A sermon preached at Evensong by The Very Reverend Nicholas Papadopulos, Dean of Salisbury
Baruch: 4 v36-end of 5; John 2 v1-11
“Epiphany” says the Book of Common Prayer “or the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles”. The arrival in Bethlehem of mysterious strangers from the East signifies that the birth that has taken place is not just a happy event for one human family. It is a momentous event for the whole human family. In the wise men’s arrival; in the extraordinary gifts they present; in the existential terror of Herod's court Jesus is revealed to be the Christ, God’s anointed One. The prophetic words of Baruch echo as gold, frankincense and myrrh are laid upon a beaten earth floor. Jerusalem’s children are gathered from west and east. Jesus is made manifest as good news for all the earth.
Here in the Cathedral we experienced our very own manifestation at the end of last week. I don't just mean the arrival of the Magi under the spire crossing. I mean the blessing of the icon standing before me. It was written by a local iconographer, John Coleman. It is the Bishop of Salisbury's gift to us.
The computer age has given the word ‘icon’ a new currency, of course. Users know that the significance of an icon is that it takes you somewhere. One click on the icon, and you are in the world of BBC Sounds or eBay UK or Microsoft Outlook. The icon is the gateway. The same is true of icons like this one. It takes the user somewhere. It takes the user, Orthodox Christians believe, to the realm of God and of his holy ones. It enables the user to gaze upon the reality of God. Like on a computer, that journey is more important than the icon itself.
So where does our new icon take us? On this feast of the Epiphany, what manifestation of Christ does it offer us? I urge you to spend some time with it in the weeks ahead, and I caution you to be prepared to be discomfited by it.
The icon’s title is The Virgin of Tenderness. Its historic precedent is a twelfth century Russian work. It depicts the infant Christ in the arms of his mother. Look first at the child, and look at his posture. This is no pious, good-as-gold paragon, motionless and quiet in his mother’s embrace. He has flung one arm around his mother’s neck, and is pulling her down to him or stretching up to reach her. He is pushing his face up against hers, looking to kiss her or be kissed by her. He is active, restless. He demands her attention and seeks intimacy with her. He will not let her go.
As I said: be prepared to be discomfited. The God who is made manifest in the icon is an active and restless God; a demanding God who longs for intimacy with us and will not let us go. This is a God not of staid water jars for solemn rites of purification, but a God of gallons of the very best, the very finest, the most intoxicating wine.
Look next at the child’s mother. Her left-hand points to her son. Always in icons Mary shows us Jesus. He is what is important. But look at her eyes. They gaze not at him but outwards at us. They are wide. And they are full of sadness. Mary knows what the outcome of her son's lavish love will be. Love that is reckless and unconditional is love that will be undefended and helpless in a world of violence and fear. Her son’s boundless love for his people will be met by their murderous rage. So Mary grieves, and her grief points us to the Passion, to the sword that will pierce her heart.
The icon makes manifest a God who is determined to love us whatever the cost. And it makes manifest too the obligations that such love creates. For love demands a response. Mary's took hers to the foot of her son’s cross. Where will ours take us? That’s one to ponder on this first Sunday of a New Year. Amen.