Honouring the new icon of Saints Augustine and Hadrian

In October, the community of St Augustine’s gathered for the 2023 College Celebration – and to watch the reveal of our beautiful new icon, depicting Saints Augustine and Hadrian.

For those who weren’t able to join us, you can now read the sermon shared by College Chaplain Rev Harriet Johnson on the day, which we’ve shared in full below.

New Testament Reading: 2 Peter 1: 1-8

I wonder whether you have ever looked into someone’s eyes. If not, you might like to try it (get their permission first). What did you see? You might have noticed whether they are blue, grey, brown – or even bloodshot! But you might also see yourself reflected there, or the glint of a reflected light.

Indeed, if you are a photographer, or portrait artist, that glint of reflected light is what makes your image ‘come alive’. It’s actually a reflection of the world on the surface of the eye – when the gaze of the onlooker bounces back on themselves.

If you look closely at our icon, or at any icon, you will see no catch-light like this in the eyes.

Gazing upon Christ through the eyes of icons

The face portrayed in an icon is not meant to be a likeness in the way a portrait is, a memento of what someone looked like. There is no reflective surface on the icon’s eyes to bounce your looking back at yourself.

Instead, the eyes are an open window into the person of the saint depicted. Our gaze upon them penetrates and sees into the saint – and through the saint to Christ.

In the words of our reading today, the saint is someone who, through the great and precious promises of God, is participating in the divine nature (2 Peter 1:4).

And the saint is someone who does that in such a way that it is not just their immediate circle in their own time who can see this, but people of all places and all times.

“Not Angles, but Angels!”

But who are these two men in our icon? Firstly, I have to say that I am sorry the icon shows two men, but the female saint whose life and work speaks most of our College’s situation has perhaps yet to be recognised.

So, who are these two men? And why are we thinking about them today at our College Celebration?

St Augustine, after whom we are named. The first Archbishop of Canterbury. Not the man who brought Christianity to Britain – the Celtic Christians already living here would not thank me for saying that – but the man who brought Roman Christianity back to Kent.

A man famously sent here by Pope Gregory, St Augustine looked into the eyes of enslaved Anglo Saxons and saw through their fear and defiance to their potential to partake in the divine nature and famously said ‘Not Angles, but Angels’.

And so Augustine, a Roman administrator and monk turned pioneer minister, arrived here carrying with him a picture of Christ. This was the first documented arrival of an icon in Britain, and so it is this with which he is portrayed here.

‘Look,’ he could say as he landed in Thanet, ‘Here is the true God: a God who became human, and can be pictured here. A God who looks at you, with eyes that do not just reflect your world back to you, but through whose eyes you can see your world transformed.’

“St Hadrian brought with him new and revolutionary ideas”

Next to him stands St Hadrian. A man who grew up in North Africa, who saw the splendours of the Cyrenian cities of the Roman Empire and the sands of Africa stretching into the distance. A man who travelled – perhaps in fear for his life – across the sea and saw in the eyes of the Benedictine monks of Naples a welcome and a home.

Hadrian was a man into whose eyes Pope Vitalian looked – and saw wisdom and faith in such a measure that he was first asked to become Archbishop of Canterbury. When Hadrian refused, the Pope asked him to travel to England nonetheless and support the new Archbishop.

And so Hadrian travelled onwards, leaving behind the second home he had found in Naples, and reached Britain where he found his third and final home, running a theological college in Canterbury.

During his time there, so many young men were shaped and formed by Hadrian, who brought with him new and revolutionary ideas: that it was important to learn about the Bible in your own language and be able to put into context for the people of 7th century Kent what had been written centuries before in a very different culture; and that theological education should also encompass the arts and sciences, poetry and astronomy.

In other words, Hadrian brought with him a theological education as exciting and relevant as that which we celebrate today in our own College.

And so Hadrian is portrayed in our icon carrying a scroll showing a constellation, symbol of his journeying, since early navigation was done through the stars, as well as a symbol of his broadening of the theological curriculum.

But in a way, like Augustine, he also carries an image of Christ because the constellation depicted is that of the lion – and (if you know your book of Revelation) it is as the lion of Judah that Christ will ultimately triumph over all.

“We must always strive to look beyond the surface”

Now I know icons are not for everyone. And saints and their stories perhaps tend to appeal to some wings of the church more than others.

But I hope that when you look into the eyes of the saints in our icon you will nevertheless see something of yourself – not your image reflected back at you as light bounces off a mirror, but in a sense of kinship as sharers of the promises of God and partakers of the divine nature even as we all are, however different our lives and backgrounds and journeys may look.

I hope that Augustine and Hadrian, as they look down on us from the walls of West Malling and Southwark, will remind us all that – whether looking at an icon of a painted saint, or at a real, live, and imperfect human being – we must always strive to look beyond the surface, beyond the reflection of our own selves and our preoccupations and our own worldviews, to the image of God that every individual carries.

When we do that, then perhaps those we meet will also be able to look at us in their turn and see beyond their preoccupations and self-absorptions, to glimpse the image of Christ we carry in all our different ways.

“Theology allows us to see the world differently, and also to live in the world differently”

In a way, finding the image of Christ we all carry is the real aim of our studies here.

Yes, it is wonderful to be able to celebrate the award of a Certificate, Diploma or degree, especially for those who never expected to achieve such recognition for academic work.

But the real gift of theological studies is not the piece of paper you will receive today. The real gift of theological study is that ability it gives both to see the world differently, and also to live in the world differently.

May your time at St Augustine’s, whether it has now finished or is still ongoing, give you that gift. So that as Augustine opened the eyes of the Kentish Anglo-Saxons to Christ’s presence among them, and as Hadrian opened the eyes of his students to see the glories of God’s Word at work in the world around them, your eyes, too, might increasingly be opened to see the world as God sees it.

And as your renewed vision leads you to live differently, may you, through his promises and his grace, participate ever more closely in his divine nature.