Category Archives: Paradigm Shift

Incarnational Religion

Catholicism is often described as an “incarnational religion”. On several fronts, this presents a huge paradigm shift from Protestant Christianity to include non-denominational Bible Christianity.

In the first place, the word religion is not considered a negative term in the Church as it is in other traditions—specifically Bible churches. Apparently, no one likes to be called “religious” these days and modern, so-called relevant, Christians like to distance themselves from “organized religion”. The far edge of this thinking lays claim to being spiritual but not religious which means no one tells me what to believe. Gaze at your own navel, meditate on your own breathing, but don’t stand on the shoulders of giants like St. Paul, St. Jerome, St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, and other byproducts of so-called organized, systematic, developed r***g**n.

But the Bible is not inimical to the idea of religion (a particular system of faith and worship), detailing such from cover to cover. The Epistle of James even mentions the word religion, specifically that which is vain versus that which is good:

James 1:26 If any one thinks he is religious, and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this man’s religion is vain. 27 Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.

So religion per se is not bad, and avoiding the word “religion” in matters of faith and morals is like an atheist avoiding the word “design” in matters of life. It’s absurd.

So what is this “incarnational religion”?

The word incarnational describes the divine manifested in the physical world, specifically manifested in human flesh. It is derived from the same vocabulary as “carnivore” (flesh eating), “carnival” (indulging the flesh), and, lest we forget, “chili con carne” (chili with meat).

When the New Testament speaks of the Word (Jesus Christ) becoming flesh, specifically in John’s Gospel and Letters, it references the doctrine practically unique to Christianity—that God became Man at a verifiable point in space and time. This mystery has been pondered, debated, wrangled, and even rejected over the course of millennia—a difficult teaching to accept by our finite, faithless and fallen world:

John 1:1 In beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God; 3 all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made. 4 In him was life, and the life was the light of men. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. …9 The true light that enlightens every man was coming into the world. 10 He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world knew him not.

The Church repeats this mystery in many of her prayers and liturgical formulas. At this point of the Credo, all are to bow:

et incarnatus est de Spiritu Sancto ex Maria Virgine, et homo factus est. (and he became flesh by the Holy Spirit out of the Virgin Mary, and he was made man)

immediately followed by

crucifixus etiam pro nobis sub Pontio Pilato (also he was crucified for us under (the rule of) Pontius Pilate)

Not to specifically disrespect Pontius Pilate but to draw attention to the incarnation of God Almighty being not some vague event that happened in the minds of anonymous myth-makers but a point in world history that can be reckoned by anyone with a calendar. The Roman Empire existed, the governor of Judea existed, and Pontius Pilate was known to exist even memorialized by a marble block found in Caesarea inscribed with his unfortunate name: PONTIVS PILATVS.

Later in the Mass, the priest will elevate the fracture host toward the people and proclaim

Ecce Agnus Dei, ecce qui tollit peccata mundi. Beati qui ad cenam Agni vocati sunt (behold the lamb of God, behold he who takes away the sin of the world. Blessed are they that are called to the supper of the lamb)

We hear it, we see it, and soon thereafter we will gnaw upon the body and blood of Christ—yes, a very incarnate religion.

In numerous other ways, the liturgy of the Mass draws from the physical aspects of the world be it water, wine, oil, bread, incense, iconography, statuary, architecture, stained glass, images, bells, chant, vestments, candles, fire, gold, metal, cloth, gesture, touch—-all the physical senses engaged—and likely why they were created. In fact, Catholic thought, teaching, and sacramental life draw from the properties of our temporal world to include marriage, sexuality, harvest, agriculture, seasons, calendar, ritual, language, and human culture.

