Advanced search Click here for the website of the current Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby

This is an archived website containing material relating to Dr Rowan Williams’ time as Archbishop of Canterbury, which ended on 31st December 2012

Skip Content

Archbishop - "the risen Christ says, 'In the depth of this reality I will speak, I will be present and I will transform.'"

The new icon of the Resurrection © St Andrew Holborn

Wednesday 7th October 2009

A sermon by the Archbishop of Canterbury at a Parish Eucharist at St Andrew Holborn, London, during which a new icon of the Resurrection (painted by a sister of the monastery of Vallechiara) was blessed.

Read a transcript of the Archbishop's sermon below, or click download on the right to listen [12Mb]

For some people, when they first encounter the classical Byzantine icon of the resurrection, it's just a little bit puzzling. Here is Jesus descending to the dead, taking Adam and Eve by the hand, surrounded sometimes by prophets and kings of the old covenant. And it seems rather a long way from the scene described in the Gospel that we've just read (Luke 24.1—9) or even the narratives that St Paul recalls in 1 Corinthians. Surely the resurrection is about those precious moments of personal encounter with the risen Jesus on the part of a range of people, those mysterious and elusive meetings described in the gospels?

However, here in this icon, we're taken into another realm, another frame of reference. That of course is what an icon does: it takes you to the inner story, to the bedrock of what's going on. And what this icon says to us is that the bedrock of what is going on in the resurrection of Jesus Christ is the re-making of creation itself. Here are God and Adam and Eve: this is where it all began and this is where it begins again. The resurrection is not the happy ending of the story of Jesus: it's the story of the word of God speaking in the heart of darkness to bring life out of nothing, and to bring the human race into existence as the carriers of his image and his likeness. That is what happened on Easter Sunday and what happens whenever Easter is re-enacted, commemorated afresh in the life of the believing community as we do this evening. It's why so often in the early Church – and today in the Eastern Church – Sunday is the 'eighth day' of the seven day week. It's the start of the new world because it's the day of the resurrection of Christ.

So far, so good. The resurrection is the beginning of the new creation; the resurrection is the rising not only of Jesus, but of Adam and Eve. Then you look more closely at Adam and Eve in the icon, and you see that this is Adam and Eve grown old. They are not the radiant, naked figures of the first beginning of the story. Their faces are lined by suffering and experience, by guilt, by the knowledge of good and evil, scarred by life and by history. This is Adam and Eve having lost their innocence – the Adam and Eve who are of course ourselves, we who carry around with us the marks of history, of experience, of the knowledge of good and evil, hurts received and hurts done. Those are our faces on the icon, Adam and Eve 'four thousand winters' on, as the carol rightly puts it.1 Because the history of Adam and Eve is a wintry one, and we know that in ourselves.

So, when we speak of the resurrection as a new beginning, a new creation, it is in the sense that the risen Jesus reaches down and touches precisely those faces: Adam and Eve grown old. He doesn't wave a wand and make them young again, strip off their clothes and leave then standing in their first innocence. What he deals with is humanity as it has become, our humanity, suffering and struggling, failed and failing. The resurrection is not about the wiping out of our history, pain or failure, it is about how pain and failure themselves – humanity marked by history – may yet be transfigured and made beautiful. Perhaps the most poignant feature of this and indeed all such icons is those aged faces. Adam and Eve four thousand years old in winter, turning to their spring, and being renewed.

So what the Christian gospel offers is indeed a new beginning. It is indeed something from nothing, life from death, light from darkness. And at the same time it is, mysteriously, the transformation of what we have become: real flesh and blood human beings with our histories, with the lines etched in our faces by those four thousand winters. If we did not believe that, what a very strange and hopeless world we would inhabit: a world in which again and again, when we turned to God, we would have to write off what had become of us and say 'all that is to be discarded', and the tape is simply reeled back to the beginning again. No: God 'wonderfully created us' as the prayer says, 'and yet more wonderfully restored us'.2 The re-creation, the new beginning of resurrection is more wonderful because it is the planting of newness and freshness, beauty and vision and glory, in faces like yours and mine, in lives like yours and mine, in Adam and Eve as they are there depicted. And that is why the resurrection is good news for those in the midst of what seems to be incurable, intractable pain or failure, in the middle of a world or an experience where, practically speaking, there seems so little hope. It's not that the risen Christ appears saying, 'By magic I will take away your history and I will smooth out your faces'; but that the risen Christ says, 'In the depth of this reality I will speak, I will be present and I will transform.'

There are many icons of course depicting the great saints of the classical era of Christianity, but there are also icons now of the saints of our own age, saints whose photographs we can see. And it's one of the most intriguing and challenging things you can imagine: to look at a photograph of someone whose icon you can also see. Any fool can take a photograph (within reasonable limitations!) but only someone living in the light of the resurrection can paint an icon. And it comes home when you see the lined, ordinary, prosaic faces of modern people who have been recognized as saints; when you see those faces transformed in modern icons to show the glory and radiance coming through their very specific, recognizable contemporary faces, it is then that you see something of what this image of the resurrection is telling us. It's this flesh and blood, this history, these sufferings and these failures that the risen Jesus touches and transfigures.

So, as we come to bless this icon of the resurrection, this image of the new beginning, we are asked to look at Adam and Eve as if in a mirror: to see there the ups and downs, lights and shadows of our own actual, complex, uneven lives, and to see that as the place where the risen Jesus begins. Because God begins always with who we are now and what we are now: and it's there, now, that life comes from death, and light from darkness. We may begin again at every moment by the power and strength of the risen Jesus. But more: that new beginning is also the gathering-together, the leading-forward of all that we actually are and have become.

May God give us the freedom and the courage to look into that mirror: that mirror of the wintry face, of Adam and Eve grown old, and in that moment to see something of how the spring begins in its heart. The spring of Jesus' own Easter, his rising, his 'eastering in us', as the poet (Gerard Manley Hopkins) says. In him our life begins afresh day by day.

To him be glory for ever and ever. Amen.

© Rowan Williams 2009

1 From the famous medieval English carol which begins 'Adam lay ibounden, bound in a bond, Four thousand winter thought he not too long.'

2 A collect used in the Church of England at Morning Prayer during Christmastide:

Almighty God, who wonderfully created us in your own image and yet more wonderfully restored us through your Son Jesus Christ: grant that, as he came to share our humanity, so we may share the life of his divinity; who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit , one God, now and for ever.

Back · Back to top