1st November 2021

Among the most over-used words today are ‘icon’ and ‘iconic’. A celebrity becomes an ‘icon’, when their popularity represents what people most admire in their culture. But that usage cheapens the word immeasurably. The ‘icon’ has come to us from Eastern Orthodox Christianity, where icons – stylised images or paintings representing Christ, or saints, or the Holy Trinity – are venerated. Margaret and I have two icons in our living room, gifts from Orthodox friends during my time working for the ecumenical movement. One is an image of Jesus, the other of Mary with her holy child.

Such icons don’t represent popular attitudes and aspirations. They point not to what people already know and like and admire but to the mystery which is strangely other, transcendent to our visible and immediate world, yet entering our life with transforming grace and power: the ‘Beyond in our midst’. Paul says that Jesus himself ‘is the image (icon) of the invisible God’ (Colossians 1:15).

The icon of Mary and infant Jesus was a gift to us from His Beatitude Anastasios, Greek Orthodox archbishop of Albania, and a dear friend. A former missionary and teacher, in 1992 he accepted an appointment to go into Albania, which had suffered under the most brutal communist regime in all Europe, and now in a region of Europe still riven by nationalist and sectarian violence. Serving the healing and rebuilding of the Albanian churches and communities, he himself in effect became an icon, not of what was then popular, but of what was needed. Appropriately enough, ‘Anastasios’ means ‘resurrection’. What would you like to be an icon of?

Keith Clements