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By Prof. Michael Ogunu
(President of the Executive Board of the
World Apostolate of Fatima in Africa)

Images and Symbols

An image is an imitation or likeness of a person or thing. Images need not be exact likenesses, but may vary from actual photographs to conventional figures which are representative of types rather than of real persons or things.

Images are different from symbols. While there can be images of any material thing or any person, non-material realities are better represented by symbols. A symbol is some form or figure that is not a likeness but represents and calls to mind the unseen reality. An artist’s portrayal of Christ’s crucifixion is an image, while a cross is a symbol of Christ’s sacrifice and man’s redemption.

Early Christian Practice

The art of the earliest Christian ages was mainly in symbolic form. Two reasons may be given: First, there was a prohi­bition of images in Exodus 20:4-6, intended to protect the Hebrews from the idolatry of neigh­bouring nations. Second, symbols provided the best representation of the great Christian realities. For example, bread and fishes in a basket represented the Eucharist as foreshadowed in Christ’s feeding of the multitude (John 6).

Soon Christians began to picture episodes and persons from the Bible, such as Daniel in the lions’ den and the baptism of Christ. Those who had been pagans were accustomed to portraits of their ancestors and remembered the flower-bedecked pictures of great men and heroes. It was natural for them to desire pictures of Christ and of the martyrs. Christ was depicted especially as a shepherd and as a king and world ruler. An exact image of Him was not available, since the apostles and other eyewitnesses had not described His physical appearance.

There were, however, some disagreement about the practice of picturing the God-Man and holy persons. Some people began to argue that honouring images was a form of idolatry. A long and complex struggle gradually developed.

Veneration of Images

In one of the early epi­sodes of image-breaking, Pope St. Gregory the Great (590-604) explained and defended the Christian use of images in a letter to Bishop Serenus of Marseilles:

“We have been informed that thoughtless zeal has led you to smash pictures of saints and that you have excused yourself on the grounds that pictures should not be worshiped. For forbidding their worship, you deserve only praise, but for smashing them you must be censured. It is one thing to worship a painting, but another to be reminded by it of its subject. For what writing is to the literate, painting is to the un­educated. Paintings are employed in churches so that the illiterate can at least read by looking at the walls what they cannot read in books”.

The Catholic viewpoint was summarized in the thirteenth century by St. Thomas Aquinas. St. Thomas taught that images instruct the unedu­cated, remind people of the mystery of the In­carnation and of the example of the saints, and inspire devotion. When Passiontide begins, for ex­ample, the images in churches are veiled as a re­minder that it is a period of mourning.

To show honour to images is not idolatry. It is not the statue or picture, the material thing itself which is honoured, but the person who is represented. External gestures of reverence must be at expression of interior attitudes of reverence, or they mean nothing at all. To show honour to Christ’s image is to adore Christ Himself. Veneration paid to saints and their images is called “dulia”, meaning the reverence and homage owed to servant of God. Because of Mary’s pre-eminence, the honour paid to her and to images of her is called “hyperdulia”, a superior veneration. “Latria” is the name given to the worship of God Himself. The Council of Trent (1543-1563) defended the Catholic use and veneration of images:

The images . . . of Christ, of the Virgin Mother of God, and of the other saints, are to be . . . kept in churches and due reverence and honour be paid to them; not because it is believed that there is any divinity or power in them or that anything may be asked from them or that any faith may be put in them as the heathen are wont to believe . . . but because the honour shown to them is referred to the prototypes which they represent; so that, through these images which we kiss and before which we bow with bared heads, we worship Christ and honour the saints whose likeness they display.

The private and personal use of religious images should be guided by the doctrinal principles stated above for their public veneration. The honouring of statues and religious pictures in Christian homes and the use of medals bearing images is an ancient and still valid custom.

Jurisdiction of the Church

As seen from the quotations above, Church authorities exercise direction over the use and veneration of sacred images. They also judge the suitability of particular likenesses. In 1628, Pope Urban VIII recommended that only the form of a dove or tongues of fire be used to represent the Paraclete, and in 1745 Pope Benedict XIV forbade the representation of the Holy Spirit in human form. In more recent times, the image of a heart alone was forbidden as a representation of Christ for devotion to the Sacred Heart.

