It’s amazing what you stumble across when you start spending time somewhere, especially somewhere you think that you know. When it came time for coffee this morning I went to a coffee house close to the Church of the Nativity. I got my drink and went to find a table in the courtyard and what should be there but the Popemobile used, I was told, by Pope Francis when he was in Bethlehem in 2014. There it proudly stood with ropes around it, a kind of holy object in a place of holy objects.
These immediately identifiable vehicles came into use back in 1981 after the attempted assassination of Pope St John Paul II. I have in fact seen both he and Pope Benedict XVI moving round St Peter’s Square in one of them. As I understand it, Pope Francis has abandoned the bullet proof glass gold fish bowl and gone for a style much more open, to reflect his style of Papacy. But whatever, there is something iconic about the vehicle. It certainly seemed like that when, after being in a very peaceful spot, just me, a coffee and the Popemobile, a crowd of Polish pilgrims suddenly arrived with whoops of delight when they caught sight of the vehicle!
The real thing I wanted to do today, this second day in Bethlehem, was to meet Ian Knowles who is the Director of the Bethlehem Icon Centre. I had arranged to do this in the afternoon, so leaving the iconic papal vehicle I made my way up Star Street where the Centre is based.
Entering into the courtyard you come off the street, the old pilgrim route, into an oasis of peace, prayer and calm. It really is beautiful. Around the courtyard are the offices, the workshop and a lecture hall which, with the chapel, accessible from the street, make up the centre. The old buildings have been beautifully restored to provide a place where groups can be welcomed and individuals learn the skills of icon writing, icon painting. The Centre was established in 2010 but as Ian described it, it is still embryonic, it is growing into what God wills it to be.
Visiting churches in the Holy Land you see many icons from both the Greek and Russian traditions. They are part of the spiritual landscape. They are also part of the pilgrim landscape. Every shop seeks to sell you an icon – some of poor quality, some beautiful and very expensive. So it was really exciting to be able to listen to Ian talking about the place of icons as liturgical art. In the courtyard is an icon that he wrote which is the symbol of the place. The icon has been given the title ‘Mary the Mother of the Icon of the Father’. It is a wonderful title and name to meditate on. Mary is pictured holding the face of Jesus, gently, in her hand. Ian wrote about it
‘God first showed us his face the moment he was born in Bethlehem. Here God provided a true image, the icon, of himself which human beings could then copy.’
That took me straight to the Letter of St Paul to the Colossians
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. (Colossians 1.15)
Throughout the Old Testament shadows of God had been glimpsed – but not God’s face. Indeed in the Book of Exodus we read this as part of the discourse between God and Moses
‘But’, he [God] said, ‘you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live.’ (Exodus 33.20)
So for Jesus to have said to his friend Philip
‘Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, “Show us the Father”? (John 14.9)
is amazing. We see the face of God in Jesus and we live, the face first seen in Bethlehem, cradled in the hands of Mary is the face that reveals the fullness of the divine to us.
It was a privilege to go to this place where the skills of creating icons, that give us an encounter with the divine, with holiness, in which we can see the true icon of God, are still taught.
The day began, however, in St Jerome’s Grottos. These are beneath the Church of the Nativity. St Jerome lived here, in Bethlehem, in these caves, with his companions, in the 4th century. Here, by tradition, he translated the Vulgate version of the Bible. It was important on a day of icons to also think about the word, which he was devoted to. We are not a people of the book as people of other faith traditions are, because in this place ‘the Word was made flesh’ (John 1.14). But the word, that Jerome was devoted to, becomes iconic in itself, imaging God for us. It was the Seventh Ecumenical Council that struggled with the concept of the place of icons in the life of the church alongside that of scripture as there was a rise of iconoclasm in parts of the church. Part of their conclusions were that icons are “open books to remind us of God.” Those who lack the time or learning to study theology need only to enter a church to see the mysteries of the Christian religion unfolded before them.
Perhaps that is why icons seem to be so popular within the life of the church today. For those for whom the ‘book’ seems to be closed perhaps the ‘icon’ seems to be open.
let me see your face,
let me recognise your face,
in your Church,
in your Word,
in your Son,
in the whole of creation.