The Image of the Holy Child, Sto. Nino de Cebu
First of all I would like to thank you for reading my first response and for sending me your counter-response. I hope that through this exchange I could clarify to you the catholic position on the proper use of images in worship. I have posted your reply in bold black while my comments are in blue.
Thank you for your email and the opportunity to exchange some important thoughts about God how we are to truly worship and obey Him. I don’t mind relatively long answers and I understand they can be elicited by even the shortest questions. In fact I appreciate your long answers and your taking the time to compose them. I have read through your response quite a few times to make sure that I understand what you are trying to say. Please allow me to respond to your points and I hope this will be the start of a healthy and beneficial exchange of thoughts.
I appreciate you for making the above comments.
Let me pose a thought about how the Bible is very clear when it comes to images. Going back to Deut 4:15, God warned the Israelites not to even make any visible representation of Him since they saw no form. “So watch yourselves carefully, since you did not see any form on the day the LORD spoke to you at Horeb from the midst of the fire, so that you do not act corruptly and make a graven image for yourselves in the form of any figure, the likeness of male or female, the likeness of any animal that is on the earth, the likeness of any winged bird that flies in the sky, the likeness of anything that creeps on the ground, the likeness of any fish that is in the water below the earth.” (Deu 4:15-18)
The Catholic Church is in complete agreement with your statement. In the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) paragraph 2129 we can read: The divine injunction included in the prohibition of every representation of God by the hand of man. Deuteronomy explains: “Since you saw no form on the day that the Lord spoke to you at Horeb out of the midst of fire, beware lest you act corruptly by making a graven image for yourselves, in the form of any figure…” (Deut 4:15-16). It is the absolutely transcendent God who revealed himself to Israel. “He is the all,” but at the same time “he is greater than all his works” (Sir 43:27-28). He is “the author of beauty” (Wis 13:3).
I think the key to understanding the prohibition in Deut 4:15-18 and the Church’s teaching in CCC 2129 is the phrase “Since you saw no form…” If we read Deut 4:15-18 carefully what God proscribes is the making of man-made representations of Him as if the divinity can be found in those visible forms or as if God existed in those visible forms. For example, God appeared to Moses at Mount Sinai in the form of a burning bush (Exo 3:3) but we are not to think that God is really the form of a burning bush. The Holy Spirit appeared in the form of a dove during the baptism of our Lord (Mat 3:16) but we are not to think that the Holy Spirit is really the form of a dove. When God appeared to the prophet Daniel in a vision in the form of man (Dan 7:13) we are not to think that God in his divinity is in the form of man (as the Mormons think that God has a body). This teaching is repeated by St Paul in the New Testament: “Since therefore we are the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the divinity is like an image fashioned from gold, silver, or stone by human art and imagination” (Acts 17:29). Thus Deut 4:15-18 is a proscription against idolatry that is the worship of images as God or the belief that images carved by men are the form of God thereby attaching virtue or divinity to the image.
The book of the prophet Isaiah portrays vividly idol worship: “With a part of their wood he warms himself, or makes a fire for baking bread; but with another part he makes a god which he adores, an idol which he worships… Of what remains he makes a god, his idol, and prostrate before it in worship, he implores it, “Rescue me, for you are my god” (Isa 44:15-17). Thus it is clear that the pagan thinks that the image which he carves is the form of his god and has inherent power in them and because of this they worship such idols. This is totally different from the Catholic teaching and practice. As I have mentioned in my first response that the Catholic Church teaches that images are not the form of the divinity, nor do they have inherent virtue or power in them that for which they are to be honored but that the honor which is given them is referred to the originals which they represent.
God is talking about the mere making of a (man-made) representation of Him, the infinite and invisible God. Likewise with Exo 20:4. I think you and I cannot even begin to talk about how the images are used – whether for worship, decoration, veneration, reminder, iconolatry, etc. God’s command is clear. We are not to make any representation of Him — whatever the intentions of our hearts might be.
After making clear that icons are not representations of the divinity (i.e., that God exist in these forms made by man) the Catholic Church recognizes the use of sacred images in economy of God’s revelation to man.
CCC par 2130 Nevertheless, already in the Old Testament, God ordained or permitted the making of images that pointed symbolically toward salvation by the incarnate Word: so it was with the bronze serpent, the ark of the covenant and the cherubim. (Num 21:4-9; Wis 16:5-14; Jn 3:14-15; Exo 25:18-22; 1 Kings 6:23-28; 7:23-26)
God cannot command in one part of the Scriptures what He forbids in another part for God cannot contradict Himself. If Exodus 20:4 is an absolute prohibition on the use of images in worship then God would contradict himself because in Exo 25:18-22 He commanded Moses to make a graven image of a cherubim. God would have contradicted Himself for in Eze 41:18-19 He ordained that His temple be adorned with sacred images. Only the Catholic position would harmonize these seeming contradictions. In Exo 20:3-5 God was proscribing against idolatry (that is the worship of images as gods) while in Exo 25:18-22, Eze 41:18-19 He ordains the proper use of images in worship (iconolatry). This distinction is very important in understanding the Catholic position.