The bottom line: Catholicism recognizes the world as not something that is simply “fallen” and thereby “worthless” but draws from nature and the works of the Creator as inherently good.  After each act of creation in Genesis, we read “And God saw that it was good”—not wicked, not disposable, not deplorable. Furthermore, creation serves as the instruments of worship and the primary reason why it and we were created in the first place. Intelligent human beings are the ones qualified to worship God since true worship requires an independent act of one’s directed will. The sacrificial system of worship that fell to the fallen world (via Israel) required material offerings as well as spirit, words, and deed. And the sacrifice of the Mass presents none other than the acceptable body, blood, soul and divinity of the unblemished INCARNATE Christ. The Eucharist is the physical sign of the New and Everlasting Covenant which followed the material signs that marked all previous covenants: Sabbath (Adamic), rainbow (Noahic), circumcision (Abrahamic), Passover (Mosaic), kingdom (Davidic) all of which miraculously persist in the modern world.

This incarnational property of the Catholic Church allows it to regard wine, beer, whisky, tobacco and gambling as things that are not inherently bad but properties of God’s “good” creation that, like sex and eating, can be enjoyed as gifts or misused in sin.

Because of this aspect, the Church is often indicted on the grounds of hailing from pagan influence. But where exactly does the counter idea originate, the idea that the temporal physical world, the flesh, the body, etc. is bad? It is a pagan idea and a perspective, I will argue, that finds certain harbor in Protestant Christianity.

Enter ancient Greece.  The Greek version of a beatific vision sought to liberate man from the prison of his body which the Greek equated with the world and with death. The purpose of pagan Greek religion was to release the soul imprisoned in the tomb of the body constrained by worldly distractions. And the purpose of the ancient Greek was to make sure everyone complied through oppressive taxation and cultural subjugation (ref: Democrat party). Whatever Hellenizing sought to do philosophically, the policy began to unify the ancient world in language and culture in the wake of Alexander the Great.

So what does that sound like? Catholicism or Protestantism? When we cast away the trapping of the world including our own human body and souls as inherently wrong or evil, this teaching, over time, evolved to eliminate from Christian Europe and the West many things including:

  • Sacraments (other than baptism)
  • Iconography (Reformers destroying churches in the 16th century) and the desolation of monasteries (Henry VIII).
  • The crucifix without a corpus
  • Transubstantiation
  • Wine (commercially substituted by Welch’s grape juice, still)
  • Any effort toward a temporal righteousness involving deeds (the arm of the flesh).

[ Added Oct 17 ] Here is a quote from Hillaire Belloc’s Characters of the Reformation. In this segment on Oliver Cromwell, Belloc defines the new Protestant faction of Puritanism:

The sentiment rather than the conviction that the material world is evil, and therefore that all sensual joy is in essence evil, lies at the root of Puritanism. Joy in the arts, delight in beauty, and the rest of it, are the Puritan’s object of hatred. He sees them all as rivals to the majesty of God and obstacles which deflect the pure worship of that majesty. It has been remarked as a curious by-product of Puritanism that it threw men back on to the pursuit of wealth as their main occupation. It is from Puritanism that we derive modern industrial capitalism, the centralization of wealth in a few hands, the dispossession of the masses and their exploitation by a small number of those who control the means of production; all that we call Capitalism. 

As another postscript, I wonder if the surge in New Age religions, Wicca or the popularity of Magic in media (Harry Potter, Once Upon a Time, Merlin) is due in part to a suppressed human need to incorporate the material world in worship and in religion.  In any case, relegating the physical world to the domain of inherent evil is inherently false and inherently pagan.

Sign of the Cross (Signum Crucis)

Why do Catholics Cross Themselves?

One of the most visible signs of one’s Catholicism is “making the sign of the Cross”. At the funeral of my wife’s beloved Aunt Carol, the non-denominational pastor happened to open his comments at the memorial “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit…”. Almost as a reflex, another guest and I made the Sign of the Cross. I was willing to bet the other guy was Catholic.

