January 21, 2021

A Window upon Heaven

I have been asked what is the difference between the veneration of images and idol worship, and I am going to try and give some kind of explanation. First, though, I am going to yield the field on this: often, there is no practical difference.

Yes, I admit: some (okay, let’s make that “a lot”) of ordinary Catholics do treat religious images with more than veneration, they treat them as almost having magical powers (or indeed, sometimes there’s no “almost” about it).  Processions on feast days, in times of danger or natural disaster, important days like Holy Week in Seville or pilgrimage to the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe or the torchlight processions in Lourdes – aren’t these excessive, at best, and superstitious at worst?  Half-digested paganism lingering on in what is supposed to be a Christian tradition, but really encouraging the worst of folk religion under the guise of piety?  Lack of understanding, so that people treat these as idols in the most literal sense, pinning money on to statues so that we can see the basic motives at work – religion as commercial transaction, where in the spirit of peasant pragmatism favours are bought and sold – what has this to do with the Gospel?  Wouldn’t it be better, safer and more conducive to establishing a genuine relationship with God to do away with all these kinds of things and concentrate on the word as revealed in the Bible, and the Word as revealed in the Son?  To turn the eyes of the people from images and pictures and statues and things made by human hands out of the human imagination to the eternal Reality which surpasses any invention of mortals?  After all, this kind of populist mania about weeping and bleeding images is every bit as scandalous and unedifying as the reports from 2005 of Hindu idols in North Indian temples drinking milk offerings, and can be put down to hysteria, hoax and fraud the same way that rationalists and skeptics debunked those “miracles”.  If you wouldn’t convert to Hinduism on account of that kind of event, why on earth would a Christian version be any more convincing?

All those things and worse being admitted, let us consider the case for the defence.  Firstly a lot of these accretions are cultural and are indulged in not from any kind of great religious fervour but more from a mix of national and patriotic pride and following on the customs and traditions of your native place.  For example the serenade to the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe is just as much a secular showbiz performance as it is a religious event, and I imagine many Mexican pop singers and entertainers take the gig for the same reasons that American pop singers and entertainers take the gig to sing the National Anthem at the Superbowl; who is going to turn down exposure like that, particularly if a refusal can be seen as offensive to public sentiment or declining an honour?  Many of the immigrant festivals in North America have morphed from celebrating a saint’s day to becoming a celebration of native culture, customs and traditions from the ‘old home’ and a great excuse to have an outdoor party of food, music and company, with a procession or church service tacked on.  And not just in America: the “patterns” (or saint’s day devotions) in Ireland have become more about local history and less about a mainly religious event; they’ve become more like fairs or festivals, the best example of such being St. Patrick’s Day which has been turned into the “St. Patrick’s Week Festival” in Dublin, advertised as “a distinct celebration of Irish culture” and you would look long and hard, with no success in the end, to find any notices about Mass or prayer as one of the constituent events of the calendar.

Secondly, it’s not so easy to unravel “pure” or “correct” use from possible abuse. We humans have the capacity to abuse or misunderstand or misuse anything and everything. Our forebears in faith were outstanding (or disgraceful, take your pick) examples of this, the most notorious example being when Moses returned with the Law only to discover his countrymen adoring the image of the Apis bull which they had created while waiting for him. By any measure, that’s a very short time to go astray in your understanding of correct religious procedure.

The people of Israel were always falling away into such habits, but God did not reward this behaviour as it deserved by abandoning them and choosing another people; He constantly corrected them and led them back on the right path. As humans, we need tangible reminders of things. We live in bodies which are physical, material vessels and we comprehend things not through pure intellectual apprehension but mediated through our senses. This also means that we have a whole tangle of emotional and value associations entwined with symbols and tokens and ideas that are meaningful to, and esteemed by, us. Religious connotations are not going to be any different or any more separate from other elements in our lives.

We can make idols of anything. We have idols in everyday life that we don’t even recognise as such. Have you been told all your life to study hard and get good grades in school, work hard and do your best at your job, and mark significance by means of proofs such as promotions, job titles, awards, publicity, celebrity, living in a desirable location, having the dream house and dream spouse and family? Did anyone ever talk about the idol of Success? What place do the failures and the broken and those on the bottom rungs of the ladder have in that scheme?

Think about the rows and court cases about displays of the Ten Commandments or anything associated with religion in schools, public buildings or on public lands. Think about the real hurt and anger felt by both sides when things like memorials commemorating the dead are challenged by atheist groups as promoting Christianity above other religions or establishing a state religion. To the majority of us, civic memorials or war memorials are not primarily or solely religious and we are so accustomed to them that we are functionally blind to any trappings of religious imagery that are included. Ironically, the atheist objectors may be clearer in what they see as standing out (even if it is offensive to them) than the rest of us, who lump everything in together in a kind of bland civic religion that is so watered-down, it has no more unadulterated meaning and so we are shocked more by the offense to our sense of civic pride and patriotic duty engendered by the objection than by the realisation that hey, yeah, putting these symbols on means that this philosophy or belief represented by them has – or should have – primacy over the rest of the attributes of state and cardinal virtues.

Don’t think your denomination suffers from idolatry?  Ever experienced a row over which Bible translation is the only one to use – King James Only or one with inclusive language?  The Catholic version of this is the Spirit of Vatican II versus the Society of St. Pius X (or, for the even purer, more hardcore, the Society of St. Pius V – these are the ones who think the Pius X crowd are too wishy-washy, to which the only reasonable response is the formation of the Society of St Pius I).  Ever heard of someone who kicked up a row about the flag being/not being on display in the sanctuary?  Does your church have a national flag in its sanctuary or otherwise prominently displayed, and it’s not a state church?  Would there be more fuss about removing the flag or removing the cross?  Is there even a cross there to be removed?

Okay, now that I’ve hammered the point about the abuses into the ground, I should speak about the legitimate use of images. There is a legitimate use, and it hinges on the very propensity for abuse that is all too real a risk.

Let’s go back to the title of this post: a window upon heaven.  More accurately, “a window into Heaven” is how the icons of the Orthodox tradition are described, and that is their function – to represent the eternal things, to lift up the heart and mind to the reality represented there, to be not mirrors reflecting back our own thoughts and imaginings but windows through which we look upon truth.  Icons are deliberately stylised and confined to set rules of composition, with a very limited permissible palette of symbols, in order to avoid the developments in Western art which were heavily criticised by the East; the more realistic styles which arose out of better and novel techniques and investigation of scientific disciplines, not to mention the interest in recovering the skills and realism of the Classical world, were used to portray both secular and religious subjects.  This meant that in the West, there was an increasing emphasis on the human nature of the Holy Family and of the saints and in general, the more life-like, the better as far as aesthetic and artistic values were concerned.  This led to religious pictures being treated as excuses for artists to show off their technical virtuosity (and so appeal to patrons) rather than as devotional objects.  This attitude led to conflicts such as that in 1573 when Veronese was called before the Venetian Inquisition to answer charges of possible heresy on account of his painting, which was originally titled “The Last Supper” but after this, changed to “Christ in the House of Levi”.  Veronese preferred to change the title to another plausible occasion in the Gospels rather than make the alterations required by the Inquisition.  In art histories, this episode is regarded with a mixture of amusement, bemusement and mild outrage about interference with the free expression of art, but if you take the request to be to produce a devotional image and not a work of secular art, then Veronese failed in one and succeeded in the other – though he may not (and probably wasn’t even trying to) have been that serious about producing a religious icon in the first place.

