Sacred Images, an extension of the Epiphany

Before Christmas I wrote briefly about the biblical basis for devotion to Mary not as something optional, but as actually commanded by God. I entered into the role of sacred images, but did not have much time to develop the theme. Today on this Solemnity of the Epiphany, which means ‘manifestation’, in which the Church celebrated the manifestation of the child Jesus as the Son of God, it seems appropriate to write a little more about the importance of sacred images which are part of this order of ‘manifestation’.

First, let us start with the Old Testament commandment: You shall not carve idols for yourselves in the shape of anything in the sky above or on the earth below or in the waters beneath the earth; you shall not bow down before them or worship them. (Ex 20:4-5)

Underlying this command is the transcendent uniqueness of God, the Creator, which is expressed in various ways throughout the Old Testament. For example, To whom can you liken me as an equal? Says the Holy One. Lift up your eyes on high and see who created these: he leads out their army and numbers them, calling them all by name. (Is 40:25-26) The commandment thus prohibits rendering worship (The Greek latria refers to the unique honor to be given only to the supreme godhead) to any created thing, thereby equating it to God. It thus prohibits not only the worship of man-made images, but also of the sun, the moon, the stars, and all the highest powers of nature. It forbids also the worship of the created angelic beings.

Still, we want to focus on the man-made image, the statue or the picture. It might have been argued that these are just representations and the honor given to the representation is rendered to the original, God himself. Nevertheless, the Old Testament forbids even honoring images as representations of God.

The Old Testament provides a man made focus of the divine presence, the Holy of Holies, first in the tabernacle, then in the temple. The Holy of Holies contained the Ark of the Covenant, the mercy seat, and the golden cherubim, but none of these were representations of God, but served as the “throne” so to speak of the invisible God.

In sum, the Old Testament message sought to inculcate the supreme transcendence of God while forbidding human beings from reducing the eternal, infinite, invisible God to any concept or image that could be grasped by the human mind. The message was that there could be no adequate representation of the divine nature.

The New Testament, however, introduces two radical changes, coming from the sovereign initiative of God himself. First, the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us, and we saw his glory, the glory as of the Father’s only Son, full of grace and truth. (Jn 1:14) The consequence is that Jesus Christ is the one divine person of the Son of God in two natures, divine and human. Just as the Old Testament forbad any representation of the divine nature, so it is still forbidden to make any representation of the divine nature of the Son of God. Nevertheless, because the man, Jesus Christ, is the Son of God, he can and must be worshipped in his sacred humanity. Indeed, that is part of the message of the Epiphany when the Magi prostrate themselves in worship before the child Jesus. (cf. Mt 2:11)

So also, it has become legitimate to make images of the sacred humanity of Jesus Christ and honor them as representations of our Lord and Savior, who is alive, risen from the dead, and seated at the right hand of the Father. The honor given to the image is given to the original. Dishonor done to the image is dishonor done to the original.

The second radical change is: From his fullness we have all received. (Jn 1:16) The Son of God did not just become man in order to make God known to us, nor just to free us from our sins, but to give us a share in his own life, to make us truly the children of God. (Jn 1:12) So while we worship (latria) God alone, the Most Holy Trinity, the Father, and the Son, who became man, and the Holy Spirit, we also give special honor and recognition (Greek: dulia) to those who have been sanctified by Jesus Christ and now live with him in heaven and intercede for us. Among the saints, the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Mother of God, the Immaculate Conception, holds a supreme and unique place, and so she receives a special honor (Greek: hyperdulia) above all the saints and angels.

So also we make images of the Blessed Virgin and the Saints, who live with Jesus and who intercede for us. The honor we give to the image goes to the original, while the dishonor done to the image is dishonor done to the original. Finally, the honor give to those who are sanctified redounds to the glory of the source of their sanctification, God, the Most Holy Trinity. All is to the praise of the glory of his grace. (Eph 1:6)

All of this is also a great help to us because what we see with our eyes we are better able to remember with our minds and what we honor by our bodily gestures we are better able to honor also by the submission of our mind and will.

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Fr. Joseph Levine graduated from Thomas Aquinas College and after a long journey was ordained to the priesthood for the Diocese of Baker, Oregon. He currently serves as pastor of St. Peter Catholic Church in The Dalles on the Columbia River.