LEARN TO LIVE, LIVE TO LEARN
“To know much and taste nothing-of what use is that?” ―St. Bonaventure of Bagnoregio
"Dear Kuya Jeff, I'm so thrilled about the Lenten pilgrimage to Rizal that you are spearheading in March in view of the 2024 Year of Prayer announced by Pope Francis. I'll be bringing my co-teacher to this prayerful event. We always appreciate learning from you and enjoy the journey. I have a question about the customs and traditions we observe at the beginning of each year, such as the Feast of the Black Nazarene in Quiapo and the Feast of the Sto. Nino in Cebu, Tondo, Pandacan, and various cities and towns nationwide. Are the Black Nazarene and Sto. Nino considered idols? Do Catholics engage in statue worship? Thank you for taking the time to address my query, and we look forward to reconnecting with you this Lenten season. God bless you and your family." - Agnes C.
1. This is a pretty serious claim that we need to address right away. Saying that Catholics worship statues is based on a grave misunderstanding or complete ignorance of the Biblical facts surrounding statues.
2. In Exodus 20:4–5, God condemned the carving of statues for the sake of worshipping them as idols, "You must not make for yourself an idol of any kind or an image of anything in the heavens or on the earth or in the sea. You must not bow down to them or worship them, for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God who will not tolerate your affection for any other gods." Here, God was talking to the Israelites because they were around pagan lands who all worshipped many gods and created idols for the purpose of worshipping. These pagans thought that trees and cows and many other things were all gods, and they built statues to represent these deities. The Israelites even fell into their pagan idolatry building a golden calf to worship the false god, Baal of Peor. Evangelicals have a preconceived notion about Catholic statues and icons as "idols." Following Exodus 20:4–5, an image becomes an idol only if two things are present: first, if it represents a false god, and secondly, if it is worshipped. From this we can infer that it is not the making of statues or images that is the problem, it is making them to worship — that is the issue! God forbids the worship of images as gods, but he doesn’t ban the making of images.
3. Those who oppose religious statuary forget about the many passages where the Lord commands the making of statues. In fact, throughout the Old Testament, God had images made for holy purposes:
a. In Exodus 25:18–20, God commands Moses to carve statues for a religious purpose: two cherubim which would sit atop the Ark of the Covenant.
b. 1 Chronicles 28:18–19 and 2 Chronicles 3:10-14 feature statues of angels included in the plan for temple altar.
c. In 1 Kings 6:23-29 and 1 Kings 7:25-45, God commands temple furnishings of oxen, cherubim, lions, and palm trees be made.
d. Similarly, in Ezekiel 41:17–18, the prophet describes graven images in the idealized temple he was shown in a vision.
e. In Numbers 21:8–9, God effects healing of people who were bitten by snakes through the use of the fiery serpent he instructed Moses to make from bronze.
The foregoing Scriptures highlight that God actually commanded the use of statues and images in religious contexts.
4. Evangelicals also use Deuteronomy 4:15–18 in their attack on statues and images. According to them, the Israelites did not see God under any form when he made the covenant with them; therefore we should not make symbolic representations of God either. In ancient times, Israel was forbidden to make any depictions of God because he had not revealed himself in a visible form. Given the pagan culture of their neighbors, the Israelites might fall into the temptation to worship God in the form of an animal or some natural object. But later God did reveal himself under a visible form. In the incarnation of Christ His Son, God showed mankind his selfie. Jesus' Incarnation has opened up an entirely new economy of iconography and statuary. Saint Paul said, "He [Jesus] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation (Colossians 1:15)." Our Lord said, "He who has seen me has seen the Father (John 14:9)." Therefore, Christ is the tangible, divine "selfie" of the unseen, infinite God.
5. The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains that God ordained or permitted the making of images that pointed "symbolically toward salvation by the incarnate Word (CCC 2130)." For Catholics, statues and images are reminders of holy men and women, Jesus and of God, not idols. The statues or images have no power in and of themselves. They remind us of heavenly things and point our souls to the holy and divine. To us, having statues like the Black Nazarene and the Sto. Nino is just as natural as having photos on Facebook or Instagram to remind us of our family and friends. But reminding ourselves of loved ones is a far cry from idolatry, isn't it?
6. When Catholics pray before a statue, we are not adoring the stone, fiberglass, or wood used to create it. They remind us of the virtues displayed by those depicted. Statues are instruments, tools to be used in the spiritual life and not ends in themselves.
So while it may seem that Catholics are worshiping statues, we are not. We are using statues, as God permits, as images that point us to God and the redemptive act of Jesus. Anyone who says otherwise doesn't know his or her Bible and is guilty of erroneously and superficially reading the First Commandment.
Jeff Jacinto, PhD, DHum