For a more edifying example, take El Greco, who as a young artist from Crete worked in the style of icon painting native to that island, a blend of Italian and Byzantine techniques.  You can see recognisably Greek imagery in this early work.  Contrast that with how his style developed after studying in Italy and moving to Spain, in this painting of the Trinity.  It is genuinely devout and unmistakeably intended for prayerful contemplation, but it is not an icon by the stern and unbending definitions of Orthodox icon-writing.

Besides the divergent attitudes to painting between the Eastern and Western churches, the Orthodox had and have a much more confrontational attitude to statues, which are not considered either suitable or permissible. There are many reasons behind this, but one probably is based on historical grounds in that the memory of actual idols was alive in the early Church and, while the Western half of the Empire fell into decay, the Byzantine Empire maintained a continuity of cultural memory (including that of the Classical heritage) and practice that militated against adopting statues for use in worship. However, while the disapproval towards sculptural representations may have seemed like common ground to the Protestant Reformers, the judgement on veneration of images and the cultus of the saints remained the same. There were iconoclastic movements within Orthodoxy during the 8th and 9th centuries which received the approval and support of the Emperors, but the licitness of images and their veneration was upheld and restored.

And let’s go all the way back to the earliest use of painted imagery – the catacombs. Used for burials between the 2nd and 6th centuries, important for the history of early Christian art as they contain the majority of the frescoes and sculptures, and fascinating whether you want to believe that Pure Bible Christianity went off the rails anytime from the 2nd-3rd centuries and was overwhelmed by pagan corruption or you want to see how those living in a majority pagan society coped, and then how it made the transition into a majority Christian society and how they coped with that. One of the interesting things is where you can see the influences of the surrounding society and the very real dangers the early Christians faced, and a demonstration of that is the Good Shepherd imagery. Now, we’re all soaked in Christian/post-Christian culture where we know the imagery, know the verses, know the references. So to us, a painting of a man with a sheep on his shoulders and more sheep at his feet is unambiguously Christ the Good Shepherd. Not so for 2nd century Romans; it’s more of a cross between a coded image and recycling earlier themes. A coded image, because pagans and Christians were buried in the early catacombs, and maybe you didn’t want to be identified as one of those weird atheist cultists who wanted to destroy society. So the imagery of the Good Shepherd could be read as Christian, by Christians – or it could be read as Hermes Kriophoros (Hermes carrying a ram) by the pagan Romans and any stray Greeks.

Also, there probably was a lot of overlap between the artisans who worked as tomb painters and the likes; they could adapt pagan imagery for Christians and maybe even after conversion, they re-worked their old repertoire. Instead of a goddess or nymphs, they painted the same figures as saints or pious women. Now, you can look at this as wicked pagan corruption diluting true teaching and infecting the church with the result that notional converts continued to be half-pagan in public and fully pagan in private, or you could see it as the Church taking what is good or useful from the pagan world and consecrating it to the use of God, in the same way that the Pantheon (temple of all the gods) was made into a church in the 7th century and other sites of ruined temples were turned into Christian sites for various purposes. The fact remains that, even from the time of the persecutions and the martyrs, religious imagery was used to represent both symbolic references (such as fish and bread for the Eucharist) and real persons, and the faithful did not think it incongruous with or prohibited by their faith to use paintings in the tombs of the martyrs where services and prayers would be said before those tombs and in the presence of those images.

So what purpose do these images serve? It’s one that can easily be perverted to abuse, but it’s the risk we as humans with our fallen nature run in everything we do; it’s the same danger that Peter ran into when he went from “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven” to “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man” in the space of about ten minutes. I’m about to be mean to my co-religionists who are converts and/or apologists once again, because often (in the spirit of making a helpful and easily understandable analogy), they use something along the lines of “Paintings and statues of Christ and Mary and the saints are used by Catholics the same way you use pictures of your friends and family. You might carry around a picture of your spouse in your wallet or purse, and it means a lot to you, but you don’t worship it, do you? Neither do we! It’s a reminder of those who mean a lot to us!”

Well, yes and no. Yes, these images are reminders, but they are not merely that, and they contain a lot more might and intensity than family portraits, no matter how cherished. Why do we burn candles before them, after all? Why do we kneel in prayer before them? The first and simplest function is as the analogy to photographs of loved ones suggests: to act as memorials and representations. As I have said earlier, we are physical beings who experience reality through our senses. We find it easier to think of things or people or ideas or memories if we can make some kind of representation of them. Even if we only read an account in a book, we have a mental construction of how we think the character looks. How many of you have made a picture of what you think someone on the radio looks like, based on his or her voice, and been surprised when you see his or her real appearance? It’s easier to think of St. Tabitha or Venerable Gregory when you have a picture of him or her, even if it’s not an exact likeness or even a particularly realistic one.

That leads on to the second and related function: to express religious ideas and sentiments, to catch and hold and fix our attention. Buddhism has the concept of the “monkey mind” which skips restlessly from topic to topic, endlessly active, endlessly distracted. Any tradition which engages in contemplation or prayer will recognise the problem. Any one of us who has tried to pray will know it straight off: the moment you find a quiet time and a quiet space, the clamour of your internal voice chattering away overwhelms you. One of the functions of images is to give you something to fix upon so that you can concentrate on a definite thing, and so at least put a leash on the monkey, if not quieten it entirely. Pope St. Gregory the Great wrote, during the 6th century, to the Bishop of Marseilles who had destroyed the images in his diocese: “Not without reason has antiquity allowed the stories of saints to be painted in holy places. And we indeed entirely praise thee for not allowing them to be adored, but we blame thee for breaking them. For it is one thing to adore an image, it is quite another thing to learn from the appearance of a picture what we must adore. What books are to those who can read, that is a picture to the ignorant who look at it; in a picture even the unlearned may see what example they should follow; in a picture they who know no letters may yet read. Hence, for barbarians especially a picture takes the place of a book.”

C.S. Lewis, in “The Screwtape Letters”, describes the problem of attempting to pray and the danger attached to the use of images excellently:

“The humans do not start from that direct perception of Him which we, unhappily, cannot avoid. They have never known that ghastly luminosity, that stabbing and searing glare which makes the background of permanent pain to our lives. If you look into your patient’s mind when he is praying, you will not find that. If you examine the object to which he is attending, you will find that it is a composite object containing many quite ridiculous ingredients. There will be images derived from pictures of the Enemy as He appeared during the discreditable episode known as the Incarnation: there will be vaguer – perhaps quite savage and puerile – images associated with the other two Persons. There will even be some of his own reverence (and of bodily sensations accompanying it) objectified and attributed to the object revered. I have known cases where what the patient called his ‘God’ was actually located – up and to the left at the corner of the bedroom ceiling, or inside his own head, or in a crucifix on the wall. But whatever the nature of the composite object, you must keep him praying to it – to the thing that he has made, not to the Person who has made him.”