The Sign of the Cross (signum crucis) is such a visible emblem of one’s faith (generally Roman Catholic) it is readily recognized by society. Movies use it to depict a character’s fear, a transition to death, the religious faith of a villain (Chappy had the antagonist cross himself for no other reason to take a cheap shot at Christians, particularly Catholics), spiritual warfare and so forth. Soccer players are always crossing themselves entering the pitch, leaving the pitch, scoring a goal, missing a goal, or saving a goal. Or being fouled. Or being red-carded…

Anyhoo, why gesture the sign of the cross? According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

2157  The Christian begins his day, his prayers, and his activities with the Sign of the Cross: “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.” The baptized person dedicates the day to the glory of God and calls on the Savior’s grace which lets him act in the Spirit as a child of the Father. The sign of the cross strengthens us in temptations and difficulties.

OK but is this Biblical?

What’s interesting about the sign of the Cross is how much it reflects in the Bible—both Old and New Testament. Signs and marks of a spiritual nature appear as early in the Bible as Genesis 4 when Cain was made to be a wanderer after the murder of Abel:

And the LORD put a mark on Cain, lest any who came upon him should kill him. 16 Then Cain went away from the presence of the LORD, and dwelt in the land of Nod east of Eden.

Later we see a mark put on the doorposts of the Israelites in Egypt on the night of the Passover. Then there is the infamous Mark of the Beast told in Revelation, sensationalized in a number of prophecy fiction books and movies:

13:16 Also it causes all, both small and great, both rich and poor, both free and slave, to be marked on the right hand or the forehead, 17 so that no one can buy or sell unless he has the mark, that is, the name of the beast or the number of its name. 18 This calls for wisdom: let him who has understanding reckon the number of the beast, for it is a human number, its number is six hundred and sixty-six.

From this passage, many an author has conjured that in a future dystopia, men and women will be tattooed with a universal bar code on their hands or foreheads, or injected with a subcutaneous microchip and monitored with global positioning. What those writers don’t realize apart from the ludicrous interpretation is the mark on the forehead or hand originated—not in Revelation with the Beast—in Deuteronomy 6 with the Law:

6 And these words which I command you this day shall be upon your heart; 7 and you shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. 8 And you shall bind them as a sign upon your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. 9 And you shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.

These were idiomatic statements, not to bind them literally on your body but to meditate on them with your mind (believed resident between your eyes) and do them in deed (thus binding them on your hand).  It wasn’t enough to believe in the Word of the Lord, it had to be part of the fabric of one’s life in deed, speech, and thought (uh—sounds also a lot like that other paradigm shift, Salvation through Faith and Works, but we won’t go there).

In such instances, God marks his own as we see in Ezekiel during the events leading up to the Babylonian captivity. Ironically, it was the wicked that were carted off to Babylon while the righteous were marked off, protected and “left behind”:

Now the glory of the God of Israel had gone up from the cherubim on which it rested to the threshold of the house; and he called to the man clothed in linen, who had the writing case at his side. 4And the LORD said to him, “Go through the city, through Jerusalem, and put a mark upon the foreheads of the men who sigh and groan over all the abominations that are committed in it.” 5And to the others he said in my hearing, “Pass through the city after him, and kill; your eye shall not spare, and you shall show no pity; 6 slay old men outright, young men and maidens, little children and women, but touch no one upon whom is the mark. And begin at my sanctuary.

We see a similar act in Revelation:

7  After this I saw four angels standing at the four corners of the earth, holding back the four winds of the earth, that no wind might blow on earth or sea or against any tree. 2Then I saw another angel ascend from the rising of the sun, with the seal of the living God, and he called with a loud voice to the four angels who had been given power to harm earth and sea, 3saying, “Do not harm the earth or the sea or the trees, till we have sealed the servants of our God upon their foreheads.

The passage goes on to describe those sealed from every tribe and nation, clothed in white robes symbolizing the seal of Christian baptism. In the early days of Christianity, the baptized would cross themselves on the forehead in conformity with the directives of Scripture in which those chosen are sealed thereupon. Even today, before the Gospel is read at Mass, congregants will cross themselves with an “+” on their forehead, an “+” on their lips, and an “+” on their heart so that God’s Word would be always on their mind, always in their speech, and always in their heart. This has evolved to be the sign of the cross often executed when someone enters the sanctuary, hears the trinity, ward off evil or play a game of soccer.

