by Dwight Longenecker
I was brought up in an independent Bible church in the USA, so my first visit to a Catholic church was a big culture shock, and it confirmed everything I was told about Catholics. There were racks of candles guttering away in front of statues. There were images of Jesus on the cross, Jesus with his heart on the outside, Mary with baby Jesus, and lots of statues of nuns and monks and priests in various holy poses. Not only that-- I saw people praying in front of the statues, then lighting candles and putting money into little boxes. "So it was true! Catholics do worship idols!" I thought.
It was an easy mistake to make. I'd been told that Catholics worship idols by my Christian teachers, and what I saw in the church seemed to click. The same thing might happen if a Catholic kid were told that Protestants worshipped the Bible. Then when he went into an Evangelical church he saw the big pulpit as the central feature and heard a forty-five minute Bible sermon. He'd conclude that his teachers were right and Evangelicals really DID worship the Bible. Prejudices are powerful because they seem like the truth, but both prejudices are equally off the mark. Just like an Evangelical would be partly amused and partly offended to think anyone might suspect him of worshipping the Bible, so a Catholic is partly amused and partly offended if anyone thinks he worships statues instead of God.
Just like there are some pretty wild examples of Evangelicalism out there, there are also some pretty extreme forms of Catholic devotion, and maybe the Evangelical's gut reaction is understandable. When he sees Catholics carrying an image of Mary in a procession it seems like they are breaking the second commandment: 'Thou shalt not make any graven image.' But the second commandment is linked with the first commandment--'You shall have no other God.' So the prohibition against making an image just means we're not supposed to make images of God. It couldn't have been a ban on all images because God later told Moses to fashion a bronze serpent on a staff for the people to look to for salvation. (Num.21.8) Then when he gave instructions for the tabernacle God told Moses to weave images of angels into the curtains,(Ex.26.1) and to fashion two golden cherubim to be placed on the lid of the Ark of the Covenant. (Ex.25.18)
The fuss over whether Christians should use images in worship goes back a long way. From the beginning Christians had used religious paintings and statues in their worship. You can find mosaics and paintings of Jesus and the saints in catacombs and churches dating from Roman times.
But around the middle of the eighth century things really started to get hot. The Greek word 'icon' means 'image' and a group of Christians started to object to the use of icons in worship. About fifty years before this, some groups of Christians were influenced by two heresies--Monophysitism, which lessened the physical side of
Jesus' nature and Manicheanism, which taught that the physical world was evil. Both errors treated physical things as inferior, so its easy to see how this thinking made people suspicious of physical things like icons and statues.
Soon the controversy erupted into violence. The Empress sent her stormtroops to invade churches and destroy all religious artwork in God's name. The defenders of icons were outraged. There were riots among the people while the theologians exchanged tracts and lobbied the Pope. For over one hundred years the quarrel raged back and forth.
A theologian called John of Damascus was one of the most influential writers on the subject. He argued that material images of holy things were acceptable because God clothed himself in matter when he took human form in Jesus. Indeed in Col. 1.15 Paul calls Jesus, the 'image of the unseen God'. Before the incarnation no images of God were allowed because we were waiting for the ultimate 'icon' of God--the man Christ Jesus. Now that God has given us his true image in Christ, the images we make simply reflect back to him. So our images of Christ remind us of Jesus and our images of the saints remind us that they were living images of Jesus Christ in the world. So, in other words,we use physical images to remind us that God took a physical image in Christ and that we are meant to be his icons in the world.
This highlights the difference between pagan idols and Catholic images. A pagan idol is always an image of a demon. The pagan image functions like a channel or physical host for the demonic spirit. In contrast, a Catholic image is simply a representation of a real Christian person like Jesus, Mary, Joseph, or one of the saints. Its like a family photo. We treasure pictures of all the family members who have gone before us. If we keep a photo of Granny and Gramps on the mantelpiece it doesn't mean we worship them--it's just the best way to remember them now they've passed away.
Sometimes Catholics and Orthodox venerate images which have been the focus of many people's prayers for a long time. This veneration of a specially holy image is not the same thing as the worship we give God. When a Catholic venerates a special icon or statue he is simply recognising that this material thing--given by God and made by human hands--has become a channel for God's goodness and grace in the world. When he venerates the image it is a way for him to express love and devotion for the person the image represents. The carving or painting becomes like a window which focuses his gaze on God.
Maybe some simple Catholic people do pay too much attention to images. But abuses should never undo right uses. From the eighth century Catholics have been aware of the problems, but we haven't seen fit to reject the physical side of life. Because God took on this material world in Jesus, we continue to use material things in our worship. Because he is the creator God, and we are made in his image, we fashion material things into images which reflect his glory. So images, when used properly, become physical pointers to Christ--the image of the unseen God, the one by whom God created the physical world, and by whom all physical things consist.
THE IMAGES ARGUMENT
- God commanded Moses to make images to be used in worship
- The early church from Roman times used images of Christ and the saints
- The 'iconoclastic'--or 'image breaking' controversy broke out in the eighth century
- Imperial troops smashed images and riots broke out throughout the empire
- In 730 John of Damascus wrote that physical aids to worship were valid because God took on matter in the man Christ Jesus
- In 787 The church ruled exactly to what extent images couldbe used in worship in order to avoid idoltary.
- In the sixteenth and seventeenth century Protestant Reformers stripped Catholic Churches of images, broke statues and stained glass.
- In the nineteenth century Anglo-Catholicism encouraged the building of new churches with religious imagery of all kinds.
- Most Christians now accept some Christian imagery--even if it's only posters and banners.
HOW TO USE IMAGES IN PRAYER
- Create a special physical environment for prayer
- Use a table or mantelpiece
- Set up a cross or crucifix to focus on Christ
- Light a candle
- Make it beautiful with flowers or a plant
- Use images around the home to create a 'sense of the sacred'
- Put up gospel posters
- Put up an icon
- Get a print of a favourite religious painting
- Put up a picture of one of your Christian 'heroes'
- Use images to spark your Christian calling
- If your church has stained glass or carvings, find out who the saints are. Their stories are all inspiring.
- Take time to visit old churches and cathedrals and learn about the saints pictured there
- Thank God for the images of holiness in people who have gone before
- Ask God for the grace to be an image of Christ in the world today
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Copyright © Dwight Longenecker. All rights reserved. Dwight Longenecker is a Catholic writer and broadcaster working and living in England. Check his website
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