Christianity and the use of images for devotion

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Fr George Adimike

In His self-revelation, God uses sensible objects or means imbued with symbolic significance. Similarly, in their response to God in worship and devotion, humans use these vestiges of God, which, though concealing more than revealing Him, are not without value. Yet it should be mentioned that worship of any image amounts to idolatry. Conversely, its total rejection spells atheism since it rejects God, who presented or allowed the divine to be accessed through sacramental mediation. Undoubtedly, both extremes are mistaken. Materiality is employed in worshipping God, who dwells in unapproachable light and is beyond the comprehension of our intellect. Out of God’s graciousness, He revealed the mystery hidden before all ages (cf. Col. 1:25-27) in Christ Jesus. Thus, He who is the eternal and incarnate Word of God (cf. Jn 1:1,14) becomes the image of God (cf. Col. 1:15) so that the pure Spirit makes self available, accessible and proximate to the embodied humans. This underscores the sacramental economy and makes encounters with God possible and facile through infra-spiritual realities.

In this fullness of time when true worshippers do so in spirit and truth (cf. Jn 4:23-24), one cannot deny that no worship of God can exclude human embodiment in its faculties of feeling, reasoning and operating. Instead, worship entails engaging the head, the heart and the hand, employing the intellective, the affective and the psychomotor or rather the operative dimensions of man. Hence, man worships in spirit (spiritually) and in truth (corporeally, which means surrendering to God according to the truth of the human person: bodily, sensually, and sacramentally). This reality is so because God, who is Spirit, known corporeally in Christ, the image of the unseen God, created man bodily and spiritually, relationally and rationally as His image (cf. Gen. 1:27). But since man is not purely spiritual – a spirit imprisoned in the body – as the Gnostics of Ancient Greece had thought, the whole man, created as a substantial unity of body and spirit, rather than an aspect of him, worships. And God could not command man to worship contrary to his nature.

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The Scripture is replete with examples of material elements being either commanded or permitted in the worship of God. Does it not fascinate you that the same God who commanded His people not to make a graven image, also instructed them to make the Ark of Covenant with its specifications (cf. Ex. 25: 10-22)? The same God, who could have healed them without the mediation of materiality, later commanded them to mould a fiery serpent for their healing (cf. Numbers 21:4-9). Christ gave it a Christological meaning and depth in the New Testament by using it as an analogue of his redemptive ministry (cf. Jn 3:14-15). Again, the same God gave instructions and specifications about the construction of objects for divine worship (cf. Ex. 26:1-2; 31:1-7; 33:19-23, 2 Sam. 6:1-2; 1 Kings 7:25, 29; 8:6). If you are to pause on some actions of Jesus, why is it that he, who could heal with words, employed material elements like saliva, mud and pool (cf. Mk 7:33; 8:22-25; Jn 9:6-7)? Similarly, we cannot ignore the icons’ value in other biblical miracles. They include Elijah’s mantle (cf. 2 Kings 2:9-14), Peter’s shadow (cf. Acts 5:14-16), and Paul’s handkerchief (cf. Acts 19:11-12).

The problem is biblical literalism and selective amnesia relative to the reading of the Scripture, as well as cafeteria mentality, where people pick and choose passages that suit their tastes and dispositions. Is it not clear that reading the Scripture correctly (hermeneutics of faith and unity) clears one’s nescience, and confusion? As such, reason is valuable in appreciating what the Spirit is saying to the Churches (cf. Rev. 3:22). To disallow logic and reason in human spiritual experience is a recipe for fundamentalism, and delinking emotions makes the Christian religious experience a sterile formalism, ritualism or spiritualism.

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Encountering the divine presence involves mediated immediacy because, arguably, there is nothing in the intellect that was not first in the senses. All our worship is mediated by the senses, even if we are oblivious to that. Although Pentecostal traditions emphasize the immediacy of divine presence without mediation, our Christian experiences show that every worship appeals to the senses. While the Catholics focus more on sight—the vision of God’s glory, appealing to what they see; that is, images (icons)—the Pentecostals concentrate more on what they hear—sound, praise, glossolalia (speaking in tongues), and preaching. The Pentecostals worship sensual-sacramentally through the mediation of the auditory sense, even while denying the value of mediation. Undeniably, in their regard, the presence of God and the doxology due to Him are mediated by audible signs.

Catholics and some mainline classical Christian churches do not see the images as ends in themselves (idols) but rather as a means to an end (icons). They do not pray to images but with images, as some other Christians pray with music or songs, pray with the Bible, pray with nature, pray with the Word, and pray with beads. These instruments employed in and during prayer are not the recipients of our prayers. Instead, they aid our human disposition to deepen our encounter. This means that in worship, images are to the eyes what songs are to the ears, and both serve as modalities that lead the worshipper from corporeality to spirituality. Is it not surprising that some of those hurling idolatry charges against Catholics and others are those who even show greater love and devotion to their preferred icons, living or dead?

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It often escapes our attention that music and images have sacramental qualities since they serve as media of divine encounter, which transform lives and lead to union with God and communion among the faithful. Indeed, songs and images express the deep affective longing in human hearts for the divine. These sacramental realities free up Christians in their search for meaning and God, and they then become an audible, visible, and tangible extrapolation of the inner desire and affectations towards God through which they submit their lives to Him. These ways spiritual men live out their embodied existence correspond to the Incarnational context of Christianity, facilitate encounters and quicken the disposition that leads to a transformation of life. Hence, in the use of images and songs, the spiritual and ritual intersect and serve the religious purpose of man.

Through these explanations, one can see that God forbade idolatry but not against employing the created realities in the search for and surrender to the Creator. Icons become idols when they become the object of worship. However, for Catholics, these images only possess iconic and sacramental qualities. And I can assure you that God is never offended when we use His created things to worship Him; on the contrary, they glorify the maker.

Fr George ADIMIKE

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