Joseph Ratzinger was already well known as the premier Catholic theologian before he became Pope Benedict XVI in 2005. In his book, “Spirit of the Liturgy” he talks about the sign of the cross which is worth quoting:

To seal oneself with the sign of the Cross is a visible and public Yes to him who suffered for us; to him who in the body has made God’s love visible, even to the utmost; to the God who reigns not by destruction but by the humility of suffering and love, which is stronger than all the power of the world and wiser than all the calculating intelligence of men. The sign of the Cross is a confession of faith: I believe in him who suffered for me and rose again; in him who has transformed the sign of shame into a sign of hope and of the love of God that is present with us. The confession of faith is a confession of hope: I believe in him who in his weakness is the Almighty; in him who can and will save me even in apparent absence and impotence. By signing ourselves with the Cross, we place ourselves under the protection of the Cross, hold it in front of us like a shield that will guard us in all the distress of daily life and give us the courage to go on. We accept it as a signpost that we follow: “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Mk 8:34). The Cross shows us the road of life—the imitation of Christ.

With so much tradition, meaning and Biblical reflection behind the sign of the cross, with immediate recognition by a fallen society, knowing that God marks his own, the question is not why do Catholics do so, but why do other Christians neglect the practice?

Paradigm Shift – The Eucharist

A distinctively Catholic teaching and practice involves the centrality of the Eucharist, one of the sacraments of the Catholic Church. The word “Eucharist” is from a Greek word meaning “thanksgiving” and was instituted by Jesus Christ at The Last Supper where he “gave thanks” in what was the very first Communion, or The Lord’s Supper as it is sometimes called. But beyond mere symbolism, Catholics teach that the bread and the wine at the Catholic Mass actually become the body and the blood of Jesus Christ in a mystery called transubstantiation—a unique word designed to describe this singular miracle and a topic for another time.  As a fulfillment of the command as well as a reflection of the Passover Lamb of the Old Testament, Catholics are required to consume the transubstantiated bread and the wine, thereby literally consuming the body and blood of Jesus.

Protestants teaching varies on the Eucharist. Anglicans and Lutherans have some form of it but many churches, particularly Bible churches, pay little attention to the Eucharist and may celebrate a memorial of the Lord’s Supper periodically. According to Protestant thought, when Jesus describes the elements (or the species) of communion as His “body” and “blood” he only means it symbolically,

Catholics, on the other hand, always have communion at Mass, every day reflecting the “our daily bread” of the Lord’s Prayer. It is central to Christian gathering and worship—and not optional. The Eucharist is the body, blood, soul and divinity of Jesus Christ Himself and is treated with the utmost reverence. When entering a Catholic Church, if the “most blessed sacrament” is present in the tabernacle, Catholics will genuflect in front of it. Eucharistic Adoration is a time set aside for Catholics to worship Jesus Christ in the Eucharist. On the Sunday of Corpus Christi, the Eucharist is paraded through the streets in Europe and Catholics will kneel or prostrate as it passes—it is God Incarnate. Before receiving communion, Catholics must first confess any mortal sins otherwise that person will heap condemnation on themselves simply by partaking. Anyone who intentionally desecrates the bread of communion is automatically excommunicated—it is that serious. Curiously, Satanist use the communion bread stolen from the Catholic Mass to profane Christ in their Black rituals. The consumption of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist was such a major component of Christian identity, the Romans persecuted Christians of the Early Church with the capital charge of cannibalism.

Analysis

A key scripture regarding the Eucharist is John 6 in which Jesus teaches about “His Body”, and “His Blood” being consumed—a portion of scripture I’d read a hundred times and glossed over with casual perplexity:

52 The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” 53 So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you; 54 he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. 55 For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. 56 He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. 57 As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so he who eats me will live because of me. 58 This is the bread which came down from heaven, not such as the fathers ate and died; he who eats this bread will live forever.”

