If you go into just about any Catholic Church or home in the world, you’ll find the images of Jesus, the Blessed Virgin Mary, and the saints and angels, but if you go into a protestant home or church, a Jewish home or synagogue, or a Muslim home or mosque you probably won’t find images of God or the saints. They all believe that these images are idolatrous and basically equivalent to worshipping images as gods. Why is that, and how do Catholics use images?
Those who are against images point to Exodus 20:4-5 as their proof, which says, “You shall not make for yourself a graven image, nor a likeness of anything that is in heaven above or on earth below, nor of those things which are in the waters under the earth. You shall not adore them, nor shall you worship them.” This read this as saying that we shouldn’t make any images of God, angels, humans, or animals because of the possibility that we might be tempted to worship them. However, if we look just 5 chapters later in the book of Exodus, we find God telling Moses how to build the tabernacle, “Likewise, you shall make two Cherubim of formed gold, on both sides of the oracle. Let one Cherub be on the one side and the other be on the other. And let them cover both sides of the propitiatory, spreading their wings and covering the oracle, and let them look out toward one another, their faces being turned toward the propitiatory, with which the ark is to be covered” (Ex 25:18-20). If God didn’t want us to make any images of anything “in heaven above,” then why did he command Moses to make these images of angels?
The Catholic, and original Christian, interpretation of Exodus 20 is that God doesn’t want us to make any images that are meant to be worshiped, or to worship any images. The Second Council of Nicaea in 787 officially approved and regulated the use of images. Images of God or the saints are to receive veneration, they are to be respected and should not be treated with disdain or disrespect. They should not, however, be worshiped and adored, as worship and adoration are reserved for the person of God Himself. So, the Eucharist, which is the real presence of Jesus Christ, is to be worshipped and adored, and so we may kneel or even lay prostrate before Him present in the Most Blessed Sacrament, but a statue of the Sacred Heart should only be venerated.
The purpose of images is to call to mind the person, event, or idea that it represents. We can make an image of Jesus Christ because Jesus became man, and we can make an image of His human nature, and that image reminds us that God is always present with us and raises our minds and souls to worship God Himself. The images of our Blessed Mother, the saints, and the angels also make us think of those people, of their lives, of how they are alive in heaven and can pray for us, and can motivate us to imitate their holiness in our lives.
Just as the cherubim on the tabernacle weren’t thought to be real angels but only represented the cherubim who worship God constantly in heaven, so the images that we keep in our churches and homes and even in our cars (like those visor clips with the St. Christopher medal) can lead us to contemplate the realities that they represent and so draw us closer to God Himself.
Fr. Bryan was pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes from July 3, 2017 to June 2022.