You ask, “Could not God also use sacred images, signs and symbols to uplift the mind and heart of men to divine realities?” I do not deny the feeling you get when you look upon painted and carved images. They may very well cause you to look towards the reality of Heaven represented by them. But God is as much concerned about the means, as He is with the end, especially when it comes to approaching Him. He has laid down clear commands and guidelines. I would urge you to study the example of Nadab and Abihu in Leviticus 10. “Now Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, took their respective firepans, and after putting fire in them, placed incense on it and offered strange fire before the LORD, which He had not commanded them. And fire came out from the presence of the LORD and consumed them, and they died before the LORD. Then Moses said to Aaron, “It is what the LORD spoke, saying, ‘By those who come near Me I will be treated as holy, And before all the people I will be honored.’” So Aaron, therefore, kept silent.” (Lev 10:1-3)
I totally agree with you that obedience to God’s will is of paramount importance. I believe that when Moses carved the graven image of the Cherubim and placed it on the Ark of Covenant He was obeying the will of God. I believe that when Joshua prostrated himself before the Ark of Covenant on top of which was the image of two the cherubims of glory he was doing the will of God (Joshua 7:6). I believe that when Solomon and people of Israel made God’s temple and adorned it with sacred images they were doing the will of God (Eze 41:18-19, 2 Chron 7:15-16).
They wanted to worship God in a way that was not prescribed by Him. As a result, fire from the Lord consumed them and God told Moses that those who come near Him must treat Him as holy and honor Him. They could very well have thought along the same line of thinking and felt uplifted with their new method of worship. This line of thinking got them killed right then and there. We see here that however we intend to worship the true and living God, God has laid down His clear commands, spoken to His prophets, written down for us in Scripture.
Yet God in the Old Testament prescribes that His temple be adorned with sacred images. Catholic use of images in worship is not a new method of worshipping God but is in consonance with the practice of the people of God in the Old Testament. God also commands us in Scriptures to honor sacred images. We have examples of this in the Old Testament: “When they came to the threshing floor of Nodan, Uzzah reached out his hand to the ark of God and steadied it, for the oxen were making it tip. But the LORD was angry with Uzzah; God struck him on that spot, and he died there before God” (2 Sam 6:6-7). The Lord has commanded elsewhere that only the priest can touch the Ark of Covenant for it is holy but Uzzah disregarded God’s prohibition and was punished. In the book of Psalms God was not pleased when the enemies of Israel destroyed the sacred symbols inside His temple: “Turn your steps toward the utter ruins, toward the sanctuary devastated by the enemy. Your foes roared triumphantly in your shrine; they set up their own tokens of victory. They hacked away like foresters gathering boughs, swinging their axes in a thicket of trees. They smashed all your engraved work, pounded it with hammer and pick. They set your sanctuary on fire; the abode of your name they razed and profaned. They said in their hearts, “Destroy them all! Burn all the shrines of God in the land!” (Psalms 74:3-8).
These are Old Testament examples. I would like pose a question to you regarding the New Testament. If images were indeed that beneficial, would not one gospel writer even mention it, even in passing? If it were so essential so as to make iconolatry a command given by the Roman church, why don’t we see it even mentioned by one gospel writer in the entire New Testament?
Thank you for your question. First, I would like to point out that in the Catholic Church there is what we call a hierarchy of truths. Some truths are more central or fundamental to the Christian faith than others. For example doctrines regarding the Trinity, Incarnation, and Redemption are more fundamental than the doctrines about images, saints, angels, and Mary. Even if the doctrine on the use of images in worship is not central to the Catholic Faith, we believe that it is a truth revealed by God nevertheless. As Catholics we are not free to pick and chose on what we like to believe. We are bound to accept all that God has taught us in Scriptures and the Church’s teachings.
