By Fr. Adrian Mascarenhas –
Why do we have statues of Jesus in our church, when we do not allow idol worship?
A person who worships a statue of Jesus is as guilty of idolatry as a person who worships a statue of any other divinity!
While the original question inadvertently raises the issue of true vs. false gods as well, let us restrict ourselves to answering the question on idol worship specifically.
The First Commandment combines two points: “You shall not have any other gods” and “You shall not make a graven image, and bow down and worship it”. The exact wording depends on which translation you are using.
Here we are discussing the second point. If graven images were forbidden under the Old Testament, are they still forbidden today?
To understand this, we first need to know that graven images were not absolutely forbidden in the Old Testament. Though the Commandment may seem clear, the fact is that God himself commanded the fashioning of a bronze serpent (Num 21:8) and the statues of angels (cherubim) atop the Ark of the Covenant (Exodus 25:18-22). Hence it is incorrect to take this commandment as a literal prohibition of every single statue for religious purposes. The Bible even goes so far as to say that those who looked at the statue of the bronze serpent “lived” (Numbers 21:8-9) which is another way of saying that the act of looking at the statue had a salvific value.
(A related incident of a slightly different category is found in 2 Kings 13:21. There, a dead body is accidentally thrown onto the bones of Elisha the Prophet. When the dead body touched the bones of Elisha, the body came back to life. Hence God can work miracles through the relics of a holy man, if he chooses.)
However, images of GOD were never allowed in the Old Testament. So has anything changed in the New?
Yes, it has.
Briefly, the Old Testament religion was based on hearing and not seeing. This is the logic behind the prohibition of idolatry. Deuteronomy 4:15-16 says: “You saw no form of any kind the day the Lord spoke to you at Horeb out of the fire. Therefore watch yourselves very carefully, so that you do not become corrupt and make for yourselves an idol, an image of any shape…”
Is this prohibition still valid in the New Testament? The New Testament also emphasizes hearing the Word of God, but there is a change in the attitude towards SEEING, on account of the incarnation. For example, “The Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we have SEEN his glory…” (Jn 1:14) and the classic opening of the First Letter of John: “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life.”
The prohibition of images is the only commandment that Jesus NEVER seems to have spoken about. All other commandments were repeated and reinforced by Jesus.
On the basis of the guidance of the Spirit, the Church has therefore used images as a means of communication since time immemorial. Even a brief visit to the catacombs of the ancient Christians will show just how important these images were in the early Church. The image does not violate the Old Testament commandment because we are currently in a new dispensation – God has become human and has dwelt among us, and we need to learn about him by using our eyes as well as our ears.
Besides which, logically, there is no difference between a verbal symbol (such as a parable) and a non-verbal symbol (such as an image). If Jesus was able to say that God is like the father of the prodigal son, or like the woman kneading the dough, or like the shepherd in search of the lost sheep, he is using word-pictures. If word-pictures are allowed, surely there can be no serious objection to visual imagery as well.
Finally, based on the Church’s understanding of the Incarnation, the Second Council of Nicaea in 787 AD declared that images are to be VENERATED (not worshipped) in the Church. These images usually take the form of icons in the Eastern Church, and sacred pictures or statues in the Western Church. They are regarded as windows to the divine – through which we come to understand God. They are not objects of worship themselves, but, as the Council declared, the veneration offered to the image passes to its prototype. Thus, when I venerate an image of Jesus (say, I kiss a crucifix), it is a way of telling Jesus that I love him. And the communication is twofold, since the Lord too can speak to us through his images.
Rev. Fr. Adrian Mascarenhas has served as the Assistant Parish Priest of St. Patrick’s Church and Ascension Church, and has completed two years of ministry at St. Peter’s Church, Bangalore, India. He received his licentiate in sacred theology from Dharmaram Vidya Kshethram and is currently pursuing a doctorate in Fundamental Theology at the Pontifical Lateran University, Rome.