Dear Rev. Know-it-all,
I visited a Catholic church for the first time the other day and frankly I was shocked. There were a lot of graven images in the church and there was some procession going on during which one of these graven images was being carried about. Isn’t this sort of thing expressly forbidden in the Bible?
Ida L. Carver
At first reading it would seem you are right. Here are two texts from the Scriptures. First Exodus 20:4 “You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below.”
And Isaiah 45:20 “Gather yourselves and come; Draw near together, you fugitives of the nations; they have no knowledge, who carry about their wooden idol And pray to a god who cannot save.”
It would seem that religious imagery is expressly forbidden in the Bible, but think again. The Temple, had images of angels, lions, flowers, fruit and trees as did the Dwelling in the desert (see Exodus 25, 26 and 37, and First Kings 7 and 10). Moses was commanded by God to make an image of a bronze serpent (Numbers 21:4) which was kept in the Temple until people started to worship it. (2Kings18:4)
The Septuagint is the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scripture which was written in Egypt around 200 BC. Like all translations, it provides a kind of commentary on the meaning of words. There are two words used in the commandment against idols: “Pesel” and “Tehmunah.” Pesel means a carving and Tehmunah means a likeness. Pesel is the common word for an idol, a “carving”. Tehmunah is a more general word. The next verse in the text forbids the bowing to and the serving of such things. It would seem that such images and carvings are forbidden as objects of worship. In the Greek Septuagint “Pesel” is translated “idolon”, or idol. “Tehmunah” is translated “icon” or image. The stricture against idols is absolute. But it seems that the use of icons is allowed in the proper context.
The closest that an iconoclast (anti-image) non-Catholic Christian can have to such things would be figures in a Christmas Crib. Most Christians who forbid images have no problem with Christmas figures and are insulted when some small town dictator forbids setting one up in the public square in our current drive for freedom from religion. No Protestant I know looks at an image of the Baby Jesus in a Christmas display with anything but tenderness. They don’t worship it. It is merely a help to memory, a representation of something loved and revered. If one interprets the ban on carvings and images with rigorous literacy, even photography is forbidden. The only people I know who go that far are the Amish. In the scripture itself images are clearly allowed if they are not objects of worship. Well isn’t worship what Catholics are doing when they have their processions etc.? Not any Catholics I know.
First of all most of the images are those of saints, especially Mary, the Blessed Mother of Our Lord. Saints are not gods. No Catholic I know regards a bit of plaster or a hunk of wood as in any way divine. They are representational art meant to remind us of the Communion of Saints and the Presence of Heaven in our midst. I have never said to a hunk of plaster, “Deliver me; for you are my god,” (Isaiah 44:17) not even to the plastic Jesus riding on the dash board of my car. Religious images as means of instruction, as a means of lifting the heart and the mind to God in prayer are perfectly acceptable biblically as we see from the decoration of the temple. When the thing becomes the object of prayer, or is thought to have some sort of power in itself, like the Bronze Serpent in the time of Hezekiah, it ceases to be legitimate.
Catholics have a great antidote to idolatry: the Holy Eucharist. If you had a picture of your mother that meant a lot to you, you might gaze at it fondly. If, however your mother came into the room, would you continue to stare at the picture and neglect the real flesh and blood woman? No, you would put the picture away and embrace the actual person.
We Catholics believe that the Holy Eucharist, which for all the world appears to be a piece of bread, is the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus Christ. We enjoy religious art, but we don’t believe that those images are God. How could we? We have God himself living in the tabernacles of our churches.
I was at that procession you saw. Did anyone drop to their knees when the image of the Holy Child passed by? No, they didn’t because it was only an image. A little later in the Mass a small bell rang and the whole congregation dropped to its knees and I said the words, “This is my Body and this is my Blood,” over a piece of bread and a sip of wine. For this the whole congregation knelt because this was God appearing in visible form on the altar through the words and hands of a sinner like me. It was infinitely more than a colorful bit of plaster.
I imagine you think it even more absurd to worship a piece of bread. Better to worship the bit of plaster! Oh, but you don’t understand that is not simply bread, it is the Bread come down from heaven, it is the Lord Jesus who commanded us to eat His flesh and drink His Blood. I invite you to look up the Eucharistic Miracle of Buenos Aires on YouTube, or to get the book “Unseen” by Ron Tesoriero and Lee Han. We are not idolaters because we bend the knee only to the Lord. You may think that we bend the knee to a statue or even a piece of Bread, but you couldn’t be more wrong.
There is another kind of idolatry much more pernicious than the religious art that you so look down on. It is a particularly modern kind of idolatry. How often have you heard someone say, “I cannot believe in a god who would allow the Holocaust or who would forbid me to marry whomever I will and as often as I will. I cannot believe in a god who will not give what I want or who allows human suffering. I refuse to believe in a god who is father and not mother.” Perhaps most challenging is to believe in the God of the Old Testament who ordered the slaughter of every individual of the seven Canaanite nations (Deut. 20:16, 17) “Completely destroy them, the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites as the Lord your God has commanded you. Otherwise, they will teach you to follow all the detestable things they do in worshiping their gods, and you will sin against the Lord your God.”
I hear you say, “How could God demand this? Such a god would be evil!” At the same time I have heard people say that they could not believe in a god who would forgive a Stalin or a Hitler. Have you become the judge of God? Will you forbid God his infinite Justice and Mercy? Will you make a god to your own specification? Will you carve out a god who takes his orders from you? It is an idolatry far worse than a statue or picture. It is a cancer of the heart and mind that deforms the image of God which was forged in the human person at the dawn of time.
Be very careful of accusing others of idolatry when you carry false gods in your heart and mind. By the way, the abominations that merited the utter destruction of the seven nations, was the ritual sacrifice of children. These are the only nations in history whose extinction God commanded. It seems that the murder of children for economic well being is cause for Heaven’s greatest wrath. As an American, I am just a little afraid that God really does order the destruction of whole nations for certain crimes, especially those against children.