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Blessing of Icons

Feast of Epiphany; Friday, 6 January, 2006
The Right Rev'd Philip Huggins
Bishop of the Northern Region, Diocese of Melbourne

In the name of God. Amen.

My first encounter with Bishop John Bayton was at the Icon School. It was in late afternoon light, like now. He had paint on his fingers and the look in his eyes of what one readily calls a 'mystical gaze'. In that moment he was full of that true abundance of life which Jesus promised ...! "I have come that you may have life – And have it in abundance ..." (John 10:10). He is in much the same radiant condition here now. Along with others of you. Shining faces, like a star above a sacred site!

I was a member of the Icon School for a time until Church life took me interstate. [Church life and one's own propensity to take contemplation into too much action. There is always so much to do. Always so many threats to civilised living.] I still have in my study, carefully wrapped, a partially completed icon of St Nicholas of Myra. One day I shall return to it, and perhaps to the Icon School – though the Sunday Age report is that there is now a waiting list for new entrants. Perhaps a backslider with a dusty and incomplete Icon of St Nicholas must wait even longer that it takes for full membership of the Long Room in the MCG!

In any case, tonight is an opportunity to publicly appreciate the imaginative architect of the Icon School – the one with the mystic gaze. And all who have formed this Godly company, since 1981. And especially those who have contributed to these icons.

One can imagine, they will also now be teaching the Art of Levitation: so that we can all soar into the heavens for a closer look at these Icons! What then can we say about this moment on the 12th Day of Christmas, the Feast of Epiphany? Let me offer three reflections:

1. The first is about Quiet Wonder:

The Magi are not recorded as saying very much as their gaze finally rests upon the source and end of their journey: Jesus.
Who is the Alpha and Omega.
The one who is beginning and end
"The one in whom all things hold together." (Colossians 1:17).
The Christ Child: God with us, Emmanuel, Born of Mary.
The source of their star, rising in the East, and the one who says "Before Abraham was, I am ..." (John 8:58).
And thus: "I am the Light of the World" (John 8:12).

There is in Shakespeare somewhere, a phrase about the mystery so tremendous, before which "words turn back, never to attain ..." The Magi may well have composed long speeches on their long nights upon camels, following that Star. They are reputed to have had both the scholarship and the imagination. And whether it be under the night sky of the Australian outback, or somewhere coming from the East of Iraq, the night sky is a source of wonder.

A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.
[T.S. Eliot: Journey of the Magi]

Night Sky, Window into a vast universe. Incomprehensibly vast: We look up and fill up with wonder. Thankful quietly for this gift of life which God gives. Our life, on a tiny star in a vast universe. And for the wise ones, the new star halted over the place where, going into the house, they saw the child with his mother, Mary. (Matthew 2:1:10). All the speeches composed on their journey night after night remained unspoken. They did what we imagine we would all do in such a holy, wonderful moment. "They fell to their knees, they did Jesus homage ..." (Matthew 2 :1:11).

Then came their gifts:

  • Gold signifying Jesus' kingship.
  • Frankincense, Jesus priestly role.
  • The myrrh suggesting the spices and ointment with which Jesus' body is anointed and wrapped as Jesus saving death.
All this was a long time ago, I remember,
and I would do it again but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
[T.S. Eliot: Journey of the Magi]

2. The Birth of our Saviour is therefore celebrated within the sacrament of Jesus Passion, Death, Resurrection.

And so the Feast of Epiphany – the Feast of Christ's manifestation, showing – is so perfect for the blessing of these Icons. For this is the Feast upon which we celebrate the Revelation not only of the Word of God but also the Image of God. "For in Christ the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have come to fullness in him" (Colossians 2:9).

Icons have become possible thanks to the revelation of God, which we see in the Incarnation ... We see our Salvation! Hence we attribute honour to the icon of our Lord Jesus Christ in much the same way as we honour the Books of the Holy Gospels. As is said in the tradition, "just as by the letters of the Gospels we all come to salvation, so by the action of the colours in images all – learned as well as ignorant – equally find benefit in what is within reach of all. In effect, just as the word is set forth by letters, painting sets forth and represents the same things by colours." (Vladimir Lossky, The meaning of Icons, p.22).

Accordingly, is it not the case that the contemporary mission of the Church includes a beautiful rapprochement between the Holy Scriptures and Iconography, united within the same tradition of the Church? And, insofar as this is profoundly the case in our visual age (wherein you can even now watch Test Cricket on your phone), how farsighted is the work of the St Peter's Icon School! How farsighted have been each of the noble Vicars of St Peter's – Bishop John, Bishop David, Fr. John today – and the vestries, and the students, the Icon-writers! They are true missionaries. What we do tonight marks a profound moment in our being a genuine Australian Christian Church! Regarding our Mission in Word and Image.

3. Icons and the spiritual life of those who cross the threshold into St Peter's:

In the notes which led to permission for these Icon Panels, Bishop Bayton affirmed how, positioned as they are, they "will invite inquiry into one's relationship within the communion of saints with the other place" as one enters the church.

It is a lovely phrase: "invite inquiry", yes? A lovely true phrase, consistent with the humble love of God who comes amongst us as vulnerable as a child, born to a young country couple, born in a stable and not in a palace. A maturing spiritual life develops deeper relationship with members of the Communion of Saints, yes?

Mary Magdalene, first apostle of the Resurrection, is such a contemporary friend, as we dissolve various cultural barriers to being a truly inclusive Church in Christ – in whom there are no longer divisions of race or gender, "but Christ is all and in all" (Colossians 3:11).

Lazarus of Bethany, representative, beautifully of all Jesus friends. Jesus love for him – so personal and deep; Lazarus staggering forth into the light, Bewildered by amazing grace, new life in Christ. Lazarus is a splendid addition. Especially given the St Peter's link to the Order of St Lazarus of Jerusalem, of which I am also a member. The link to work for the homeless and poor through the Lazarus Centre – bringing new life in practical and prayerful fashion.

One could go on. St Paul is here. And thus a lovely link between St Peter's and our St Paul's Cathedral: the mother Church of our Diocese of Melbourne. Both St Peter's and St Paul's share another link, along with St Patrick's and other city Churches. They are open during the day to the seeker and the curious.

We can thus imagine now, as my reflections draw to a close, people of all kinds, crossing the threshold into St Peter's, their eyes drawn to the warm, friendly, colourful eyes of these holy figures. Your Godchildren's Godchildren may be brought to faith here, looking up. As we, by then, sing the Sanctus, in the place prepared for us by our Saviour within the beauty of God's holy will. Till Christ be all in all.

Hence we now move deeper into Holy Communion, joining with the angels, the archangels, and all the company of heaven in their unending song.

In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. AMEN

Bishop Philip Huggins
Feast of Epiphany '06


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