Rather than iron out things to everyone’s satisfaction, Jesus just makes things worse:

60 Many of his disciples, when they heard it, said, “This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?” 61 But Jesus, knowing in himself that his disciples murmured at it, said to them, “Do you take offense at this? 62Then what if you were to see the Son of man ascending where he was before?  63 It is the Spirit that gives life, the flesh is of no avail; the words that I have spoken to you are Spirit and life. 64But there are some of you that do not believe.” For Jesus knew from the first who those were that did not believe, and who it was that would betray him. 65And he said, “This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father.”

66 After this many of his disciples drew back and no longer walked with him. 67Jesus said to the Twelve, “Will you also go away?” 68Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life; 69and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.”

Some Christians would say Jesus is speaking figuratively. But he never says so as in some parables or other teachings; in fact, here he says “Truly, truly…”  which was the cultural equivalent of “seriously” or “listen up” or “I kid you not”.

But if it was just symbolic, then why would it be a hard teaching as the grumbling disciples say? These were people already poised to accept Jesus’ words, especially after being miraculously provisioned (this was the five thousand fed with 5 loaves and 2 fishes the day before). But the reaction of the crowd clearly indicated that Jesus was driving home a concept that was, no pun intended, difficult for them to swallow.  Indeed, if Jesus was simply suggesting to “be so much like him”, “follow him closely” and so forth, would it not have been a moot point? As designated disciples, these folks were already following him and were far along in their pursuit.

NOTA BENE: Instead, Jesus let these disciples that were following Him, leave. This was a hard teaching because it is a hard teaching, even today, especially for non-Catholics. And unless one eats this flesh and drinks this blood according to this passage, they will not have life in Him—the same life mentioned in only one other part of the Bible (Gen 3:22).

When I explain the scriptural basis for Christ’s institutionalization of the Eucharist and the sacramental life in general, non-Catholic Christians react the same way I once did to the passages in John 6. But Jesus’ words on this matter can never be seen as a hard teaching from even a secular perspective if only interpreted metaphorically. After all, what’s so hard and difficult about following a great teacher as they claim this teaching implies? I suppose Buddha, Mohammed and Karl Marx could have made the same statements without raising offense and causing their disciples to leave if it was only meant symbolically.  But even today, the teaching is as hard as it was when first presented.  And if the Catholic Church is right, and alone has apostolic pedigree to transubstantiate bread and wine, and the Eucharist is the means for eternal life outside of which there is no life in Christ—non-Catholic Christians are in a very precarious situation.

In addition, the Eucharist is the sign of the new and everlasting covenant as described in the Last Supper. Would such a sign be merely symbolic or profound and meaningful? Unlike a number of Catholic teaching and doctrines, this one is a total game changer. One may never pray to Mary and the saints, but the Eucharist cannot be safely ignored.

Paradigm Shift – Purgatory

The doctrine of Purgatory teaches that the souls of the faithfully departed go to a place of purgation (cleaning, purging) for their venial sins. It is not hell (inferno) or heaven (paradiso) but something of a preliminary to the latter.

Protestants do not believe in purgatory in the least and challenge Catholics on what seems to be an antiquated theological concept outside the descriptions of the Bible. Protestants may also claim it is a convenient invention to keep living Catholics enslaved to the Church which dispenses indulgences (another topic for later) that requite the temporal punishment of sin in Purgatory. According to Protestant teaching, one either goes to a well-merited Hell or is saved by a full blown grace in Heaven, one of which is your final, final, final destination–irrevocable after death and in which no forgiveness is operational.

The Church teaches that Purgatory is a necessary stage to remove our earthly attachments and prepare us for standing in the presence of the most Holy God. Contrary to Protestant belief the concept of Purgatory, although not explicitly mentioned in Scripture (but neither is the concept of Trinity), is a logical conclusion based on Scripture and the Church’s Sacred Tradition overall.

First, we are called to perfection:

Matthew 5:48 You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Rev 3:2 Awake, and strengthen what remains and is on the point of death, for I have not found your works perfect in the sight of my God.