Some people think that it is wrong to use holy pictures, medals, crucifixes, rosaries and other sacramentals in our religious devotions. According to these people, the Bible does not permit the use of images for worship; for to use them would amount to the worship of idols. Certainly, only God should be adored or worshipped. Adoration belongs to God alone. This is the Catholic teaching. But it is wrong to say that the Bible does not permit the making and the use of images as an aid for religious devotion. We shall see what the Scripture says about this.

The Catholic Church teaches that “images must not be prayed to because they can neither hear, see nor help us”. In other words, the images have no life.

Why then do we have images in the Church? They are used in the Church to help Christians to meditate on the lives of our Lord and the saints which they represent. Furthermore, images help to arouse a feeling of religious devotion and develop a spirit of contemplation.

Biblical Support for Use of Images for Religious Devotion

The Scripture certainly condemns the worship of images. The prophets called such an offence prostitution; that is, an act of infidelity to the love God has for man. But there is however evidence in the Bible that God did allow the making of images for religious devotion. I will now cite below several passages in the Bible to support this fact:

God condemns the sin of idolatry, whether it is in the form of worshipping statues or any other created thing that can become an idol. In Exodus 20:3-5 the Lord forbids the carving of graven images for the purpose of idolatry:

You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself a graven 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.

In Deuteronomy, God warns the Israelites against “fashioning an idol to represent any figure, whether it be the form of a man or of a woman” or of other creatures (see 4:15-18). Joining biblical passages such as these with the divine commandment against idols (see Ex. 20:4); “graven images” in the King James Version, many Christians insist that all statues of religious subjects are forbidden.

We must note, however, that as the rest of the commandment makes clear, God has forbidden only the making of such images with the intention of worshipping them, as the pagans did. He has by no means banned the creation of all religious images.

On the contrary, the Lord actually instructed the Israelites to store those very commandments, carved in stone, within a sacred container (ark) to be decorated with golden images of angelic beings called cherubim (see Exodus 25:10-22). He also commanded the people to decorate the places where they worshipped with gold, bronze, and wooden images of animals and plants (see Ex. 25:33-36; 26:1; 1 Kings 6:23-7:51; 2 Chr. 3:10-4:22).

Anti-Catholic writer Loraine Boettner, in his book Roman Catholicism, makes the blanket state­ment, “God has forbidden the use of images in worship”. Yet if people were to “search the scriptures” (cf. John 5:39), they would find the opposite is true. God forbade the worship of statues, but he did not forbid the religious use of statues. Instead, he actually commanded their use in religious contexts.

People who oppose religious use of statues forget about the many passages where the Lord commands the making of statues. For example: “And you shall make two cherubim of gold (i.e., two gold statues of an­gels); of hammered work shall you make them, on the two ends of the mercy seat. Make one cherub on the one end, and one cherub on the other end; of one piece of the mercy seat shall you make the cherubim on its two ends. The cherubim shall spread out their wings above, overshadowing the mercy seat with their wings, their faces one to another; toward the mercy seat shall the faces of the cherubim be” (Ex. 25:18-20).

David gave Solomon the plan “for the altar of incense made of refined gold, and its weight; also his plan for the golden chariot of the cherubim that spread their wings and covered the ark of the covenant of the Lord. All this he made clear by the writing of the hand of the Lord concerning it, all the work to be done according to the plan” (1 Chr. 28:18-19). David’s plan for the temple, which the biblical author tells us was “by the writing of the hand of the Lord concerning it all”, included statues of angels.

In obedience to this divinely inspired plan, Solomon built two gigantic, golden statues of cherubim: “In the most holy place he made two cherubim of wood and overlaid them with gold. The wings of the cherubim together extended twenty cubits: one wing of the one, of five cubits, touched the wall of the house, and its other wing, of five cubits, touched the wing of the other cherub; and of this cherub, one wing, of five cubits, touched the wall of the house, and the other wing, also of five cubits, was joined to the wing of the first cherub. The wings of these cherubim extended twenty cubits; the cherubim stood on their feet, facing the nave. And he made the veil of blue and purple and crimson fabrics and fine linen, and worked cherubim on it” (2 Chr. 3:10-14).