That is exactly and precisely the danger. It does you no good to kneel before a crucifix if you are praying to it, not through it. It does you no good to congratulate yourself on not being like that crucifix-worshipper if you are praying to an area located three inches to the front of your nose while in your “prayer closet”. Modern vampire movies and books have gone a little overboard on the notion that religious symbols (especially crosses) don’t work ‘of their own accord’ against vampires, but depend on the faith of the wielder for their effect (so a non-Christian could use something personally meaningful to them), but they are making a somewhat correct point. You can see this in the original “Fright Night” where Peter Vincent, host of a television horror-movie show and who formerly played the role of a vampire hunter in a series of Hammer Horror-type films tries (and fails) to use a crucifix to repel a real vampire, due to lack of faith in the spiritual reality it represents (and the lack of faith in the reality of supernatural entities such as vampires) but then later triumphantly drives off the main villain because now he does truly believe.

The third and most important, and most easily confused and abused, function of images is to act as representations of real persons in order to help us direct our adoration and worship to its proper end. Here we get technical, because while it is permissible to venerate an image, it is not permissible to worship it. We venerate the statue of Christ in the imagery of the Sacred Heart, we worship Christ whose heart was pierced by the lance while His dead body hung upon the cross, that pierced heart the source of the infinite mercy and charity which saved us from our just condemnation. As the icons of the East are intended to be, the images of the West should act as windows into Heaven. We look upon them first to fix our minds, then we look through them to lift up our hearts and wills. This is why we light candles before them; not as signifying worship of an image, but as representing the prayer we made and the intention we had in our mind. The candle stands before the image to say “This is me, this is my need. O merciful Christ, hear and grant my prayer. O compassionate Mother, O you my brother or sister, the saint I ask to intervene for me, join my prayer to yours and ask it of the Lord we all serve. I cannot remain here in prayer as I would wish, and my mind is distracted by the cares and necessities of the world, so let this light stand in my place and represent me to you, as this image represents you to me.”

To give an example, my mother was deathly afraid of thunderstorms and lightning, so whenever there was one in the vicinity, she would take us kids and retire to bed with us and the statue of the Sacred Heart until it was over. Did she think that there was some magic power in the statue that would protect her and us? No, of course not, but it helped her to fix her mind not on the scary storm but on the Lord who calmed the tempest.

In a way, I think that the use of statues in Western religious art has played a role more akin to those of icons. I’ve mentioned how painting developed along lines of “art for art’s sake”, but statues (although sculpture also was caught up in the Renaissance re-discovery of Classical precedents) tended to be more static and fossilised in its imagery, whatever about technique. Whatever about great artists like Michaelangelo, most Catholics’ experience of religious images are the ones in their local churches, which in the main (if they haven’t been consigned to the basement in the 70s renovations) are 19th century mass-produced Italian (or Italian-style) plaster ones, of set iconography and generally pastel colouring. Artistic merit is not of a very high grade, but once you’ve seen one Sacred Heart or Virgin of Lourdes, you will recognise it no matter where in the world you may encounter another one (and you’ll be able to tell the difference between Mother of Good Counsel, Immaculate Conception, Our Lady of Lourdes and Our Lady of Fatima, to boot).

Because they are of mediocre artistic merit, you will definitely not be distracted by the beauty or interest of a great work of art, and so in a way it is easier to “look through” them. It’s hard to put all this into words when you’ve grown up with it as a natural part of your devotions, and I’m sure many plain people have the same difficulty. Don’t assume that just because I used the example of Mexican peasants and urban poor going on pilgrimages paying extravagant reverence to the tilmàtli bearing the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe that I intend to say they all have a superstitious understanding of the veneration of images; they are just as likely to know in practice the correct theology but not be able to articulate it. I would also like to use atheists once again (if they will forgive me) to make a point; just as it is easy for those outside the traditions that venerate images to see this as pagan, mistaken and confused literalism, so certain rationalists and freethinkers are convinced that Christian believers of all stripes think Hell is located in the centre of the Earth and that Heaven is up in the clouds, where God sits on a throne floating in mid-air, and all that is needed to debunk Christianity is to say that when the cosmonauts and astronauts went into space, they didn’t see any sign of angels or pearly gates. I think most of you would object to such a simplification and misunderstanding of what you believe, and how metaphorical language is being subjected to an unwarranted emphasis. When you salute the flag, are you worshipping the flag, or are you honouring the country of which it is a symbol?

So, am I saying that images are necessary? No, you can strip away practically everything from candles to the tabernacle (and believe me, somebody out there has already done that) but as long as you have the Gospel (and good liturgy), you are fine. Am I saying you should incorporate images into your private or corporate prayer and worship? No, but if you want to try, go ahead. Am I trying to turn you all into idol-worshippers? Most definitely not. Am I saying that images should never be used because of the potential for falling into error? No. The moral of the story is not no images because they can be abused, it is that we can make idols out of anything, even good things. If images are a scandal to you, then keep far from them. If you venerate images and your weaker brother finds them to be a stumbling-block, then be tender to his conscience.

But don’t let a permissible, optional extra turn you into the kind of zealot who cuts off his own nose to spoil his face; the next time you hear about the War on Christmas or someone from a Protestant denomination gets highly exercised over Nativity scenes/crèches/cribs (these aren’t Catholic-inspired images which are the same thing as idols, then?) being banned from public spaces, remember the Wars on Christmas of former years carried out with the best intentions of pruning wrong thinking and wrong practice.

When it comes to ordering soldiers to patrol the streets of 17th century London on Christmas Day so that they can seize illegal Christmas puddings, or the Scots Presbyterians being so determined to stamp out Popish Chrismastide that they encouraged the celebration of Hogmanay (the New Year’s Eve festival with pagan Norse roots) in its stead, it’s time to reconsider the situation. To finish up, I will leave you with a quote from the “Catechism of the Catholic Church”:

Holy images

1159 The sacred image, the liturgical icon, principally represents Christ. It cannot represent the invisible and incomprehensible God, but the incarnation of the Son of God has ushered in a new “economy” of images.

1160 Christian iconography expresses in images the same Gospel message that Scripture communicates by words. Image and word illuminate each other.

1161 All the signs in the liturgical celebrations are related to Christ: as are sacred images of the holy Mother of God and of the saints as well. They truly signify Christ, who is glorified in them. They make manifest the “cloud of witnesses” who continue to participate in the salvation of the world and to whom we are united, above all in sacramental celebrations. Through their icons, it is man “in the image of God”, finally transfigured “into his likeness”, who is revealed to our faith. So too are the angels, who also are recapitulated in Christ.