In response to your question I would invoke a key principle in Biblical interpretation: That whatever God has explicitly commanded in the Old Testament which He has not revoked in the New Testament then that command is still valid. We see God explicitly commanding Moses and the Israelites to use sacred images to adorn God’s temple. This explicit command was not abrogated neither by Jesus nor the apostles in the New Testament. Therefore, the command is still valid. However, I would beg to disagree when you said that this was not mentioned by one gospel writer in the New Testament. Let me quote St Paul in his letter to the Hebrews: “Behind the second veil was the tabernacle called the Holy of Holies, in which were the gold altar of incense and the ark of the covenant entirely covered with gold. In it were the gold jar containing the manna, the staff of Aaron that had sprouted, and the tablets of the covenant. Above it were the cherubim of glory overshadowing the place of expiation. Now is not the time to speak of these in detail. With these arrangements for worship, the priests, in performing their service” (Heb 9:3-6). Jesus mentions the bronze serpent in the desert as pointing to His death on the cross: “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life (John 3:14-15). In the New Testament we find that laws pertaining to unclean foods, Sabbaths, circumcision, etc was already abrogated for they have already found fulfillment in Jesus but nowhere can we find that the use of images in worship has been revoked. On the other hand, when Jesus appeared in human form He ushered a new era of sacred images… that of the image of Christ, his mother, and of the saints. When Jesus became man he was seen in human form and thus made it lawful to represent him in human form. The early Christian martyrs who hid and worshipped in the catacombs during the roman persecution attested to this holy practice of representing Jesus through their carvings in the walls of the catacombs.
If I may take your indulgence, I would like to offer a solution as to why the New Testament mentions very little (nothing in fact according to your observation) on the subject of sacred images. As I have mentioned initially that there is a hierarchy of truths within the Christian faith. During the time of Jesus the temple which the Israelites have rebuilt was still standing and this temple with all probability was adorned with sacred images as is its predecessor. It was something taken for granted as permitted by God and not so to speak a “big issue” for them. The apostles in their written account on the life, words and deeds of our Lord focused on the more pressing issues of the day ie., The messiahship of Jesus, his divinity, incarnation and the redemption. When the early Christians started to separate themselves from Judaism, the use of sacred images was not a common practice among them for a very prudent reason. They were subjected to roman persecution and possessing images of our Lord would naturally invite apprehension by the hateful authorities. But despite this situation the pious faith of the early Christians prompted them to carve images and symbols which represented Jesus in his humanity and this is attested by archaeological evidence found in the catacombs. When the persecution ended, the Christians were free to practice their religion in public and this ushered a new era of sculpture and painting of sacred images of Jesus, Mary and the other saints and martyrs. This practice was uncontested for the next 500 years until the time of the Iconoclast heresy led by Emperor Leo the Isaurian who burned Churches and caused precious images of Christ and the saints to be melted and the metal reformed in his own effigy. The bishops of the Catholic Church convened in the Second Council in Nicaea in 787 AD in order to suppress the Iconoclast heresy. For the next hundred years, sacred images again flourished to adorn Christian shrines and churches. The next wave of opposition against the use of sacred images came from the Reformers (Luther, Calvin, Henry VIII, et al). In countries where the monarch were protestants we can witness pillage of churches which still can be observed nowadays with some headless statues of saints for example in some Anglican churches in England.
As to God’s commands to Moses to make cherubim and to David in the construction of the temple, can we make them a justification to make images? As you said, God does not contradict Himself. He has commanded in Deut 4:15 and Exo 20:4. What then is the difference?
I think I have answered this question in the preceding paragraph but I shall repeat it here. In Exo 20:3-5 and Deut 4:15 God was proscribing against idolatry (that is the worship of images as gods) while in Exo 25:18-22, Eze 41:18-19 He ordains the proper use of images in worship. Again, this distinction is very important in understanding the Catholic position.
The difference, I would posit, in the command to Moses and to David is that — they were God’s commands — out of His infinite wisdom, power and sovereignty.
But for what purpose did God command them to carve graven images of Cherubim and other sacred images which adorn God’s temple? If God is infinite wisdom then He must have a wise purpose for all His actions. If God is infinite power then He can also use sacred symbols to manifest that power as He did when He commanded Moses to make a graven image of a serpent so that all who look upon the bronze serpent will be healed from the snake’s venom (Num 21:4-9). If God is sovereign then why do we question Him when he permits and ordains in Scriptures the right use of images in worship?
For example, to help you see where I’m coming from, in Gen 22, God commanded Abraham to kill Isaac and offer him as a burnt offering. Can you use God’s command to Abraham to kill Isaac as a justification to do likewise today?