During a plague of serpents sent to punish the Isra­elites during the exodus, God told Moses to “make [a statue of] a fiery serpent, and set it on a pole; and every one who is bitten, when he sees it shall live. So Moses made a bronze serpent, and set it on a pole; and if a serpent bit any man, he would look at the bronze serpent and live” (Num. 21:8-9).

One had to look at the bronze statue of the ser­pent to be healed, which shows that statues could be used ritually, not merely as religious decorations.

This is not to say that the image of a fiery serpent healed the people who were bitten. It was God who healed them but He effected the healing through the use of the fiery serpent. Today, we do not look on the fiery serpent for our salvation. We have something better: The cross of Jesus – Col. 1:20; 2:14; John 12:32.

Having regard to all these evidences from the Sacred Scripture, we can safely conclude that God does not condemn the making of images but He condemns the worship of them.

We need the things of this world to think about things beyond our knowledge. There is nothing wrong in the use of blessed medals, holy pictures, crucifixes, rosaries, if these can help us to life our minds to God.

Why do Catholic churches, schools, and homes display religious statues and other images? Such images are an aid to remembering and honouring our Lord, his mother, the saints, and the angels.

No Catholic who knows anything about the Catholic faith has ever worshipped a religious image. Even when Catholics kneel to pray before a statue, or burn candles or place flowers before it, they are not worshipping the image. They are simply expressing love and honour for the person represented by the statue.

The crucifix is not the object of our thought when we look at it. It is not the crucifix that the Christians adore; it is Jesus Christ, whose image is engraved on the wood, that is adored. The crucifix therefore recalls to mind the passion of Jesus and the goodness of God. The Christian must lift his mind beyond the cross to Jesus who has come to save him and the world.

Similarly Ezekiel 41:17-18 describes graven (carved) images in the idealized temple he was shown in a vision, for he writes, “On the walls round about in the inner room and (on) the nave were carved likenesses of cherubim”.

Do Catholics Worship Images?

People who do not know better sometimes say Catholics worship statues. Not only is this untrue, it is even untrue that Catholics honour statues.

Catholics use statues, paintings, and other artistic devices to recall the person or thing depicted. Just as it helps to remember one’s mother by looking at her photograph, so it helps to recall the example of the saints by looking at pictures of them.

The fact that someone kneels before a statue to pray does not mean that he is praying to the statue, just as “the fact that someone kneels” with a Bible in his hands to pray does not mean that he is worshipping the Bible. “Statues or paintings or other artistic devices are used to recall to the mind the person or thing depicted. Just as it is easier to remember one’s mother by looking at her photograph, so it is easier to recall the lives of the saints by looking at representations of them.

Sometimes anti-Catholics cite Deuteronomy 5:9, where God said concerning idols, “You shall not bow down to them”. Since many Catholics some­times bow or kneel in front of statues of Jesus, the Blessed Virgin Mary and other saints, anti-Catholics confuse the legitimate ven­eration of a sacred image with the sin of idolatry.

Though bowing can be used as a posture in wor­ship, not all bowing is worship. In Japan, people show respect by bowing in greeting (the equivalent of the Western handshake). Similarly, a person can kneel before a king without worshipping him as a god. In the same way, a Catholic who may kneel in front of a statue while praying isn’t worshipping the statue or even praying to it.

The Catechism of the Council of Trent (1566) taught that idolatry is committed “by worshipping idols and images as God, or believing that they possess any divinity or virtue entitling them to our worship, by praying to, or reposing confidence in them” (374).

Thus, the Catholic Church absolutely recognizes and condemns the sin of idolatry. What anti-Catholics fail to rec­ognize is the distinction between thinking a piece of stone or plaster is a god and desiring to visually remember Christ and the saints in heaven by making statues in their honour. The making and use of reli­gious statues is a thoroughly biblical practice. Anyone who says otherwise doesn’t know his Bible.

As clearly stated in The Catechism of the Catholic Church, Revised Edition – 2132, “The Christian veneration of images is not contrary to the first commandment which proscribes idols. Indeed ‘the honour rendered to an image passes to its prototype’, and ‘whoever venerates an image venerates the person portrayed in it’ (The Council of Nicaea 11:DS601). The honour paid to sacred images is a ‘respectful veneration’, not the adoration due to God alone”.

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