1162 “The beauty of the images moves me to contemplation, as a meadow delights the eyes and subtly infuses the soul with the glory of God.” (St John Damascene). Similarly, the contemplation of sacred icons, united with meditation on the Word of God and the singing of liturgical hymns, enters into the harmony of the signs of celebration so that the mystery celebrated is imprinted in the heart’s memory and is then expressed in the new life of the faithful.


  1. In “Dracula 2000” (which explains that he was Judas, condemned to wander the earth–hence his antipathy towards crosses and silver) it is the faith of the vampire which matters!

    • Gerald, James 2:19 “Thou believest that there is one God; thou doest well: the devils also believe, and tremble.”


  2. Martha, thank you for explaining what THIS Catholic could never have put so concisely and beautifully!

    I know that icon of the Saints are particularly upsetting to some of our brothers and sisters, but most don’t understand the idea of praying WITH, not praying “TO”

    • Thank Chaplain Mike, for asking me to write on this, for choosing the accompanying pictures so appropriately, and for putting up this stream-of-consciousness ramble.

      He gets any credit, I get any blame.


      • After a discussion in one of my recent classes on Luther I realized that this is one of the reasons I came to be in the Lutheran tradition rather than another Reformed stream. Luther continued to allow images, Calvinists and Radical Reformers were (and continue to be) iconoclasts.

        We talked about this here on IM recently in terms of the two different ways these groups have of counting the Ten Commandments. For Catholics and Lutherans, the word forbidding “graven images” is tied to having no other gods; it does not stand alone. Images are forbidden when they represent idolatry. Veneration is acceptable.

        Having had that conversation, I thought, “Who better than Martha to fill in the details and help us think about it together?” Thanks, Martha. Great job.

    • Beautifully, yes. Concisely, not so much. Interesting stuff, but whew!

  3. “Did anyone ever talk about the idol of Success?”

    Nah. I know people, especially Protestants, talk about idolization in every context. But I find it thin; there are better terms. It is not the idol-of-success, it is vanity and/or greed and/or avarice, and potentially lust. An idol is a thing, the deliberate deification of a thing. Making “idol” a metaphor isn’t helpful, and it results in some very dreary sermons whose main thrust is not to name something culturally untouchable [greed, vanity] as a full-fledged sin. But the preach can sneakily say it might be idolatry; idolatry being something almost no one in an american congregation has any real connection to.

    • That’s what struck me, Adam, when I was reading about “academic cheating scandals” in colleges. Of course these are wrong, but we teach our children from the time they’re old enough to go to kindergarten that what matters is doing well. You have to do well in tests- not because you need to know this topic, not because it is well to learn habits of self-discipline, hard work and putting forth directed effort, but because you need to get good grades to get into good colleges to get good degrees to get a good job to get on in the world.

      Politicians see votes in promising to tackle education and do away with failing schools; parents (in London particularly) engage in all kinds of shenanigans to get their child into what is seen as a good school (often these are church schools run by the Church of England, and the parents will lie about church attendance and belief just to get the kid in), including providing false addresses to ‘prove’ they are living in the school catchment area. What counts as a ‘good school’ is one with good exam results and the highest percentage of students going on to university, so schools are judged on ‘league tables’ – and this in turn affects the level of funding they can draw down from the government.

      The result? Everything is centred around “passing the exam” and hitting the targets set by the curriculum authority, so teaching is ‘teach to the exam’ and not about a rounded education. After fifteen or so years of this, are we really surprised nineteen year olds will think that buying answers to the exam or using other methods of cheating is acceptable? Having had it hammered into their head all their schooling that what counts is getting that A (or A+, A*, or other bauble), but nothing about the means by which you get it, why wouldn’t they be pragmatic that studying may get you the result but buying the answers guarantees it?

      I’ve never heard anyone addressing these kinds of idolatries – as you say, it’s put in a way that most of us think “Well, I don’t do that” but we never think about patriotism as an idol, worldly success an an idol, the approbation of others as an idol; we think “I want to provide for my family, what’s wrong with that?” or “I love my country” or “I like being friendly”, not “I would work extra hours on Sunday if my boss asked, because I am more concerned with my career than serving God”.

      • In Creed or Chaos, Dorothy Sayers spoke on secular vocation, arguing that what is important is the quality of our work, not taking pride merely in being employed. For various reasons, we have come to the point where the ends of our work have been confused with the way in which it is done. “The greatest insult which a commercial age has offered to the worker has been to rob him of all interest in the end product of the work and to force him to dedicate his life to making badly things which were not worth making.” Sayers points to the worth of work itself. This joy of work has been kidnapped from us by modern American society. And I see the church as having been an unwitting accomplice, as Sayers points out, “by acquiescing in a social system based upon Envy and Avarice”.

  4. The issue of “graven images” has always troubled me. In the fervor [or was it “fever”] of my youth I would have wanted a church that looked like an industrial complex, spartan as an abandoned warehouse. No distractions from the message. But the Isrealites had all kinds of images, and God never said boo about them. They had the Ark Of The Covenant, not to mention odder things like the Breastplate Of Judgement.

    > We live in bodies which are physical, material vessels and we comprehend things not through
    > pure intellectual apprehension but mediated through our senses. This also means that we have
    > a whole tangle of emotional and value associations entwined with symbols and tokens and ideas
    > that are meaningful to

    +1, On-The-Money

    In my dodderin’ old age [I’m almost 40!] I’m now of almost a complete 180 degrees from my youth. We are grungy squishy flesh-and-bone things, we need grungy squishy paint-and-stone religion. That’s what we are. Idolatry is bad, but trying to run away from what we are and to be pure-mind or pure-spirit is depressingly pointless and exhausting. I’ll take the symbolism of walking into a building that looks nothing like the surrounding buildings and closing the big heavy doors against the world and then turning my senses toward things that speak of another way and another truth. Objects that say “you are not hear to worry about your 401k, the attempt by some companies to proprietize the Internet, how to deal with elderly parents, or your recent blood tests – at least for now, come into that which is greater and know mercy.”

    • Yes, you can strip down to the bare bones (and after the Second Vatican Council, Catholic reformers went enthusiastically overboard in clearing out old churches of everything that was redolent of the past) and mean it with the best of intentions because you genuinely want to clear away accretions and focus the attention of people on what is the real importance: to know, love and serve God.

      But, fallen human nature being what it is, something will creep back in. For this post, I was noodling about on the Internet looking for various quotes, and regarding the issue of flags in church, I saw one message board where people were defending the practice. What hit me was the guy who, in all seriousness, told how that is what he looks for when he is attending various churches – he looks out to see if they have a flag in the sanctuary, and not only that, but do they have it on the correct side (right of the preacher/speaker, left of the audience/congregation). He also recounted how he corrects the minister afterwards if they got it wrong, and gave an example of speaking to one such pastor who was flabbergasted – are you sure it’s wrong, it’s been that way for years – and so forth.

