As the Shrine in Glastonbury has welcomed the gift of the icons made by Iannis Karoussos, it is good to think about what icons are and how they fit into our devotion.
We are used to the idea in the West that this world and the things within it are not just stuck here with a surface meaning. Indeed the whole of our religious rites are based on the fact that what we see with our eyes and hear with our ears has a deeper meaning and a deeper significance. At every baptism we begin by welcoming the child (or the adult) at the door of the Church. Of course this is practical, as to get to the font (which is usually in the Church building) you have to get through the door first. But that practical reason has a spiritual meaning as well. I explain it to the baptismal group like this - assuming that the child has not decided to let their presence be felt by a loud and sustained cry of ‘delight’ by that point! As we enter a building through a door, so baptism is like a door to the life of grace which God offers us in baptism. Once we have entered a building, then we can look around, perhaps sit down, or shelter from the rain, or the baking sun outside. So with the first of the sacraments, we enter the spiritual life of the Church. We can receive those other six moments when we know that God touches our soul. But we first have to get in. Baptism (like a door) does that - our soul enters the building of God’s grace. A door is not only a door, it is something greater. In the baptismal rite, it is the entry into the opportunities that God opens up for us.
And other objects have a meaning which goes beyond their surface importance. A flag is a piece of cloth with an emblem upon it. It shows which country is being represented. In that way it is like a name badge. If you see a sticky label on someone, then you can assume that that is their name. But for some, a flag is much more - it signifies the nation itself. I don’t think that we in the UK have such a high view of the flag, but in America, where children every morning stand and ‘pledge allegiance to the flag’, you can see that the importance of this piece of cloth,. The way that the flag is understood, is much deeper than here. The flag and the nation are intertwined. So when enemies of the States burn the flag then they are offending America itself.
Or again, a piece of gold twisted into a circle is a nice decorative thing, and may glint pleasantly when it catches the light, but when placed on a finger in a wedding ceremony, then it ‘means’ something more. The bride or groom says “receive this ring as a sign of my love and fidelity”. This material thing points to and symbolises the love and commitment of the two people getting married.
Things of this world are not only of this world, they point beyond it.