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Posts by Ian Knowles

Easter, icons, historicism and liturgical time

I have just passed through the great Triduum, from Maundy Thursday to Easter Day, in Emmaus, the place where the risen Christ made himself known in the ‘breaking of bread’, completing the revelation of the new Christian Liturgy of the Eucharist.


It is easy to slip into a sense of historical reflection, to think of the disciples ending up on this very spot after hours spent in the company of Jesus yet only at the last moment realising just who he was. Using the common techniques of spiritual reflection on Biblical texts, through using my imagination I could have transported myself back in a sort of time machine to when these events happened. But to do so would have been a serious temptation to break away from the Liturgical reality that Christ established here all those centuries ago.

Why do I say that? This short essay is an attempt to answer that question.

Christ IS risen. Not WAS risen. We don’t celebrate a memory of a past event, something come and gone. We celebrate the contemporary reality we live in. It’s a subtle use of a tense but quite deliberate. Christ as God is beyond time and everything he does is beyond the limits of time, it’s an eternal ‘now’.

The resurrection established a new paradigm in human reality, a fusion of time with eternity, that is of time with what we might call ‘beyond time’, something without beginning or end embracing that which is finite, thus opening us to the experience of an eternal now. Death was a definition of time where reality passes from existence into non existence. It was the ultimate end point, which Jesus abolished through catching up our created and mortal humanity into his Divinity. By Jesus walking out of the tomb he transformed our existence totally. The challenge was, and is, for us to embrace this transformed horizon and to live with our sights set on the eternal rather than the transient. The challenge is to grasp that this transformation has taken place and is actually true, and to allow that to impact on our conscious way of living,

The resurrection was thus not simply a moment in time, but an eternal moment, the moment that transformed the human experience of being alive from one of passing through to one of life that is eternal, as though time is being stopped as that moment remains accessible from every moment of time to come and indeed that has passed.

Living in the context of a physicality that remains to be finally transformed is a complex and demanding challenge. We await the creation of a new heaven and new earth, one where the spiritual dominates the physical and not the other way round as is the case today. We await the fulfilment of all things, that is the final working out of this moment of transformation we know as the resurrection into the very fibre of the whole cosmos, physical and spiritual, the world of men and the world of angels.

The Christian Liturgy preempts this experience through the employment of potent symbols, ones which not simply point to other things but in themselves give us a taste of them. From ancient times Christian teachers have spoken of the Liturgy as the wedding of heaven and earth, of the physical space around the altar being, to use a contemporary term, a ‘thin place’, made so by the transubstantiation of the Bread and Wine of the Eucharist into Christ’s risen Body and Blood. The Liturgy celebrated on earth is an echo of and a participation in the constant act of praise that ascends to God the Father from the heart of Christ and all that is United with him, angels, saints, cherubim and seraphim, and the people on Earth that gather in him through baptism.

The Saints have long had visions that pierce this reality, and miracles continue to attest to this. Christ continues to be present as on that Easter morning in every celebration of this great and wonderful Liturgy. As Christians enact his command to do this and rehearse the culmination of this transformation of fallen humanity in obedience to his command, so the Lord is right there, in their midst, just as he was on that first Easter morning. Every Sunday celebrates this, is an Easter Day, as is every Eucharist in and of itself. The Eucharist more than anything else defines the Christian life, is it’s Centre and it’s fountain.

The call to communion, to receive this transfigured and transfiguring Bread and Wine is thus a call to a deeper communion with the Risen Lord, to allow our experience, our vision, our desire to be shaped by this. It is the foretaste of eternity, and propels us into that reality where time has ceased and eternity has begun, a dawn time, a moment where greater realities than we can imagine have begun to be formed in us and which will culminate in the transformation of all things at the end of time. Hence why receiving the Body and Blood of Christ unworthily, without being disposed to this transformation can result in an interior dislocation and even as St Paul warns us, death.

Within Protestant traditions this whole focus has been abandoned and it has been reduced to a historical reflection, a travesty of the resurrection, a denial of the very nature of the Resurrection and its impact on time and on humanity here and now. It has reduced everything to the most banal symbols, locating Christ in our imagining, in our thoughts and emotions and denied the means for him to transform our actual being in a holistic and material way, both physically and in terms of our experience of time. Faith has been emptied to be a blind longing for a halcyon time consigned to our imagining, not a desire built on a real and actual foretaste of things to come.