      And all I could think was “This is an idol! If what you are looking for in a church is do they or don’t they display the flag, and if what occupies your mind is not the preaching or the Scriptural basis for worship or the devotion but if they did or didn’t display it correctly, then you have made your religion not Christianity but patriotism.” I’m sure the man sincerely believed he worshipped God first, and would have been insulted and offended if you said he made too much of the flag, but how else could you classify what he evidently thought was of the first importance?

  5. Well said!

  6. Really, if you want to accuse Catholics of idolatry, why bother arguing about icons and statues, with Catholics saying “No we’re not worshipping it” and Protestants responding “Looks like it to me”? Just go straight to Eucharistic Adoration–there’s genuine worship going on there. If we’re wrong about transubstantiation, then we’re guilty of idolatry, pure and simple.

    • Yes, and that’s a point some of the Reformers made very clearly, talking about the “bread-god” of the Catholics and how this was not the true understanding of the Eucharist.

  7. I heard a nun tell someone (on t.v.) that if she spoke to Jesus (in church) in front of the tabernacle, that she should speak on the loud side because Jesus could not hear her clearly when the doors of the tabernacle were shut.

    We too, believe that He is actually present. We just don’t claim to know how. That is consubstantiation.

    • Eh. A lot of us have talked out loud before the tabernacle, so what’s new?

      Well, I have.

      Why are you all looking at me like that?


    • We believe that the Lord knows are thoughts before we think them. And gives us what we need, even without praying for it. But we pray.

      We don’t believe that any walls or a box can hinder our prayer from being heard.

  8. Personally, I’ve found the issue of iconography in churches is less of an issue now with many people than it used to be. There are still people I occasionally talk to who accuse Orthodox and Catholics of worshiping icons (my parents, for example!), but I think many younger people find the debate silly. And actually, I’ve been surprised to see icons showing up in some of the evangelical settings I’ve been in. We gone a couple times to church plant by a large PCUSA church in our area, and their logo is modeled after a classic icon of Christ. And for the backgrounds of their P&W, they use all sorts of Christian artwork, including icons.

    We go to a Greek Orthodox church semi-regularly, and one of the things I absolutely love about it is the abundance of beauty in the space. The iconostasis and the dome with the Pantokrator icon are just things I’ve grown to love. There’s no doubt when you enter that space about what you’re there for.

    • While you may be right about younger protestant Christians being less iconoclastic, their use of icons is far different from the EO or RCC usage. Protestants who have icons generally agree with the “family portrait” idea, but I highly doubt they “use” the icons or venerate them.

      • Richard Hershberger says

        Agreed. It is an esthetic choice. This isn’t a criticism by any means. It is a good esthetic choice. But it is a fondness of the artistic style, not a use of icons as icons.

        • Oddly enough this “use” of icons, as decorative or memorial, is something I’m comfortable with. In these settings I understand praying “through” something, much like going into the desert, forest, or mountains may aid prayer. I would feel comfortable worshiping in an EO church (even uplifted or encouraged) if icons were reserved for this purpose. But the EO and the RCC take it one step too far for me.

  9. David Cornwell says

    Martha you did it again; another piece I have to clip, save, and refer to another time. You know how to cut to the chase.

    • My blushes, David! 🙂

      At least that enables you, if accused of weirdness/heterodoxy/just plain wrong approach to matters of (fill in the blank), to produce evidence to clear yourself: “No, if you want to see weird, look at what this wan says!”

  10. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    Wouldn’t it be better, safer and more conducive to establishing a genuine relationship with God to do away with all these kinds of things and concentrate on the word as revealed in the Bible, and the Word as revealed in the Son? To turn the eyes of the people from images and pictures and statues and things made by human hands out of the human imagination to the eternal Reality which surpasses any invention of mortals?

    Which the Sola Scripturas(TM) recite all smug in-between casting proof texts from their Bible/grimoires of unrelated one-verse verbal-component spells.

  11. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    …fascinating whether you want to believe that Pure Bible Christianity went off the rails anytime from the 2nd-3rd centuries and was overwhelmed by pagan corruption…

    i.e. The exact same take on church history as the Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses. (And the exact same take on Islamic history by the Wahabi and Salafi.)

  12. Joseph (the original) says

    well, the topic of statues vs. icons an interesting one particularly in our culture.

    since i was raised in the RCC tradition surrounding by lifesize statuary, it still makes me scratch my head in puzzlement regarding its supposed spiritual benefit…

    i don’t know about any of you, but i have no statues of my dearly departed mother, father, aunts/uncles, etc. pictures, yes. some. but not any lifelike statues to represent their physical existence now that they are no longer here. it could be a cultural thing, but then my religious beliefs have no reason for such a fashioned representation. i do not find any comfort visiting graves either. simply not part of how i grieve or come to grips with departed loved ones.

    the argument for veneration, respect, remembrance, physical contact of relics or statuary or preserved corpses a curious way to emphasize a spiritual reality. in order to make the spiritual more real, the need for physical representation really necessary? not enough miraculous reality in the very physical existence we all inhabit here in this time & space? God has revealed Himself in the very world He fashioned Paul declares, but we still need to do our own fashioning of something to help us connect with Him???

    yet i do remember members of my extended family having a much more pious Catholic expression than i ever had. there were no statues in my house, but i do remember my grandmother having a small statue of the Lady of Fatima. no candles though. and my older aunts did light votive offfering candles in front of the 2 shrines in the old missionary church we attended.

    i think those that feel a need or make some type of connection with stauary, icons, relics, have a different way of living out & expressing their faith than many others do not. articles like this do help with understanding better those that have faith expressions unlike us. since we are a diverse body of believers the hope is grace to be extended to brethren we may not understand fully. just the previous article about creationism makes this point clear. differing viewpoints of God in the very creation we are part of a battle ground Jeff made clear God had no intention of ‘creating’…

    Lord, help us better appreciate those of the family of faith we do not fully understand…

  13. The evangelical seminary I went too had a couple of busts (head and shoulders) of significant denominational founders/leaders (A.B. Simpson and A.W. Tozer.) Students were known to to have fun with them by dressing them up with hats and scarves, or placing votive candles in front of them. Administration was not amused.

    • You humble me, Cherie. Thank you.

    • See,that’s what I was getting at, Michael. Even when we clear out all the icons and images and other clutter, we still continue on to put something up. Why would you have the busts of noted men of other days, who were important in the tradition? Why can’t we just remember them in their minds? Why put them in places of honour?

      I’m certainly not saying that the administration was worshipping statues, but the attitude of the students (although it was done in jest) did hit on a truth: we like making things. We like memorials. We like to keep and to find traces of real events and real people.

      To steal from a better writer and Catholic than myself, J.R.R. Tolkien in his 1939 essay “On Fairy-Stories” talks about and defends the human creative impulse towards making myths and legends and fairytales and fantasy:

      “As for its legitimacy I will say no more than to quote a brief passage from a letter I once wrote to a man who described myth and fairy-story as “lies”; though to do him justice he was kind enough and confused enough to call fairy-story-making “Breathing a lie through Silver.”

