In this two part series we will explore 1) Icons and Statues in the Catholic Worldview and 2) Images and Statues in Secular Culture
The First Commandment expressly forbids the worship of anyone and anything other than God. “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. ‘You shall have no other gods before me’ (Ex. 20:2-3).”
Likewise, the use of graven images is expressly forbidden in the Old Testament. This was largely because the people of the time were enamored by the idol worship of their neighbors.
The second part of the first of the Ten Commandments continues in this way: “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments (Ex. 20:4-6).”
In the Old Testament, images and statues were forbidden. This actually became a point of contention between Christians and Jews in the first millennium A.D. Another point of contention was between the followers of Mohammed and the followers of the Christ. In Islam, to make an image of God, even in one’s mind, is utterly blasphemous. Even to make an image of the person of Mohammed is seen as a horrid act against God.
Theologian of Images – St. John of Damascus
In the late 7th and early 8th Century, a brilliant theologian and Byzantine monk named John of Damascus rose up to answer these objections against the Christian use of imagery. A student in law, philosophy, theology, music, and even Qur’anic studies, John Damascene was an intellectual and spiritual powerhouse. This is why he is recognized as the last of the Eastern Fathers of the Church.
The Christian Patriarch of Constantinople, Emperor Leo III issued an edict in 726 A.D. against the veneration of images and their exhibition in public places. This is called iconoclasm, which largely based its theology off of the First Commandment.
The Incarnation Changed Everything
St. John of Damascus claimed that the enfleshment, the Incarnation, of the Person of Jesus Christ changed everything. He said, “In other ages God had not been represented in images, being incorporate and faceless. But since God has now been seen in the flesh, and lived among men, I represent that part of God which is visible.”
He makes it very clear that he does not show veneration to the wood, clay, porcelain, marble, or paint. He continues, “I do not venerate matter, but the Creator of matter, who became matter for my sake and deigned to live in matter and bring about my salvation through matter. I will not cease therefore to venerate that matter through which my salvation was achieved. But I do not venerate it in absolute terms as God!”
He continues to explain that the wood of the Holy Cross is matter. The Body and Blood of Christ are matter. There are so many sacred things in the tradition of the Christian Church which are matter.
Of course, this thinking is not stuck in the 8th Century. Pope Benedict XVI in a 2009 homily on the Feast of St. John Damascene said the following:
“God became flesh and flesh became truly the habitation of God, whose glory shines in the human Face of Christ. Thus the arguments of the Doctor of the East (St. John of Damascus) are still extremely relevant today, considering the very great dignity that matter has acquired through the Incarnation, capable of becoming, through faith, a sign and a sacrament, efficacious in the meeting of man with God.”
God is Invisible, But He Has Revealed Himself
We have to remember that the Godhead is pure Spirit. God does not have materiality. The Second Person of the Trinity took on materiality, flesh, in the Incarnation. The Eternal Word of God became man and remains man.
God as He is, is pure spirit. But He makes His plan of loving goodness all the more wonderful in creating all things, visible and invisible. He uses these sensible things to communicate His love and grace to us in ways that we will see, touch, taste, smell, and hear.
We have an incarnational Faith!
The Saints are Alive!
Of course, we know that the Risen Lord is alive! We know as well that the Blessed Virgin Mary is alive, from her dormition, assumption, and coronation. We know that Moses and Elijah are alive, from the Transfiguration. But all of the saints are alive in God! A saint, strictly speaking, is one who is in Heaven with God.
We show veneration (not adoration or praise) to these saints, the chief among them being the God-Bearer, Mary Most Holy. The saints are like God, by His grace. So, they are models for us in the Faith. St. John Damascene says that the saints are like God, “just as the red-hot iron is called fire, not by its nature, but by contingency and its participation in the fire.” Quoting Leviticus Chapter 19, verse 2 he says, “He says in fact: you shall be holy, because I am Holy.”
All things are ordered towards God in perfection, but the eternal rational souls who have made this free commitment and have succeeded in running the race are there for us as intercessors, guides, and models.
Icons and Statues
So, when a Catholic spends time in prayer before an icon or a statue of a saint, they understand that the saint is in Heaven with God. It is by God’s grace that the material of the icon, statue, or image has become a channel of grace by which our human senses are turned to the divine. As human beings, we need visual reminders. God knows us and He knows this.