God commanded Abraham to kill Isaac in order to test him and to illicit his strong faith and to serve as model in faith and obedience to God’s will. Otherwise how would we know of Abraham’s faith if not by his actions and obedience to God’s command. Abraham knew that despite God’s command God will be able to fulfill His promise to make Him the father of a great nation. So with regards to God’s command to Abraham, He has a purpose. God knew already that Abraham will obey Him. But He gave the test in order for Abraham to perform a meritorious act and to make Abraham’s faith known to us. Thus, we see that God does not act capriciously just to show his sovereignty. With regards to His command to adorn His temple with sacred images He also has a purpose and that is to uplift the minds and hearts of His people to divine realities through their senses. What sacred music does to the ears (and I know a lot of non-catholic fellowship have wonderful choirs) sacred carvings and paintings does to the eyes. But among the five senses the eyes is more important than the ears in giving insight and knowledge. Thus in Catholic worship all our physical and spiritual faculties are engaged towards God.
In Jeremiah 8:10, God said that He will give the wives of the Israelites to others. Will this make God inconsistent because God also commanded “Thou shall not commit adultery?”
We should not understand Jeremiah 8:10 as God positively willing to give the wives of the Israelites to others for then He would be inconsistent about His prohibition of adultery. Rather, Jeremiah 8:10 should be understood as God permitting the Israelites to be defeated by their enemies and their wives be taken by their invaders as a punishment for their sinful ways. Both catholic and protestant theologians distinquish between God’s positive will and His permissive will. God positively wills good to happen but he permissively allow evil to happen for if not it would make God the author of evil. Jeremiah 8:10 employs the language of prophecy about the impending punishment of Israel because of their constant violation of God’s commandments.
Throughout the Bible, there are specific commands and declarations of God to specific people or groups of people that we cannot carelessly copy today.
You are right about that. On the other hand there are commands from God in the Old Testament which we cannot carelessly neglect today. I think this includes the right use of images in worship since this is part of God’s revelation to man which was consummated in the incarnation of the only begotten Son of God.
Who are we to presume that we can do as God did?
Catholics are not presuming to do as God did. The Catholic Church has always warned us against the sin of presumption that we could do better than God. What Catholics believe is that God forbids idolatry but permits and ordains iconolatry. We are simply trying to obey God’s commands and trusting in His divine wisdom that through Scriptures and the guidance of the Church sacred images can be used to uplift the mind and hearts of men for the greater glory of God.
Another (probably weak, bear with me) example I can think of is when you forbid your 2-year old child to even light a matchstick because you cannot even begin to imagine what can happen. Will you be inconsistent if you forbid lighting a match stick with your child, but you yourself can light that same matchstick? Can the child say “My dad did it, why can’t I do it?” Your 2-year old cannot possibly fathom your reason for doing things. Your understanding is far greater than your child’s. In the same way, we cannot possibly begin to understand God’s reason for doing things because His understanding is infinitely beyond ours. But what we do have is His clear command — we are not to make any visible representations of Him.
In your example, I agree that the 2-year old child should respect the wisdom of his father even if for the moment he might protest because he does not comprehend the father’s good intentions to keep him from harm’s way. It is a good thing that you mentioned about the Dad. I presume that you are a Dad and I too am a Dad (I have 3 lovely daughters as of this writing). This is what I learned about being a Dad. Even though our children is not expected to understand fully our prohibition (they most of the time insist) yet we have the obligation to at least give them a good explanation for such prohibition. Some Dads (I hope there are few) would not like their children to question their authority and yet they fail to explain to their children in a language they can understand the reasons for such prohibition. If Dads do this, then they appear to be acting capriciously towards their children. Their children might obey them but it would be out of fear and not out of love and respect. To continue with your example suppose that the child now comes of age and he learns the proper use of the match stick I think that the wise Dad would gladly allow his child to light the match stick.
Let me clarify my point (please bear with me also). God (Our Father) has forbidden his people (us) from making any visible representations of Him (Deut 4:1-18) to protect them (us) from idolatrous practices as the heathens do who place their hopes in idols. On the other hand He has commanded his people (us) to adorn His temple with sacred images not in order that we worship them as gods (thus making an idol out of them) but in order to lift our minds and hearts to Him. Children needed to be taught the right way. But we are already adults in the faith and we understand fully the difference between idolatry and iconolatry. St. Paul encouraged his fellow Christians to a grow and mature in the faith: “Therefore, let us leave behind the basic teaching about Christ and advance to maturity, without laying the foundation all over again: repentance from dead works and faith in God” (Hebrews 6:1).
My comment on how the Lord Jesus could not at any time have looked like the image of the Sto Nino was refering to how people adorn the image, not on the physical features, since we do not have any record of that. Jesus was born in a manger. He did not have the royal adornments that we see put on the Sto Nino. He lived the ordinary life of a carpenter’s son when he was a child, not in a palace.