      “Dear Sir,” I said—Although now long estranged,
      Man is not wholly lost nor wholly changed.
      Dis-graced he may be, yet is not de-throned,
      and keeps the rags of lordship once he owned:
      Man, Sub-creator, the refracted Light
      through whom is splintered from a single White
      to many hues, and endlessly combined
      in living shapes that move from mind to mind.
      Though all the crannies of the world we filled
      with Elves and Goblins, though we dared to build
      Gods and their houses out of dark and light,
      and sowed the seed of dragons—’twas our right
      (used or misused). That right has not decayed:
      we make still by the law in which we’re made.”

      …Fantasy remains a human right: we make in our measure and in our derivative mode, because we are made: and not only made, but made in the image and likeness of a Maker.”

      I am stealing this to apply to the veneration of images; we make things, copies, representations, images because we are image-makers because we are made in “the image and likeness of God” and one rightful part of that inheritance is what Tolkien calls “sub-creation” or making secondary worlds, since we are the children of the Creator of the Universe.

      The abuse is not in the making, but in the substituting of what is made for the Maker. We can paint our churches and put up stained glass and wear vestments and paint pictures and sculpt statues as long as we remember the proper use of such things. If we go astray, then the Reformers and the Iconoclasts before them were right: smash and burn and pull down all such things. But we are equally at fault if we worship in a white-walled, bare church – and put anything (country, ‘Christian values’, success either spiritual or worldly, the Bible itself as an artefact and not the record of God’s dealings with His chosen people and His salvation of us all) above God as the right and only end of worship.

      • Brilliant, Martha — and Tolkien, of course!

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        See,that’s what I was getting at, Michael. Even when we clear out all the icons and images and other clutter, we still continue on to put something up.

        Like the Mars Hill franchises live-streaming in a giant image of Mark Driscoll on the huge back-projection screen at the back of their stage/pulpit?

        But we are equally at fault if we worship in a white-walled, bare church…

        Like the churches of Calvinist Geneva or a Wahabi Mosque. (They even had and have the same “decoration” on their plain whitewashed walls — written verses from the Bible or Koran.)

        • Right. This is not to say evangelicals do not venerate their own saints. Lifeway-oriented people typically will quote their favorite millionaire author’s biblical views as ex cathedra. Or like the eternal flame for Jerry Falwell at Liberty U., and other memorials like the Billy Graham Center. Or, the various celebrity preachers who have launched legacy seminaries – setting up group-think factories to insure their influence will continue in perpetuity. And now, the entirely new level of tawdry self-promotion: franchise churches. Often instead of looking through them to Jesus, we stop there and look only to them.

  14. Well written, Martha. When I was a street kid, I lost everything a couple of times over, but the one thing I protected and hid away was the blue crystal rosary given to me at my First Holy Communion. I still have it. I never understood why-until now. You put into words exactly what I was feeling at the time, but unable to express. Ta.

  15. Whether or not you think they are a good idea as they are in themselves, idols are the cause of much less trouble than the effort to regulate them. Starting with Moses, who got so angry he smashed the original tablets in the handwriting of God … greater blasphemy than that I have trouble imagining … and 5,000 died. Let the wheat and the tares grow together, they will get sorted out in good time.

    #1159 strikes me odd: “The sacred image … cannot represent … God.” Very Roman Catholic, and what about the Sistine Chapel? More to the point, isn’t the space inside the church a representation of God? … so it seems to me.

    • “Isn’t the space inside the church a representation of God?” I think it may better be understood as depicting the immanence of God. In many liturgical traditions, the sanctuary is the interstitial space between Heaven and earth, and the liturgy is conducted in a deeper meaning of time than clock time. Looking at the ceiling of the average megachurch, you mostly see spotlights and speakers. The ceiling of our cathedral is azure blue with gold stars; as one looks up, it connotes the connectedness of cosmos and creation. In that respect, church architecture traditionally was in harmony with a theology of sacred space. Of course, the Reformation set the sacramental aspects of worship on end. And through deconstruction and reconstruction, the sanctuary as hierophany – the manifestation of the sacred – has become foreign to the evangelical mind. But I like a church setting that reminds me how physically close we are to God’s presence.

      • Joseph (the original) says

        re: the concept of God’s Presence…

        since exiting the hyper-charismatic/prophetic/apostolic camps, one can visit such church services today & find an amazing focus+energy+emphasis on creating/manifesting/calling out for ‘more’ of the presence of God in a new or expected or recognizable form/way…


        waving banners/flags. blowing the shofar. jumping up & down. fainting. laughing. quaking. running. other odd contortions, etal…

        i visited such a place recently by invitation of a friend. honestly, i had made my exit some 12-13 years ago & the same ‘stuff’ is being promoted/encouraged/used as spiritual litmus test, as if i had never left! the same stuff being promulgated. the same rhetoric being spewed. the same mindset still being peddled, packaged, presented…

        Lord, have mercy… 🙁

  16. Very nice. The only thing I saw missing was a discussion of the iconoclastic era and the dangers and implication of a theology of iconoclasm. In particular the opponents of iconoclasm argued that images were important because it was a testament to the incarnation.


  17. Martha,
    Thanks!!! I’ve been reading this blog for a while now, but this is the first time I’ve been inclined to participate in the dialogue.

    I was blessed to be in a high school seminary during Vatican II (Salesians) . The priests we had were good and holy men who implemented the changes in a way that reflected the true spirit of Vatican II. It was also made clear that we did not worship statues or icons. They were presented as tools to help us to worship. As with any tool, if it doesn’t work then don’t use it. It was also clear we don’t worship Mary, we venerate her. We said the rosary every day, but it was presented as a technique/support to meditation.

    As time passes I’ve become more convinced that Catholicism is misunderstood – particulary by Catholics. As you pointed out it’s very easy to make the tools the focal point rather than worship.

    McBrien’s “Catholicism” gives a very rational, balanced explanation that many non-Catholic CHristians might find surprising.

    Thanks again for an excellent post.


  18. I would suggest Henri Nouwens “Behold the Beauty of the Lord” for beginners who want to try praying with icons. Personally, I own two icons of Christ that I obtained in antique markets in Bulgaria. I love using them during personal devotion time.

    Great piece, Miss Martha!

    • The growing trend of Protestants using icons of Christ is one thing, but I wonder if you would feel comfortable with an icon of the Theotokos? Would you have reached out and purchased an icon of St. George or St. Michael Archangel for the purpose of prayer and devotion? Protestants are quite comfortable talking to Christ, but would you feel comfortable talking to his brother James?

      • You can get an icon of a guardian angel. I bet those would be popular among Protestants (not to mention New Agers).

