The First Commandment is this, “I am the Lord thy God, who brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. Thou shalt not have strange gods before me. Thou shalt not make to thyself a graven thing, nor the likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or in the earth beneath, nor of those things that are in the waters under the earth. Thou shalt not adore them, nor serve them” (Exodus 20:2-5).
God begins by reminding the Israelites that He brought them out of slavery in Egypt, which had just happened about two months before. It’s a requirement of justice to worship God, because we owe Him worship. The Lord God created us from nothing, holds us in existence, revealed Himself to us, sent His Son, Jesus Christ, to redeem us, and gives us the gift of the Holy Spirit to sanctify us. If the Lord truly is God, then we owe Him, and Him alone, worship. We rightly revere, or honor, the saints and angels, and we give higher honor to the Mother of God, the Blessed Virgin Mary, because God Himself has honored her (Lk 1:48); however, we reserve worship for God alone.
If we can’t be completely sure that the Lord is God or if there is some other god or if there are many gods or no gods, then doesn’t it make sense to give reverence to all of the possible gods? The Lord, however, commands us otherwise. We are not to serve any other god, because the Lord alone is God. We should try to find the truth and then live in accord with the truth. Elijah said to the Israelites, “How long do you halt between two sides? If the Lord be God, follow him: but if Baal, then follow him” (1 Kings 18:21). We have to make a choice, and even refusing to choose is making a choice.
Who or what we choose to worship affects our lives. The ancients had different gods and goddesses for different purposes. The goddess Athena was associated with wisdom, and was the patron of Athens, the home of philosophy. Jupiter, the god of the sky and lightning, was the head of the Roman pantheon, and so was the patron of the city of Rome, capital of the Roman Empire. There aren’t too many people today who still believe in Thor, Athena, or Baal, but we still tend to worship things that we feel are the most important, like money, fame, or security. In the end, when we choose our own gods we end up worshipping only ourselves and what we hold to be the most important, but “to adore God is to acknowledge, in respect and absolute submission, the ‘nothingness of the creature’ who would not exist but for God. To adore God is to praise and exalt him and to humble oneself, as Mary did in the Magnificat, confessing with gratitude that he has done great things and holy is his name. The worship of the one God sets man free from turning in on himself, from the slavery of sin and the idolatry of the world” (CCC 2097).
Sins against the first commandment include superstition, idolatry, and irreligion. Superstition is, in a way, an excess of piety, where we begin to think of religious acts as in some way magical, which is to think that prayers or religious acts work merely because of the action instead of the interior disposition of love of God. If St. James said that “faith without works is dead” (James 2:26), we might also say that works without faith is dead. Irreligion is, in a way, the opposite extreme. It is a lack of piety and respect for God and religion and treating disrespectfully the sacraments and holy things. For example, simony is the sin of trying to purchase grace or blessings, and sacrilege is the sin of profaning a blessed or holy object, such as the Eucharist. Idolatry is misdirected religion by giving to something other than God the worship that belongs to God alone. Catholics are often accused of idolatry for using statues and holy images. If we use images, even images of Christ Himself, as if they are Christ, then we would be guilty of idolatry, but we can use images in a good way when they make us think of spiritual things or remind us of the presence of God.
Finally, for many centuries Christians have debated whether it is allowed to make any images at all, of God, angels, saints, or any living creatures. The Old Testament definitely forbids make images of God, but it allows, and even commands, in some cases, the Israelites to make other images, as long as they aren’t worshipped as gods. For example, the Lord commands Moses to make images of two cherubim (angels) for the lid of the Ark of the Covenant, in Exodus 25:18, and He commands Moses to make a brazen serpent for the people to look at and be cured of their snake bites in Numbers 21:8. We are able to make images of the Lord because Jesus, the Son of God, took on a human form in the incarnation. The Church approved of the creation of images of Christ, Mary, and the angels and saints, so long as “the honor paid to images is a ‘respectful veneration,’ not the adoration due to God alone,” and leads us on to the worship of God in Himself (CCC 2132).
Fr. Bryan became pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes on July 3, 2017. Read his bio here.