I’m glad that your clarified your point. Actually Catholics also portrays Jesus in the way you prescribed. Just take a look at the “Belen” during Christmas time. We will see there the image of the child Jesus wrapped in swaddling clothes as the Bible describes: “While they were there, the time came for her to have her child, and she gave birth to her firstborn son. She wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn” (Luke 2:6-7). But there are also other Biblical passages that portray the child Jesus as King: “For a child is born to us, a son is given us; upon his shoulder dominion rests. They name him Wonder-Counselor, God-Hero, Father-Forever, Prince of Peace. His dominion is vast and forever peaceful, From David’s throne, and over his kingdom, which he confirms and sustains by judgment and justice, both now and forever” (Isaiah 9:5-6). “She gave birth to a son, a male child, destined to rule all the nations with an iron rod. Her child was caught up to God and his throne” (Revelations 12:5). This is what the image of the Sto Nino tries to portray: the child Jesus as king holding a scepter (symbol of kingly dominion) and raising his hands in a sign of peace (Prince of Peace).
The image of Lapu-lapu in Mactan does remind me of Lapu-lapu, even though I have not examined its facial features. But after last year’s Kadaugan sa Mactan, I read criticisms in Sunstar because the actors and Lapu-lapu himself wore modern rubber shoes and shades. Lapu-lapu and his comrades could not have looked like them, they said. They said it took away the solemnity of the event. If you have to represent somebody, do it right. Be faithful to the one you are representing. You are not free to innovate and decorate.
I can agree with Sunstar critics. Rubber shoes and shades cannot be associated with Lapu-lapu. I too hope that the performers could have done better in depicting Lapu-lapu instead of making his character a laughing stock. I agree with you that if we are to represent somebody we should do it right and be faithful to the one we are representing. Your admonition especially applies when the person we are trying to represent is Jesus. This is why I am personally against people who would try to depict Jesus as a hippie beside a large motorbike, Jesus wearing a basketball uniform, or Jesus laughing loudly. Jesus never did appear as a hippie, he never was a basketball player, and with his humility and meekness I would seriously doubt if Jesus ever laughed boisterously. But these kind of images have never been part of the Catholic tradition of sacred icons. In Scriptures Jesus is portrayed as a child in a manger, as a son of a carpenter (so most probably this was his trade during those hidden years in Nazareth), as baptized in the river Jordan, as sharing the last supper together with his disciples, as nailed on the cross, as risen from the dead, and even as King of kings and Lord of lords. Thus I do not have any objections to these works of art which shows Jesus as such and these are the kind of images which adorn our Catholic churches.
I still maintain that the Lord Jesus could not at any time have looked like the Sto Nino. But then again, we are commanded to not even make any image representing God. So no matter how accurately you try to dress up the Sto Nino, no matter how much an image reminds you of God, no matter how much emotion and upliftment of spirit is elicited, doing so is disobedience and a violation of God’s clear commands in Scriptures.
I respect you and your convictions. What I have tried to do in this exchange is to present to you the Catholic position as it is in the hope that you will have a clearer idea on what Catholics believe and practice. I hope you learned something about the Catholic faith from a Catholic who knows his Catholic religion. I met other acquaintances of protestant persuasion who thinks that we Catholics worship images (In our correspondence, I am inclined to believe that you don’t hold this view). This is far from the truth and a caricature of the real Catholic doctrine of the right use of images in worship. In putting emphasis of the First commandment, they forgot the other commandment in which God admonish: “Thou shall not bear false witness against thy neighbor.” If it is a sin to bear false witness against one person, how much more grievous are the sins of those who ascribe to us Catholics doctrines and practices which we condemn and abhor. If I have not convinced you of the truth of the Catholic position I still have one appeal and request to make. If you ever met a non-catholic who would say that Catholics are idolaters, image-worshippers please tell him that such is not actually the case. Just like our separated brethren, the Catholic Church condemns idolatry as a grievous sin against the first commandment but the Catholic Church stands by iconolatry which is the proper use of images in worship.
I would like to end here for now. I would still like to respond to your comment about equating truth with Scripture and the Roman Catholic stand in a separate email.
If you feel commenting to my reply kindly do so. But if you feel we have exhausted the subject matter then I would welcome your separate email on Scripture and Roman Catholic stand.
Thank you once again for sharing your own thoughts and may God be honored in these exchanges.
It has been most rewarding to have this dialogue with you. In our days a lot of people would disdain from controversies and I think this does no service to the truth. I hope we can discuss our disagreements in a brotherly manner urged by our common love for the Truth. Thanks for reading thru my reply.
Retrieve from: http://thesplendorofthechurch.blogspot.com/2011/01/prof-ramon-gitamondoc-cfd-national.html