      • We’re all a part of the communion of saints…both those who are living, and those who have fallen asleep. Can you give me a reason why I shouldn’t ask, say St. Christopher, to pray for my children, or for St. George to help slay dragons in my life? If we truly believe in eternal life in Christ, then we aren’t participating in some weird ancestor worship. Perhaps I should have added that I prayed before Bartholomew’s bones on a trip to Bulgaria once…

        And I wouldn’t have a problem with an icon of the Theotokos. Mary was indeed blessed among women…I don’t have any issue with her being venerated.

  19. Ummm…. I feel you do better at make a case against icons (particularly statues) than for them. The whole idea that they shouldn’t be “used” because of abuse has more legitimacy than you give credit to. The abuse isn’t just some little sin, it’s the number one sin listed in the Bible. It’s the heart of the 1st (and 2nd for us reformed types) commandment. What if the potential abuse of a promoted religious practice tempted us to kill, or commit adultery, perjury, steal, covet, or violate any of the 10 Commandments? I don’t think we should be so blase` about an official Church practice and teaching that leads to something that quite clearly angers God. And I don’t think it’s fair to write off idolatry caused by icon veneration simply because other people commit idolatry with money or country. Since when do 2 wrongs make a right?

    While I understand the heart of icon veneration (and the veneration of the Saints) in the RCC and EO traditions, I think the actual practice warrants censure.

    • “What if the potential abuse of a promoted religious practice tempted us to kill, or commit adultery, perjury, steal, covet, or violate any of the 10 Commandments?”

      Oh I don’t know, I’ve heard quite a few songs in church that made me want to strangle someone. 😛

      I don’t think the point of bringing up idolatry of money and country was to say “Ehh, who hasn’t been guilty of a little idolatry?” There can be abuses–even horrific abuses–and yet there is still a legitimate place for it. You wouldn’t stop giving money to churches to prevent greed–pastors gotta eat. Volunteering at churches can cause burnout among members and foster a legalistic attitude, which is surely in defiance of the heart of the Gospel–but the sanctuary’s carpet won’t vacuum itself. Basically, don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.

      But I know from your previous comments that you’re a Lutheran pastor, so we’ll probably end up having to disagree on this one.

    • What if the potential abuse of a promoted religious practice tempted us to kill, or commit adultery, perjury, steal, covet, or violate any of the 10 Commandments?

      Well, I can think of a few examples…

      The treasurer at the church I grew up in stole quite a bit of money from the church, and it was during his counting of the offering. Collecting offerings is certainly a “promoted religious practice”.

      I also know of many adulterous relationships that started off rather innocently because of church activities. Don’t get me started on lying.

      I just think that humans can be tempted to sin in any situation they’re in. Certainly if someone can’t help but worship an icon, they best not use them. I’m not convinced that those who do use are at any more danger of idolatry than those that don’t.

      • The whole “well people and pastors steal money so should we not give to the church?” argument is a really weak point. If your pastor stole from your church you would (or at least should) FIRE him, and possibly have him arrested for theft, fraud, or embezzlement. There would be consequences to the abuse of that particular religious practice. If people use church functions for an excuse or occasion of sexual promiscuity, someone should at least denounce the sin and abuse. Where are the consequences to apparent Roman Catholic idolatry? If Catholics are willing to admit that some people blur the line between veneration and worship, where is the correction, discipline, or reproof? Where is the serious attempt to correct a very serious violation of the 1st Commandment (or 2nd for us reformation types)?!

        I have seen the Catholic Church trying to crack down on those venerating San Muerte (St. Death) in Mexico. But I think it’s because San Muerte is not an official Catholic Saint. If the people of Mexico were doing the exact same practices for San Jose or the Virgin of Guadalupe, there would be no problem. The practices are approved so long as the person is approved. But scripture is clear, the only person we are called to honor, worship, and pray to is the Lord.

        • I think the crackdown is because San Muerte is associated with black magic and drug trafficking. An “unofficial” saint who is associated with relatively benign teachings would get different treatment.

      • Those are the consequences of participation in everyday social and economic situations, respectively, not of religious doctrine praxis. You could just as easily say that universities promote fornication! A better example would be the religious impulse to defer to authority (which in many denominations is of a different nature than our approach to secular authorities, such as bosses and political leaders).

        • I still fail to see the correlation. Something as serious as idolatry being committed openly and acknowledged as such should be corrected. “You shall not make any graven images, nor shall you bow down and worship them”, if your church finds that this is in fact what people are doing then you should take steps to stop it or condemn it, or at least actively teaching the difference between proper and improper veneration. If people can’t handle having statues around without actually worshiping or giving too much veneration to the Saint instead of the Saint’s Lord, then get rid of the statue. I think the “weaker conscience” issue shouldn’t just be reserved for Protestants but for the actual people abusing this practice.

        • Gerald, I work at a university, and there’s a program next week devoted to encouraging safe fornication. So yes, some of them do promote it.

          • Point taken! But can we conclude from this that universities are inherently sleazy places, like brothels, which Christians ought to avoid at all costs?

  20. Speaking as a Protestant who grew up (and still lives) in the Bible Belt — where Catholicism was just a tiny degree less evil than Satanism and any given Pope could be the Anti-Christ waiting to pounce — I’m seeing more and more these days (thanks to people like you, Martha) how much we southern Bible-thumpers suffer from a lack of correct information and an overabundance of misinformation when it comes to Catholic tradition and history.
    Maybe RCC churches in the southern USA (as rare as they are) should conduct occasional open house tours for non-Catholics — where someone good at explaining things to simple minds serves as guide for curious or adventurous Baptists and Pentecostals on a brief tour of RCC tradition and liturgy.

    • humanslug, most modern Catholics could use better information themselves. Hang around the blogosphere long enough, you will hear the plaints rising from Catholics about the atrocious catechetics that most of us grew up with.

      I’m self-taught on a lot of this stuff for two reasons: (1) it wasn’t because no-one wanted to teach it, but because the schools assumed that the parents were giving the kids the basics and the parents not unnaturally assumed the schools were teaching the kids (the same way they had been taught in school themselves). Also, the 70s were the “social justice/peace’n’love” times, where Christian Doctrine classes switched from the old-style question-and-answer format catechisms to ones (like the textbook I had at the age of twelve) that talked about human rights and the rest of it – this is not to say that social justice is not a legitimate interest and part of the work of the church, but it could just as well have been a civics textbook. I’m not joking when I say I get most of my theology out of Dante; reading that since the age of fifteen in various translations means that the footnotes – where the translators explain all the doctrines to the general reader – are the best education on the doctrines.

      Also, when my mother bought the big family Bible when I was twelve, being an inveterate reader, I immediately plunged in to this new book. This was great for school, when I found myself answering obscure questions solely on the grounds that I had just read that particular chapter last night. 🙂

      (2) Like most Catholics, I contentedly ambled along leaving the content of the faith up to the Pope and the bishops, until I starting interacting with non-Catholics online. Everything from “Hey, do we have a position on the Rapture? What do you know – we’re amillenialists!” to questions such as Chaplain Mike and Jeff ask me (e.g. so what about Mary? the sacraments? veneration of images?) make me have to find out (often for the first time) exactly what it is my faith teaches.