And that Heaven is a place for those made perfect:

Hebrews 12:22 But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, 23and to the assembly of the first-born who are enrolled in heaven, and to a judge who is God of all, and to the spirits of just men made perfect, 24and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks more graciously than the blood of Abel.

Revelation 21:27 But nothing unclean shall enter it, nor any one who practices abomination or falsehood, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life.

And so we have a need for a place / process called Purgatory most explicitly described in the Book of Maccabees (12:43-46) which Protestants deleted from the Canon of Scripture—baffling, since it fills in the missing 400 years between Malachi and Matthew also.

Analysis

A given model is judged by how well it explains reality. In this instance, the concept of Purgatory is the model and the reality is scripture (for the sake of Bible Christians). Let’s see how well this model works.

In Luke 12:56-59 we hear Jesus teaching His followers to settle with their accuser, otherwise they may find themselves before the Judge (Jesus) who will hand them over to the officer who will bounce them to prison where “you will never get out till you have paid the very last copper.” Can this be Hell? If so, how is it that one can possibly “get out”? No, this is not Hell, nor is it Heaven, but a third in-between place which the Catholics call Purgatory.

In 1 Corinthians 3:10-15, Paul describes a process in which one’s works (there’s that word again) is tested with purifying fire as a stage of the Christian life, from which one will be saved ultimately but only after suffering loss. Heaven doesn’t quite fit since there is no pain and only perfection in that firmament. How about Hell? This is a bad model because the reality of scripture describes Hell as a place of eternal fire and no one passes through those flames. The Catholic Church calls this Purgatory.

Matthew 12:32 we see that baffling passage “And whoever says a word against the Son of man will be forgiven; but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come”, implying that there is some forgiveness in the age to come. Could this be Heaven? Not a good model since Heaven is a place of perfection and no forgiveness is warranted. How about Hell? Nope—that’s a place where there is no escape and no forgiveness (Luke 16:26). So here again, the concept of purgatory is a more suitable model, a place where some types of sin (venial) are forgiven.

Aside from these passages of scripture, we see prefiguration of Purgatory in the lives of the saints. Moses, who stood in the presence of God, was purified by 40 years in the desert. Paul suffered a thorn in the flesh never to be delivered in this life. John on the island of Patmos suffered exile. John the Baptist in the desert wearing camel hair and eating locust was preparing the way for Jesus. So then, the concept of Purgatory is present on the Bible and presents as a good model to explain certain theological concepts.

CODA

Floating around in the minds of Bible Christians is the idea that they will meet Jesus in the afterlife and greet him as one would greet an old friend —but let’s think about this. Who is this we are talking about in this ultimate encounter? How would we react to meeting the very Maker of Heaven and Earth?

Here is the prophet Isaiah’s (6:5) response:

And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. 5And I said: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!”

Here is Peter’s response:

Luke 5: 8 But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.”

How about John who saw the risen and glorified Jesus in Revelation, a man Jesus knew as the beloved disciple, a man Jesus was related to by human birth, a man who suffered as an Apostle, the only man who did not abandon Jesus at his passion, a man most qualified to stand in front of God Almighty if any—what does he say in the first chapter of Revelation.

“When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead.”

If we are fortunate (or unfortunate) to encounter the living God, we will be terrified in the extreme because he is all Holy and we are not. It may seem Purgatory is a bad place of suffering but it’s actually a welcome place for those that wish to achieve the perfection God expects in order to ultimately stand blamelessly in His presence.

Paradigm Shift – Graven Images

This paradigm shift considers the use and ubiquity of images, that is, paintings, statues, stained glass, architecture and art that depict saints and stories from the Bible.

Protestants view the use of images in prayer, liturgy, and religious ceremony as idolatry—a sin prohibited in both the Old and New Testaments, particularly the ten commandments which prohibit the use of “graven images” and bowing down to them in worship. However, for some reason, Protestants do not object to Nativity Scenes.

