Friday, January 16, 2015

Against those who Call Religious Art Idolatry and Blasphemy

Often times Catholics are called pagans and idol worshipers for depicting Christ, expressing him in religious art, and expressing him in statues. This is true in depicting the saints, angels, and the like.

I find these arguments very strange. The most commonly cited “proof” is from Ex 20:4 and similar passages: “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth” (KJV).

This is certainly true, especially when considering that the Israelites fashioned for themselves a golden calf and, in various ages, many other idols of Cannanite, Babylonian, and Assyrian gods. In these times God was without image. From Genesis and throughout the Old Testament God is not described as having proportions or form but rather as expansive, immense, and beyond comparison. Images, or more specifically similes and metaphors, were used to describe the power, love, and greatness of God, but no images were fashioned.

At a time when images were routinely fashioned in order to depict one's gods, it makes sense that God would forbid such a practice to move people away from regarding wood, stone, and gold as an actual deity.


Moreover John the Apostle attests that “no one has ever seen God” (1 John 4:12 RSV). So why, then, do Catholics portray Christ as well as God the Father and God the Spirit?

There are logical proofs for such actions and dispositions, but they are logical proofs grounded in Scripture and the reality they portray.

It begins with the reality of Christ himself: that he is the Word and that he is God. This Word is the “image of the invisible God” (Col 1:15) and he “reflects the glory of God and bears the very stamp of his nature” (Heb 1:3). Similarly this all-powerful and glorious Word “became flesh and dwelt among us” (Jn 1:14). Thus God who was in former times had revealed himself in shadows and imperfect things, such as the prophets and the Law, now revealed himself in his perfect Son. The source of light is not seen in darkness, and we are all blind. But Jesus Christ, who gives sight to the blind, is “the light of the world” (Jn 8:12). We not only beheld him with our eyes but, as John said, we have also “looked upon [him] and touched [him] with our hands” (1 John 1:1).
Such art gives an example of an actual Biblical text and, more importantly, the New Testament relates the actual life of Jesus, even if Scripture can not simply be reduced to a historical text.

Jesus was truly God and truly man, something to which Scripture and faith attest. Jesus is in the Father and the Father is in Jesus (cf., Jn 17:21). All who believe in Jesus Christ have come to believe because they have heard about him from those who believe and who were sent out just as Jesus had been (cf. Jn 17:18). Similarly, the power of Jesus is described, just as the power of God had been described as of old, but now the power of God is expressed in image and flesh. This is how John the Baptist could say “Behold, the Lamb of God!” (Jn 1:29) and how Stephen could say “Behold, I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God” (Acts 7:56).

Catholics depict Christ because he was seen both in his earthly flesh as well as his heavenly glory, both in Christ crucified and in Christ risen. Paul proclaims and preaches “Christ crucified” (1 Cor 1:23) and John looked upon the power and image of Christ the King in the book of Revelations. Thus not only was God seen but he was described. While, for example, his resplendence in heaven is described in metaphor and prophetic language the person of Christ is described as being who he is: a man who was humbled and humiliated on earth but now rules both heaven and earth in the fullness of power.

Thus, because we proclaim Christ and his life which was real, which was seen and touched, and which revealed the fullness of God and his plans. The Father has truly “made known to us in all wisdom and insight the mystery of his will” (Eph 1:9) through Christ Jesus, and the light Jesus provides is his life as model, truth, and guide.

As such, when Catholics express Christ in stained-glass, in a crucifix, and in various media, it is because we are expressing the truth that Christ, in his very reality and image, reveals God to us. It was once blasphemous to portray God with graven images since no one had ever seen God and God had not yet revealed himself to the nations. Similarly it was contrary to the law to eat certain foods until Christ had made them clean. Yet in these last days God has revealed himself by his only-begotten Son and his Son showed us the way we should go in power and in truth.


The images we fashion of Christ, of the Spirit (as dove and fire), and the Father (similar to the Son) are expressions of the reality of Christ. In the eastern traditions of Catholicism and in among some of our Orthodox brethren only Christ is portrayed as a theological point that the Spirit and Father are both never seen or described, but that the image of Christ is also the image of the other two. I think the iconography of the east also has powerful and rich meanings behind it. Catholics too express the reality of God revealed through their art. Calling it blasphemous and idolatry is not only ignorant but foolish in light of the Gospel.

Christ the All-powerful (Pantokrator)

Monday, December 29, 2014

A Christmas Message

This season of Christmas we recall the powerful words of Scripture, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (Jn 1:14). Christ became man to be with us and to experience life with us. He lived an authentic and real human life with all of its many aspects.

I know during this time of year we often recall our many family members and friends who have died and how, even in this happy time, we miss them. Even I lost an uncle who was very dear to me on December 23rd last year. It is at these times, however, that I ask Christ to be with me. I pray for our faithful departed and families, always asking Christ to be with us as truly as he was a man here on earth.

I began wondering, then, what it means that Jesus experienced life like us in the following way:
Can you imagine how many people came up to tell Jesus about a death in the family, fear because of illness, anxiety because of unemployment, or divisions among their families? Jesus shared a great deal in the pain and hardship of our daily lives with us. Likewise, imagine those who came up to him saying, “I am getting married” and “my wife and I are finally having our first child.” Jesus went to weddings, celebrated at religious events, and spent his time sharing in the many joys of human life.

We can relate to these events that punctuate our lives as well. Jesus through his ministry gives us that divine example. By his words and actions he always expressed the same thing, “I love you” and “Do not be afraid, I am with you.”

This time of year we also remember that Jesus Christ is God Himself. He alone can free us of the chains of sin, misery, regret, and death. Through him everything came into being and he sustains every individual instance in his love. For God is love and his entire being expresses love for creation and, in a special way, for us. Our great God who spoke and created all things became subject to our frail humanity for our sake.

So it is this day that we say, “A king is born to us!” and “God has visited his people!”

He came to us as one of us, and he understands each and every one of us. Yes, he even understands our weaknesses, our regrets, and our sinfulness. He ever and always calls us to himself and calls us to believe in him. For it is in believing in him, putting behind our sins, and following him that he will give us the “power to become children of God” (1:12). Through this power we can endure all hardship and, having run our course in this life, reign forever with him in heaven—a gift he so graciously gave to those who endure with him.

Let us, therefore, follow our great King this Christmastime. His every action has said from the beginning, “I love you and I am with you until the end of time.” Let us, by our lives, say the same.