The Incarnation and the Hallowing of Images

Published January 7, 2021

One final corollary that goes with the Incarnation of the Son of God is this: the hallowing of images.  This is, again, not something most people think about.  However, it sometimes presents a difficulty for people approaching the Church from a Fundamentalist Protestant, Jewish, or Muslim background.  The objection is this: If Scripture bids us as follows:

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. (Exodus 20:4)

…then what’s up with that Mary statue or that crucifix?

It’s a reasonable question, but it’s also worth noting that most critics of the Faith expend almost all their cries of “This breaks the Commandment!” solely on the Mary statue and the crucifix, while paying no attention whatsoever to their own bowling trophies, Bird in Flight sculptures in the Museum, Seattle Salmon Totem Poles, and statues of General Humptyfratz in the town square. All these are graven images of things in heaven above, earth beneath, and water under the earth too. But these images don’t count because they are either not churchy images or they are the right kind of churchy images, acceptable in Evangelical or Fundamentalist circles.

Also overlooked in all this inconsistent hubbub about supposed Catholic violations of the commandment is the fact that God himself, just a few chapters after he gives the prohibition against images, tells Moses:

And you shall make two cherubim of gold; 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 with 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. (Exodus 25:18-20)

In other words, the God who (seemingly) forbade all images almost immediately commanded the Israelites to make an image. What gives?

What gives is the prohibition of idolatry. Old Testament piety is absolute in barring Israel from acting like pagans and worshipping creatures—including the amazingly easy-to-worship work of one’s own hands. (Indeed, as pagan myths like Pygmalion and modern phenomena like workaholism show, it is amazingly easy to fall in love with and give your life over to the work of your own hands.)

The constant temptation of paganism was to confuse things which remind us of God with God Himself. And so a whole host of creatures was worshiped by pagan antiquity. But as the cherubim on the Ark of the Covenant eloquently attest, it is quite possible to have images which are not the object of worship but rather point us to him who alone must be worshipped. That was the silent message of the cherubim as they faced one another on the Mercy Seat, bowing in adoration to the invisible God. It was a sharp but undeniable foreshadow of what was to come when God himself took flesh and became an image.

That is why Catholics can have statues or icons in our Churches while retaining this commandment in our Bible. It was the destiny of Israel to be turned from the likeness of God to the Reality. And so all short cuts (like physical images) were denied them by this commandment, because they were being prepared, not for the revelation of a God without an image, but for the revelation of Jesus, who is the true “image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15). When that image came and God stamped his likeness on the human face of Jesus, the prohibition was transfigured. It is still true that no creaturely image can be adored as a god. But it is even truer that the Light of God shines through the Incarnate God who is Jesus Christ as it shines through a stained-glass window. Saints, who are members of his body, are now also windows into God, not barriers to his light or cheap Brand X substitutes for his glory. Therefore, in honoring their images (not worshipping them), we honor (not worship) the saints they represent and in honoring the saints, we honor their Lord, who is the True Image of God.

3 Responses

  1. For a more… nuanced explanation of the Protestant reluctance to use images in worship, may I recommend “The Humiliation of the Word” by Jacques Ellul: https://e4unity.files.wordpress.com/2010/04/humiliation-of-the-word.pdf.
    Also Joy Davidman in her “Smoke on the Mountain: An Interpretation of the Ten Commandments In Terms of Today” https://www.worldinvisible.com/library/davidman/smoke/smoke.c.htm – she notes that (a large part of) the sin of idolatry is believing that, because you possess a particular physical object, you therefore have some measure of control over divine power. Davidman made it clear that this applies as much to “the cheaply printed Bible” as the more obvious examples of “idolatry”. Any consistent Protestant who understands the 1.5th Commandment in context must critique the Southern Baptist who kneels before the portion of the original Betsy Ross American flag on his church’s altar alongside the Catholic villagers who believe their statue of St Dominic is better at healing snake-bites than the neighbouring village’s statue of St Ignatius. Idolatry is a frequent temptation for all humans; even those who say “Yep, yep, God, got it, no giving religious allegiance to anything created, whether living creatures or non-living images” find themselves slipping back into it after a generation or two.
    PS: This discussion came up frequently back in the old days of Mark’s “Catholic & Enjoying It” blog (the Puritan chapel in Massachusetts where 19th century Protestants used to prostate themselves before statues of their vestry committee, seeking the intercession of J Elmer Worthington III as Mediator of All Graces, got mentioned a lot). I miss the commentariat back then, they were a varied bunch. They’d post comments like “How can an iconoclastic religion like Protestantism ever produce great art?”, which answered a question I’d long wondered over, viz, why the Wikipedia entries for “Muslim poets” and “Jewish novelists” are completely blank.

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