It’s no secret that the Catholic Church have always used icons, statues and the like for devotional and religious purposes. Indeed, it’s standard practice to have statues of Mary or some saint at which people will kneel in prayer or light candles. Obviously, the Catholic Church misunderstood or ignored God’s enduring commandment on this issue. Right?

Analysis

First, let’s face it, Catholic church buildings are way more beautiful than the typical evangelical Bible Church. Catholic sacred places, particularly the cathedrals and abbeys of European antiquity, are designed to draw our spirits out and upward through depictions of the Divine through physical art forms—and why not? Art (the temple Curtain, tapestry, the Ark of the Covenant, Menorah), architecture (the Temple in Jerusalem) and music (The Psalms) were always part of religious expression and likely the reason God gave us these things—for worship and for beauty among general purposes.

But what about the first commandment? In Exodus 20:4 we read

“You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them or serve them; for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing mercy to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.”

Regarding this first commandment it is important when understanding scripture that we understand the context, language, intent, culture, and all aspects from which the writing originated—-otherwise we will interpret scripture through the lens of our own times, culture and politics and end up with what we want to believe. So what about the Exodus of Israel and the Ten Commandments?

The Israelites from Egypt were polytheists and needed this first commandment in a big way. They were not the devout Jews of the first century by a long shot, but were familiar with the pagan deities of Egypt and Canaan.  Although they had the God of their fathers (Abraham, Isaac and Jacob), they had others they worshipped and adored. Did not Rachel grab the household gods in Laban’s tent? Did not Joseph practice divination? Did it not take centuries to wash out the polytheistic habits of Israel—Molech and Asherath poles in use up to the Babylon captivity? This was the mindset of antiquity, not the mindset of modernity. In the ancient world it was the practice to create an image of the gods you already worshipped. The first commandment addresses this outright for a people who were to be set apart from the other nations, for, it was routine in ancient times to appease all would be gods just so that things (agriculture, wars, health) would go good for you.

But did this forbid the creation of images for the purposes of right worship and praise? If so, how is it that the tabernacle and temple were infested with images? The Ark of the Covenant had Cherubim on it; the Temple had images of cherubim, pomegranates and created things. Solomon’s temple had impressive figures of twelve oxen—scandalous, given the old Egyptian penchant for cattle worship. In Exodus 25 and 1 Kings 6:23 there is no prohibition against statues and images that are not regarded as idols of worship since they built many into the Temple that God made His dwelling and filled with His glory. And what about Moses erecting the image of a snake in the wilderness? Was this idolatry? Not at first, but when in latter centuries Israel started to actually worship what the image represented in the form of a pagan god, the snake was cut down by Hezekiah (2 Kings 18). Images and statues are not the problem per se.

Let’s take this a step further. In contemporary evangelical Bible churches we are brought into worship with elaborate music productions, slideshow transitions and stage lighting—some very expensive and lavish. Is this wrong too? Do I worship the emanations of sound and light or are they simply vectors toward the worship of God? Like music and lighting, physical objects divert our attention away from the noise of the world and into the presence of God. I don’t know about you, but I find it a useful and conducive mechanism, especially if you live in the hectic DC area.

Finally, Catholics don’t bow down and worship images of the saints nor do they worship the saints (including Mary) in any instance—that’s a total misunderstanding. Prayers to the saints for intercession are considered no different than you asking me to pray for you or for some issue. By asking me (the Church Militant) to pray on your behalf, are you worshipping me? Of course not. Then why is it a problem to ask the saints that stand in the presence of God (the Church Triumphant) for intercession? And you may notice that prayers to the saints are prayers for intercession, not words of worship and adoration.

Corollary: Iconoclasm

Iconoclasm is the destruction of religious images—priceless works of art and antiquities in the name of a religious cause. ISIS is the modern version of this, destroying ancient artifacts including a 1400-year-old monastery in Iraq this week alone. How tragic!