      That’s good for me, whatever it does when I then inflict it on you guys 😉

  21. Gee and I thought Patrick’s day in Ireland actually consisted of just Mass and some solemnity. Is this all out celebration new? And is it connected with the difficulties the Catholic Church is having in Ireland right now?

    • Well, we always did make it an excuse for drinking, but as long as we stood around in the pouring rain and the cold winds, then we weren’t enjoying ourselves, so that was permissible.

      In the last decade or so, though, it’s all about encouraging people to have fun (besides continuning to drink). Fun???? The men of 1916 didn’t shed their blood so Irish people could have their kids face-painted and watch fireworks displays and be smiling in public!

  22. One more point to be made from the Eastern side of things.

    Though the “window into heaven” reason is a good description of what an icon is, Orthodox don’t really regard icons as helps to meditation; we’re advised to not really think about any kind of image as we pray. But they are wonder-full reminders in that icons are re-presentations : they make the reality of what they depict present to the viewer. This reality is apprehended with both the physical and the spiritual eyes, by both the intellect in appreciating the artistic elements, the biblical story, the theological points, etc, and the heart – not the “emotional” part of a person, but the very inmost being (where we apprehend anything we know of God at all).

    That apprehension is a meeting point between the material and the non-material aspects of reality, and the material is just as important as the non-material. St John of Damascus gave the most complete explanation, of which this is a summary, from his “Against those who attack the Divine Images”:

    “First he reminded his readers that “no created thing can be adored in place of the Creator. God forbade the making of idols he says, because ‘it is impossible to make an image of the immeasurable…invisible God.’ Yet at the same time, ‘under the Old Covenant God commanded images to be made: first the tabernacle, and then everything in it’–which included images of angels surmounting the Ark. These images were not idols because they were not worshipped.

    “Secondly, he explains how God can be portrayed now because He took upon Himself flesh and became man. ‘If we attempted to make an image of the invisible God, this would be sinful indeed,’ he writes, and ‘if we made images of men and believed them to be gods…we would be truly impious. We do neither of these things. But we are not mistaken if we make the image of God incarnate, Who was seen on earth in the flesh, associated with men, and in His unspeakable goodness assumed the nature, feeling, form, and color of our flesh.'”

    “Thirdly, he shows that ‘we do not worship icons, for worship belongs to God alone, but we venerate or show honor to them, for the image is one thing, and the thing depicted is another,’ and he cites the veneration given in Scripture to the rod of Aaron, the jar of manna, and holy places like Mt. Sanai or Golgotha.

    “Finally, this Holy Father answers those that believe matter is in some way ‘bad.’ He begins by quoting Scripture: ‘And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. It is obvious to everyone that Flesh is matter, and that it is created. I salute matter and I approach it with reverence, and I worship that through which my salvation has come. I honor it, not as God, but because it is full of divine grace and strength.'” (from http://www.roca.org/OA/19/19e.htm)

    (The material bodies of those who love God and participate in God’s life can also carry divine grace and strength; thus the veneration of relics. If you can’t go there, I understand; just giving the reason. Orthodox do have a relationship with God that “lives” in the brain alone.)

    So for Orthodox Christians, having and venerating icons is saying with images: “Jesus Christ has come in the flesh” – and this is so important that St John says that nobody can say it except by the Spirit of God. 1Jn4.2-3, 2Jn1.7.

    Hope that angle helps some. Thanks, as usual, Martha!


  23. … that is, Orthodox do NOT have a relationship with God that “lives” in the brain alone… :/


  24. Thanks Martha, an excellent summary from the Catholic perspective. I receive this question each time I have taught on the 2nd commandment. The issue for me has always been whether or not the image expands or limits your view of God – or outright replaces God. From my experience, protestants are never very clear on this issue.

  25. Answer to the question if there would be more fuss about removing the American flag or a cross from a church building sanctuary : definitely the flag.

    People do indeed often worship and idolize the flag, as well as other inanimate objects which symbolize and represent the AngloAmerican superiority ideology.
    In my home state these inanimate objects include certain goldmines and a monstreous granite statue.

    I agree with a veteran friend of mine who says that, if a flag [and other inanimate objects] is considered alive and treated as such, and if it is more important than real human beings, then it is being worshipped in place of Creator.

    About icons : I know little about catholic ones but am very familiar with evangelical-fundie stereotypes and misconceptions.
    Therefore, thanks for the informative and interesting post!

    I know a courageous and honest catholic priest who paints icons of Creator Jesus as an indian man.
    For this culturally incorrect audacity he has been viciously attacked and maligned…………….

  26. For a while now I have not only embrace the use of icons and statues as office decorations, but I also borrow freely from other religions. I love the reaction I get when people see my St. Anthony and BVM up next to my Maneki-neko, honeymoon Tiki, and Buddha. Throw in a Byzantine Christ, a Holy Spirit candle, and a rosary from the Vatican, and I have quite the shrine going on.

  27. Alas, here I must depart from my Confessional Lutheran brethren. The statues of Christ, and to a lesser extent crucifixes in the chancel area are at best problematic in light of the prohibition on idols in the 10 Commandments.

    Years ago, I dated a Jewish woman, and brought her to a Lutheran congregation that had a large statue of Christ over the altar facing the congregation with arms outstretched towards the pews. As soon as she walked in she was shocked and voiced her opinion about the idol at the front of the church. The conversation went like this;

    Her: That is a big freakin’ idol up there at the front of the church.

    Me: No, that is not an idol. We do not pray to it.

    Her: Yes you do. You all bow that way when you pray, and are on your knees before it when you take Communion..

    Me: No, it just looks that way. It is really just a reminder of Christ. It helps us focus on Him.

    Her: Focus on what? On that statue? What is the difference? Every six year old in this congregation thinks that thing is Jesus, because you all bow towards it, and is probably afraid that thing watching to see if they are being good in their pews.

    Me: Uh… no..mumble, mumble… We worship who it represents…

    Her: That’s what every good idolater says. They ‘worship the deity behind the idol’.

    The conversation went downhill from there as she proceeded to mock the whole situation and make fun of our supposed ‘nuances.’

    Needless to say, I never quite got over what she said, and have been uncomfortable with the whole statue/crucifix thing ever since..

    • My response to that would be to simply point out that Christians do differ quite starkly with Jews in the fact that we believe Jesus was God in the flesh. What about the people who saw Christ while He was on earth. Certainly they could not worship Him without having His actual physical image come to mind.

      To me, this is the big difference between the way a Jew and a Christian approach the 10 Commandments. God the Father is spirit, and has no physical form. However, Christ did and still does have a body. We are not simply making up a physical form for Christ by crafting a statue or painting him. Christ came to us as a physical being, so in one way, I think having these physical reminders is a good way of reinforcing that fact.

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