Saturday, September 11, 2010

Why do you worship graven images?

Dear Rev. Know it all.

The Bible is clear. NO GRAVEN IMAGES. (Exodus 20:2-17) "You shall not make for yourself an idol.... You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God." And Deuteronomy 5:6-21 says exactly the same thing. The Catholic have neatly tucked this second commandment into the first so people won't notice it. What do you have to say about that?

May T. Fortress
Dear May,

Let me answer the second question first. Catholics follow the division of the commandments established by St. Augustine around the year 400, which was the same as the Jewish division at that time.  Martin Luther and his followers still use the same Augustinian division as the Catholics. Maimonides, the Jewish sage in the 1100's, divided them differently. In his division which today's Jews use the commandment against idol worship is a completely separate commandment. We have divided the commandment in St. Augustine's way for at least 1,600 years.

Now for the next question. The commandments in both Deuteronomy and Exodus forbids bowing down (lo tishtak'we) and the serving (lo ta'abdem) of images. In my whole life I have never bowed down to nor served an idol or an image. I have knelt at shrines where there are images, because the Lord says that wherever two or three are gathered in His name, He is present. (Matt: 18-20) When I join in prayer with the saints, whether those on earth or those in glory, I often kneel, because the Lord is present as He promised, but I have never prostrated myself before an image, and that is exactly what the word for worship means in both Hebrew and Greek (proskynein).

I am not just playing at words here. I mean it. Worship is to lie flat out before God, sometimes in body, always in soul. It is to confess that He alone is God. To ask for the prayers of the saints is quite another thing.

Even in the Mosaic covenant, the prohibition against images was not absolute. In the tent and in the temple there were representations of the Cherubim as well as of plants and animals. There was even the graven image of the bronze serpent that Moses had made in the dessert (Num.21:6) which was eventually removed from the temple when people began to burn incense to it (2 Kings 18:4) and to worship it.

The first Christians relaxed the prohibition on images because God Himself had given us a visible image of Himself. (Col:1-15). Against the images of saints there has never been a prohibition. It is clear from the practice of the Israelites that only images of gods are prohibited, and no true Catholic would ever mistake an image of a saint for God.

Images of the saints and especially of the characters of the Bible Story became common on the Middle Ages when many could not read. Statues, pictures and stained glass windows taught the stories of the faith to the illiterate. The great cathedrals of the Middle Ages were the schools of the poor. Art had always been used this way by Christians and it still is. When did you first hear the Gospel story? I remember when I was a very little boy, that my parents told me what the Christmas crib meant and who the characters were. Pictures in my children's Bible made me want to hear the story and the beauty of the Church, with its paintings and images helped me know the power and the peace of God. If you are opposed to religious images, have you thrown out your picture Bibles, your art and your Christmas crib?

In the temple there was no danger of the worship of the cherubs or any other image, because the presence of the Lord filled the temple. And in the same way there is no real danger for a real Catholic in the use of religious images because we enjoy the real presence of God present in the Tabernacle that holds the Eucharist, the body, blood, soul and divinity of Jesus of Nazareth, who is the visible image of the invisible God.

I have pictures of my parents which are very dear to me, especially now that they have left this world. I have never once mistaken a picture for my mother or father. It would be all the more ridiculous if my parents were still here, to reverence the picture and not the parents. So it is with Catholics. The saints are in glory and their images remind us of their constant prayer for their brethren who still struggle here, but they are not gods. Even images of the Lord Jesus are only reminders of His nearness.

I would never mistake the image for the Lord, because whenever I want, I can go into a church and spend an hour with Him who is really present in the tabernacle even more truly than the god of Israel dwelt in the temple in Jerusalem. If I go into any church where the Lord is present in the sacrament, I am not alone. Why would I cling to an image when the Lord is so near?

Rev. Know-it-all    

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