“flee from idolatry”+
Last year I spoke of the reasons why idolatry is spiritual death, why God so persistently warns against it and condemns it. But there are Christians who believe Catholics are idolators. Why? Because Catholics honour and pray to the capital “S” Saints, especially Mary, the Mother of our Lord, and because they also treat images of holy people and events as sacred.
Now, the question of images seems easily and peremptorily dealt with by the Bible to many. The Second of the Ten Commandments forbids the worship of images, and even appears to forbid making them. [Read from BCP.]
But the words “to thyself” and what follows show that it is the making of images as a means to make and possess a false god that is condemned. Therefore, holy images are not forbidden, as long as they are not worshipped as God. This is proven by the fact that the same Law of Moses commanded the creation of certain sacred images, for example, the Cherubim over the Ark of the Covenant (Exodus 25:18, 26:1, 39:24, Numbers 21:8).
More specifically, the old Law forbade the making of any image of God. And it gave the reason (Deuteronomy 4:15-16): “Therefore watch yourselves very carefully. Since you saw no form on the day that the LORD spoke to you at Horeb out of the midst of the fire, beware lest you act corruptly by making a carved image for yourselves, in the form of any figure … male or female”. And the Bible contains repeated reference to the fact that no man has seen God (e.g., Exodus 33:20, John 1:18), for God is spirit (John 4:24), not flesh, much less inanimate matter, whether like stone or star.
So, how can we make images of our Lord, Jesus Christ, whose divinity is taught by the same Bible? Take the verse I just quoted and try to force it into the context of the New Covenant, and the answer is clear. “You saw no form on the day that the Lord spoke to you at the Sermon on the Mount, or from the midst of glory on the Mount of Transfiguration”? No, that is false. Indeed, to say it would be to deny that Jesus truly came in the flesh, that he took upon himself true humanity, the very error condemned by St John in his Epistles. So, while God's nature is invisible, he has revealed himself in the human nature he assumed. In Galatians 3:1 St Paul says Jesus was “portrayed” as crucified before their “eyes”. While this is probably by Paul's intention a metaphorical reference to preaching and the effect it had in their minds/imagination, the language used is deliberately pictorial and suggests that such imagery is essentially evangelical. In other words, the Gospel is inextricably tied up with the vision of the Crucifix, whether merely mental or physical as well. Under the New Covenant, God has given us the Word-made-flesh (cp. John 1:14), the Word made image-able. So, while we must never worship any image of Christ or Cross, we need not fear portraying God's humanity.
Nor need we fear reverential treatment of these and other sacred images, out of loving respect for those portrayed. The Seventh Ecumenical Council of the ancient Church decreed that the same honour could be paid to these as to copies of the Gospels, for example. Does any Christian believe in worshipping the Bible? Hardly. Does any Christian not feel it right to treat the Scriptures with reverence? Were not the Tabernacle, Temple and Ark of the Covenant, with their imagery, treated with reverence (e.g., 2 Samuel 6:9)? Thus, we worship God alone, but treat with reverence sacred images and objects. The distinction between these levels of honour is found in the Bible too, where God and holy people are both offered veneration, proskunesis in the Greek, but God alone can be worshipped with latreia (e.g., 1 Chronicles 29:20 LXX, Matthew 4:10).
And so we honour the Saints, especially the Blessed Virgin Mary. Allow me to recount part of my personal journey. When I discovered Catholicism through Eastern Orthodoxy at University, a better understanding and appreciation of the significance of the Mother of God was how “the penny dropped”. A paper by a theologian named Vladimir Lossky opened my eyes to the Scriptural riches concerning Mary. Things I had never seen or noticed before became clear, and I saw that this was because I was receiving the benefit of Holy Tradition, the consensual wisdom and insight of the Church through the ages, guided by God, as promised by our Lord. What did I find, as I looked further? That though the Biblical references to our Lady were few in number, they were laden with extraordinary depth of meaning. I found, in particular, that
The earliest Biblical prophecy about the Messiah also refers to his Mother and associates the two of them in their enmity with the Devil (Genesis 3:15).
Mary is actually named “full of grace” or “highly graced” by the Angel in Luke 1:28.
Mary's “be it unto me according to thy word” and faith (as specifically commended by St Elizabeth) is in perfect opposition to Eve's disobedience and unbelief (Luke 1: 38, 45).
Jesus, in his humanity, and Mary are again associated, as similarly “blessed”, by St Elizabeth in Luke 1:42
While Jesus “corrects” a woman who cries out how blessed is the womb that bore him by saying “rather blessed are they that hear the word of God and keep it” in Luke 11:28, we have already been told by then in that Gospel that this is exactly what his Mother does (Luke 2: 19, 51). Thus what seems a diminishing of our Lady, to a superficial reading, actually reveals her true greatness.
Mary is seen as an effective intercessor in John 2, and her last words recorded in Scripture are “Do whatever he [Jesus] tells you.”
Mary becomes the Mother of the Beloved Disciple, who represents all of us, at the foot of the Cross, by Jesus decree. (John 19:26-27)
St Luke's account from the Annunciation to the Visitation, that is, from the Angel's announcement of her motherhood to her visit to her cousin, contains a number of striking parallels with the OT accounts of the Ark of the Covenant. And then we are told at the end of Revelation 11 that the Ark of the Covenant is seen in Heaven, just before ...
The last Scriptural reference to the Blessed Virgin in the Bible has her crowned in Heaven at the beginning of Revelation 12.
And there is more besides, which I cannot go into now. No wonder the Church venerates her as the highest of creatures, and seeks her prayers and to imitate her virtues.
So, whatever the area of theology, it is wise not to trust one's personal interpretation of Scripture, no matter how “obvious” it seems, until one has listened attentively and submissively to the voice of the Church. +