Scriptures icons bear witness to this relationship, and we engage with Christ himself through looking at them, and if we let them they bring us into the saving relationship with Christ we call salvation.

In the Centre courtyard we have a new icon, The Icon of the Mother of the Icon of the Father – that is Mary who is the Mother of Jesus, Who St Paul describes  as the image (that is icon) of the Unseen God. Bethlehem is the place where the Incarnate Word was first seen, that is experienced through our physical senses. Notice through them, – relationship with God is a path which is rooted in sensual experience (even if it transcends it), in the goodness and beauty of the cosmos which He has made with the intended capacity to know God in an intimate and transfiguring way. The physical nature of the Creation is not an impediment to communion but an essential element of it. For Christianity, matter matters.

The physical world is transfigured by the Divine to facilitate communion between God and humanity, a process which reaches its apex (before the Parousia) in the Divine Liturgy, also known as the Holy Mass, or the Eucharist – when ‘heaven is wedded to earth’. In Scripture we see this at the Transfiguration on Mount Tabor, and ultimately in the Presence of the Risen Christ, yet with a sense that the Ultimate Transfiguration will come at the Second Coming and the making of ‘a new heaven and a new earth’. Icons are the art of the Liturgy, and thus serve to make known this transfiguration of all things in Christ in this current epoch. Experiencing them with faith we find they are doors from heaven to earth, through which the saints, the Mother of God and Christ Himself enter into our space, and through which we find ourselves touching heaven. An  icon is much more than simply a religious painting evoking a memory or an emotion or telling a story. It is the beauty which saves.

Western religious art shifted to the devotional rather than the liturgical in the later Middle Ages, and focuses on evoking a religious interior movement through  provoking the emotions through the imagination. Icons, on the other hand, continue a more ancient tradition of Christian art once common across the Christian world, one which touches deeper than the emotions to the heart itself. The icon is deliberately designed in an ascetical way, one which seeks to calm the more immediate emotions so as to speak to the soul itself and thus to open a person standing before it in prayer to enter into communion with the God we cannot otherwise see.

As ours is a learning institute our members come essentially to sit at the feet of this Tradition and to absorb it and annunciate it. Having become open to the canons of iconography, which are themselves derived from the Creeds, and gradually formed by them, they then make icons appropriate to their own situation within the Church, be it as Catholics, Melkites, Greek Orthodox, Copts, Armenians, Assyrians, Maronites and so on. The icon presents Jesus in the fullest way because it is painted out of the Creeds of the great ecumenical councils, and from the writings of the great fathers of the Church of those times, rather than from the imagination of an artist. The icon enables us to focus in paint on the Christ whom the Creeds and the Scriptures describe in words, lifting us beyond the intellectual debates concerning beliefs and dogmas about who Christ is, and enabling us simply to focus on Him as He presents Himself to us through the living life of the Church. This is the Tradition as iconography lives it.

Each community has its own traditions and context, its own culture and location and these meet the canons of iconography to shape dynamic, living icons which act as effective doors of the liturgy between heaven and earth. In this way the iconographer helps to express Christ in terms more easily accessible to the local context. It is thus a tool of evangelisation and the conversion of heart, both essential elements of entering into the relationship which God opens up for us in Christ.

By allowing the icon to do this work among us unimpeded, creating a space where the focus  is on the relationship opened up with Jesus by living the Tradition, the Icon Centre has become an oasis, a sacred Christian space, where the relationship that makes us Christian is nurtured. At the same time as the Centre has grown in this way, it seems, unbelievably, that Christ has begun to draw this work closer to the heart of the institutional life of the Church. Last summer three of my students and myself spent six weeks making two enormous icons for Lichfield Anglican Cathedral. We were either Catholics or Orthodox, the images were rooted into the Anglo-Saxon and early English periods of English Christianity, and when installed the icon of the Virgin Mary dominated the nave in a way she she had not done since the time when English Christians were still united. And now we have this incredible event in Rome with the icon of the Saviour.

That this icon was specially commissioned to commemorate the visit of Pope Francis to the Anglican parish community in Rome, a unique and historic ecumenical event, would be powerful enough, but that it should be blessed by the Pope himself and be the main focus for the liturgy celebrating that occasion makes it even more resonant of this special charism associated I believe with the icon in general, and the Icon Centre in Bethlehem in particular. Bethlehem, the city of the Icon, of the Word being manifested and seen as the image, the icon of the Father, sending this icon of the Saviour to the city of Rome, as a focus on Christ embraced by Catholics and Anglicans, and in its consecration giving a liturgical expression to the love of Christ common to both communities is almost mind-blowing with its profundity.

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