Yet even in western Catholicism this historicism has woven itself into popular devotions and many of the experiments with the Liturgy since the Second Vatican Council have erred in a similar manner. Popularly this has been experienced as a purgation of various devotions, such as kneeling for communion, the abolition of the extended fast, the eradication of real beauty in music and so forth but at its heart has been the reduction of Liturgy to words, to ideas thought about, read, and spoken. This focus on the texts has been at the expense of the sense of the imminence of the holy, a certain encouragement of banality and a focus on making people feel comfortable in their ordinariness. Not all of this is necessarily bad or harmful, but because it masks a collective move away from a sense of the Eucharist as the actual transforming moment of Resurrection its cumulative impact is devastating at many different levels.

Nor is its impact restricted to the Liturgy per se, but upon all those aspects of Christian life which originate with its sense of transcending time. For example, religious life, with its focus of living with the reference to the eternal life that is to come, or the sense of preparing for a happy death through the use of such tools as regular confession. Without the sense of the transformation of time into eternity as a lived foretaste open to the Christian in this present life embodied in the Liturgy all these things loose their force and dwindle away, as has been devastatingly demonstrated in Catholicism in various western countries.

My own perception of this is of art in the Liturgy, or should I better say the abandonment of the art of the Liturgy. Yes, there is an art form which is shaped by and for the Liturgy, distinctive and authoritative. It’s common name is iconography, and it is most commonly experienced in the Liturgical context of the eastern churches. Its demise in the west helps I think to trace the origins of the more general demise of the resurrection perspective on time, life and Liturgy.

In the 13th century there was a move in Western Christian life to engage the emotions and senses through engaging the imagination, in order to facilitate a deeper engagement especially among ordinary, uneducated folk with the Person of Christ. Perhaps the best earliest example is the devotion to the poor Christ in the Christmas crib as popularised, or perhaps invented, by St Francis of Assisi. Here the crib was to evoke in those who saw it not so much the majesty of Christ now so much as the Christ of history, of the moment in time when he was poor, helpless and born in the humiliating straw and stench of the stable in Bethlehem.

Great effort was put into enabling the believer to grasp the humanity of the Christ Child, the humility, the tenderness. The Virgin Mother was shown increasingly as a younger girl, herself of poor means, rather than as the royal Queen of heaven, draped in imperial purple and lain out on a beautiful mattress of the finest red and golds. The Christ Child was no longer given the face of the ancient of days, but shown as an oridanary baby just as he would have looked all those years ago. This I called devotional rather than Liturgical art. This all took place within the art of the church building, at first as an occasional innovation, but in time it came to first dominate and then replace the iconographic art of the liturgical space, especially I suspect after the Black Death and the popularity of the devotion to Christ’s sufferings on the Cross and the growing popular devotion to the Wounds of Christ and the Way of the Cross.

After a millennium there was a need I would accept to reconnect with the historical moments of Christ’s life and death, and to renew the rather heavily imperialised iconography of both the eastern and western churches as they had become more and more entertwined with the life of the states and especially the ideas and exercise of monarchy, serfdom and chivalry. It was a revolutionary movement to liberate Christian art from the subliminal messages of endorsement of the imperial ideal by God himself, and the opening up of a Christendom for a more humanistic vision of the human person and society. However, these developments which focused on the realities of the present gradually weakened the sense of the immenance of the eternal.

Perhaps the greatest blow came at the Reformation, where the sense of the transfiguration of time was blown away almost completely. The whole order of the world and society around this transfiguration of time and space was dismissed as superstition, the physical was derided as fallen and sinful, and the dominance of words and ideas replaced a sense of the engagement with the spiritual with more than the interior life. Religion became something reduced to the interior and invisible, of thoughts and ideas, of emotions and psychology. Works, that is deeds, were deemed irrelevant and faith alone mattered. This shattered the sense of Liturgical time and all the churches East and West have, I believe, suffered enormously because of it.

The renewal of Christianity will come, I believe, when we regain a sense of this Resurrected time, of the displacement of death, the end point of things, with eternity. When we re-focus on the space of the Liturgy as an encounter such as I described at the outset of this piece, then we can regain credibility with those seeking the Truth that we find in the words and the Person of Christ. In English we have a phrase, out of sight, out of mind, and it is no mistake that the Christian faith has been irradicated in those countries where Christian imagery of any kind was abandoned, and where eventually even Catholic art came to be reduced to the level of the devotional and the merely symbolic. The reconversion of Europe must take place at the level of the restoration of the Resurrection as the defining reality affecting all our life, but first and foremost how we celebrate the Liturgy, because here we have the experience of Christ Risen and time transfigured at least as a foretaste. To do this eastern iconography offers us an invaluable insight and tool with which to shape the Eucharistic space visually in terms of a language shaped by the transformation of time and which has developed over a millennia and a half, as well as being mandated in the seventh ecumenical council. We have the tools, but do we have the wisdom and courage to do it?


Alleluia! Christ is Risen!

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.