Some very religious people have, over the centuries, gotten very uptight over the development of images purported to represent God. "It's all idolatry," they say, "a violation of the first commandment."
In the eighth century, the Byzantine Emperor led a major move to smash or burn icons, crosses and holy relics. Not only images of God were destroyed, but also those of the saints. Why? Because the saints now live in glory with God and no images of them can do justice to that glory.
Around the same time, the Muslim faith began and rapidly spread through much of the Arab world. With a strong sense of the complete otherness of God and no belief in the Incarnation, the Muslims naturally eschewed religious images. Mosques, as beautiful as they are, contain no artwork which might be interpreted as representing something else.
Catholics and Orthodox, for our part, have always had a strong sense of the Incarnation. Our churches have traditionally been full of statues, icons, paintings, stained glass and other symbolic artwork. Catholics praying before statues have sometimes been accused of pagan idolatry, the accuser failing to understand that the statue was not an object of worship but rather an object which helped to raise the worshiper's mind and heart beyond the material toward a closer communion with the unseen God.
Christians who have opposed direct representation have, nevertheless, used their own forms of symbolism. Perhaps a tastefully designed pulpit has been made the focus of the worship area to highlight the central importance of the word of God. Certainly, no congregation which began to worship in a former auto body shop or tavern would do so without extensive redecorating. It is taken for granted that our surroundings can either inhibit or promote the proper worship of God.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church notes that, as material beings, people need symbols. "As a being at once body and spirit, the human person expresses and perceives spiritual realities through physical signs and symbols" (no. 1146). The material sign helps one rise above the material to a spiritual awareness.
The Catechism also quotes St. John Damascene, the church's main defender of artistic representation in the eighth century controversy with the iconoclasts, to show that, after Christ, religious art need not lead to idolatry. "Previously God, who has neither a body nor a face, absolutely could not be represented by an image. But now that he has made himself visible in the flesh and has lived with men, I can make an image of what I have seen of God . . . and contemplate the glory of God, his face unveiled" (no. 1159).
Nevertheless, we must be careful with our use of signs. In John's Gospel, we frequently see Jesus' frustration with those who are mesmerized by some sign he has performed, but are blind to the underlying reality signified by that sign. In his conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well, Jesus gently urges her to go beyond the material signs. "God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and in truth," he tells her (John 4:24).
However, some signs are more than "mere symbols." In John 6, when Jesus asks his followers to eat his body and drink his blood, he is not trying to confuse them with an obscure symbol. He compares his flesh and blood with the gift of manna in the desert. The manna was not just a symbol of health and life; it actually gave health and life. Likewise, by eating Christ's body and drinking his blood, we will receive eternal life.
This type of sign is called "efficacious." It not only signifies grace, it actually confers that grace. A road sign points to some reality -- for example, Maligne Lake. But if the road sign were efficacious, it would pick up one's car and take it to Maligne Lake.
The Catechism defines sacraments as "efficacious signs of grace, instituted by Christ and entrusted to the church, by which divine life is dispensed to us" (no. 1131). Praise the Lord for giving us efficacious signs. Without them, once Christ ascended to the Father, we would be no better off than before he was born. We would have the promise of a closer union with God, but not the reality.
But Christ did not leave us orphaned. In fact, as he told us, it was better that he went away than if he had stayed (John 14:18, 16:7). By going away, he could send the Holy Spirit who would use the sacraments to give us the living reality of Jesus Christ until the end of time.
With the sacraments, with these efficacious signs, our previous prohibition against worshiping material objects has been turned on its head. For, through these signs, we come fully into the presence of God. The material objects, words and gestures of the sacraments do not divert us from God, they bring us to him.
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