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Do our statues worship statues?: Weekly Message for 10-08-2019
Dear Friends in Christ,
Many years ago I attended a talk by a Catholic apologist and during his talk he quipped “the great thing about the Catholic Church is that even our statues worship statues,” joking about the sculptures of Our Lady of Fatima that have statues of the three shepherd children kneeling before them in prayer (some Protestant denominations accuse Catholics of “worshipping” statues).
Back 787, the first session of the Second Council of Nicaea began, and the main topic of that council was iconoclasty. Iconoclast literally means “image breaker,” because that is what the iconoclasts did: they believed sacred images were idolatrous, so they destroyed them. In Eastern Christianity, there was a long tradition of icons depicting the Lord and the saints, but even in early Christianity, they were hesitant in the East about statues, since on the surface it was too similar to the pagan practice of offering worship to statues.
The emperor Leo IV prohibited sacred images in 730, probably in part to politically score points with the Jews and Muslims who also rejected them as idolatry. The iconoclasts only allowed for the Cross as an acceptable image.
What about depictions of Our Lord? They believed depictions of Our Lord separated his divine nature, which could never be depicted, and his human nature, leading to polytheism as well as idolatry. When Pope St. Gregory II upheld using icons, the same emperor sent a fleet to arrest him (that shipwrecked on the way—Providence?). The issue was resolved definitively by the empress Theodora II in 843.
In the council, it was the mystery of the Incarnate Word on which the practice of venerating (not worshipping) icons was reiterated, whether they depicted Our Lord, Mary, the angels, or the saints. As the Catechism teaches (n. 2132), “’whoever venerates an image venerates the person portrayed in it.’ The honor paid to sacred images is a ‘respectful veneration,’ not the adoration due to God alone: ‘Religious worship is not directed to images in themselves, considered as mere things, but under their distinctive aspect as images leading us on to God incarnate. The movement toward the image does not terminate in it as an image, but tends toward that whose image it is.’”
When I was a chaplain at a girl’s academy the students filing in for morning Mass would pass by a statue of Mary and kiss it to show their love for Mary. They were kissing their Blessed Mother through kissing the statue; their love was for Mary, not the statue. Sacred images are like portals through which we can adore the Lord and venerate the saints.
What holy reminders do you have hanging in your home, car, or office? Sacred images remind us that the Lord and the saints are watching over us, and we can speak to them and ask their aid 24/7.
May Our Lord and the saints help your holiness become worthy of veneration too.
Father Nikola Derpich, L.C.