Thursday, April 10, 2008

Graven Images: Looks Can Be Deceiving!

There seems to be a lot of confusion about graven images and their place in Christian (specifically, but not limited to Catholic) worship. So here's an FAQ entitled, 'Everything You Wanted To Know About Graven Images, But Were Afraid To Ask'.

1. What is a graven image?

The broadest definition would be any image (person, idea, animal, fictitious character, etc.) that is made as a material representation. Examples would be santos, statues, or those little plastic dashboard St. Christophers. Even a painting can be considered a graven image of sorts.

2. I'm reading Exodus 20 and you Catholics are in trouble! 'Thou shalt not have strange gods before me. Thou shalt not make to thyself a graven thing, nor the likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or in the earth beneath, nor of those things that are in the waters under the earth. Thou shalt not adore them, nor serve them (Exodus 20:3-5).'

The first and the last sentence are the most telling ones. Strange gods are a no-no. Why? Because humans are prone to make an image of these strange gods. For what purpose? To adore them and serve them. So taken in context, Exodus 20 is warning us against exactly what happened in the Golden Calf episode. You recall, the Hebrews had a strange god before the one, true God because they believed Moses had ditched them. They then made an image of that god--'a molten calf'. But the fun didn't stop there. They then proclaimed the calf as their god, built altars for it, and sacrificed to it--they worshipped the graven image itself. Do Catholics do this with their statues and images? We'll see.

3. You're splitting hairs. Clearly within that directive from God, He said not to make ANY graven images. I agree that you shouldn't worship them, but you also shouldn't make them in the first place.

So we can then conclude, if you are right, one of two things. Either we are not supposed to make ANY graven images at all and God, being hypocritical, commanded us to make them anyway or we need more data to conclude anything about graven images.

4. What do you mean that God commanded us to make graven images anyway?

Just 5 chapters later, in Exodus 25, God is giving His people directions for building/assembling the Ark of The Covenant. In Verse 18, God directly tells them to make not one, but two graven images--two cherubim of gold. This would seem to directly contradict the 'likeness of anything that is in heaven' rule and makes God look inconsistent at best and deceptive at worst.

In Chapter 26, He does it again! More cherubim!

In Numbers 21, God expressly commands Moses to 'make a fiery serpent'. I'm no artisan, but I'm guessing that required some carving, firing, and engraving considering it was bronze. When the afflicted looked upon it, they were healed. God is actually USING a graven image as an instrument of his power after supposedly telling His people that those images are forbidden. In 2 Kings 18:4, King Hezekiah has it destroyed precisely because the Israelites began worhipping it as a god called Nehushtan.

In 1 Kings 6, Solomon is building the dwelling place of the Lord. He fashioned cherubim out of olivewood and placed them in the temple. The measurements of these angels are very specific. You'd think that graven images would be forbidden in God's house, yet there they were 10 cubits high with wings 5 cubits long in the temple and in the entrance.

In Chapter 7, Solomon is building his crib. In verse 25, he carved images of 12 oxen and in 36, he carved images of cherubim, lions, and palm trees.

1 Chronicles chronicles the plans for the Temple. The altar itself had a graven image of a chariot of the cherubim. Whose plan was this? Verse 19 says that it was 'the writing from the Hand of the Lord'.

Needless to say, graven images, when used with proper reverence and appreciation for God, are not only permitted, but even commanded by God.

5. Point taken. But nowhere do we see any image of GOD being made. Deuteronomy 4 says, '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 graven image for yourselves, in the form of any figure, the likeness of male or female, the likeness of any beast that is on the earth, the likeness of any winged bird that flies in the air, the likeness of anything that creeps on the ground, the likeness of any fish that is in the water under the earth."

Early on, Israel did not make images of God because he had not presented himself to them in any visual way. But later, He did reveal himself. In Daniel 7, He is portrayed as wearing bright white, having soft, white hair, sitting on a throne of fire.

God also revealed himself as a cloud, a dove (Holy Spirit), and tongues of fire. Wearing a 'Holy Spirit Pin' would indeed be a representation of God as he revealed himself, no?

But the most obvious image of God was in Jesus Christ. Paul calls Jesus the 'ikon' (image) of the invisible God. He is the tangible image of God, plain and simple. In the New Covenant, God revealed himself and, for that reason, we can make images and representations of him. Do we worship that little piece of porcelain that depicts Him? Of course not.

6. But what about statues of the saints? Those people are nothing more than created beings. Surely this is idolatry when you have one, let alone bow before, say, Mary.

One issue at a time! We're coming perilously close to making this a discussion about the intercession of saints. Remember, in the verses above, representations of cherubim are all over the holy places of the Hebrews. Angels, like human saints, are created beings--made by the Lord our God. They are holy messengers who serve God. So are saints. They exist to worship God. So do saints. They know God on a level often far above our own. So do saints. They are holy role models for us all. So are saints. See, we don't worship a clay statue of Mary any more than the Hebrews worshipped an olivewood statue of cherubim. We use them as visual reminders of the majesty of God--nothing more, nothing less. Before the time of Bibles or access to Bibles, visual portrayals of things like the Incarnation, the Wedding at Cana, the Baptism of Jesus, and the Crucifixion were common in order to tell a story and to remind believers of what they represented. No Christian would look at a catacomb drawing of Mary and worship that image, and neither do we. We use the visible to get in touch with the invisible, and that is all.

7. Has the Catholic Church ever spoke out against those who use these images inappropriately?

The Catechism of the Catholic Church says this about idolatry: "Idolatry is a perversion of man’s innate religious sense. An idolater is someone who ‘transfers his indestructible notion of God to anything other than God’" (CCC 2114).

The Council of Trent in 1566 says that: "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). is gravely sinful and forbidden.

But the Church has also said about images: "Christ our God assured his holy disciples saying, ‘I am with you every day until the consummation of this age.’ . . . To this gracious offer some people paid no attention; being hoodwinked by the treacherous foe they abandoned the true line of reasoning . . . and they failed to distinguish the holy from the profane, asserting that the icons of our Lord and of his saints were no different from the wooden images of satanic idols."

Put simply, know what you are attacking before you attack it. Images have always been part of our Judeo-Christian heritage. They are part of the 'fullness of Truth' given to us by God, not some ready-made idol in which we foresake the Creator for our own creation.


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