But the Protestant Reformation also involved iconoclasm in the 16th century, destroying what was the patrimony of every Christian then and now: monasteries, statues, bas-reliefs and other works of art defaced or destroyed by the Reformers. This included King Henry VIII Dissolution of Monasteries where abbeys and their artifacts were destroyed including the loss of whole libraries of books, musical scores and the knowledge therein. Can you image the destruction of Michelangelo’s David or Pieta or the ruin of the Duomo in Florence? Thank goodness we can enjoy those things today since Italy managed to stay out of the Reformation and its teachings.

Appendix: Church teaching on images and art. It is rather profound.

Here are a few of the teachings from the CCC on the use of sacred images and icons.

1159 The sacred image, the liturgical icon, principally represents Christ. It cannot represent the invisible and incomprehensible God, but the incarnation of the Son of God has ushered in a new “economy” of images: Previously God, who has neither a body nor a face, absolutely could not be represented by an image. But now that he has made himself visible in the flesh and has lived with men, I can make an image of what I have seen of God… and contemplate the glory of the Lord, his face unveiled.

1160    Christian iconography expresses in images the same Gospel message that Scripture communicates by words. Image and word illuminate each other: We declare that we preserve intact all the written and unwritten traditions of the Church which have been entrusted to us. One of these traditions consists in the production of representational artwork, which accords with the history of the preaching of the Gospel. For it confirms that the incarnation of the Word of God was real and not imaginary, and to our benefit as well, for realities that illustrate each other undoubtedly reflect each other’s meaning.

1161    All the signs in the liturgical celebrations are related to Christ: as are sacred images of the holy Mother of God and of the saints as well. They truly signify Christ, who is glorified in them. They make manifest the “cloud of witnesses”29 who continue to participate in the salvation of the world and to whom we are united, above all in sacramental celebrations. Through their icons, it is man “in the image of God,” finally transfigured “into his likeness,”30 who is revealed to our faith. So too are the angels, who also are recapitulated in Christ: Following the divinely inspired teaching of our holy Fathers and the tradition of the Catholic Church (for we know that this tradition comes from the Holy Spirit who dwells in her) we rightly define with full certainty and correctness that, like the figure of the precious and life-giving cross, venerable and holy images of our Lord and God and Savior, Jesus Christ, our inviolate Lady, the holy Mother of God, and the venerated angels, all the saints and the just, whether painted or made of mosaic or another suitable material, are to be exhibited in the holy churches of God, on sacred vessels and vestments, walls and panels, in houses and on streets.31

1162  “The beauty of the images moves me to contemplation, as a meadow delights the eyes and subtly infuses the soul with the glory of God.”32 Similarly, the contemplation of sacred icons, united with meditation on the Word of God and the singing of liturgical hymns, enters into the harmony of the signs of celebration so that the mystery celebrated is imprinted in the heart’s memory and is then expressed in the new life of the faithful. (2502)

Comparison

Compare the  Lutheran Hallgrímskirkja church in Reykjavik started in 1945 (completed in 1986) with the Catholic Sagrada Famila in Barcelona started in 1882. I compare these since they represent roughly the same architectural era (20th century). The Sagrada is still under construction and won’t be done until 2032 (approx.).

 

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Hallgrímskirkja, exterior

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Hallgrímskirkja, Interior

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la-sagrada-familia-front

Sagrada exterior

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Sagrada, Interior

Paradigm Shift – Communion of Saints

The reason Catholics prayer to the saints is tied up largely in the doctrine of the Communion of Saints. This paradigm shift talks about who is considered a saint in the different traditions.

Generally speaking, the Protestant idea of a saint is anyone on Earth claiming to be a Christian. The idea of a pecking order in any hierarchy of Protestant Christianity is slightly repugnant—mostly from the taint of democratic ideals. Upon someone’s death there is a binary decision made somewhere about one’s final destination: heaven or hell.

The Catholic Church, on the other hand, believes that the Church is made up of three major parts: The Church Militant, the Church Expectant, and the Church Triumphant. The first are those Christians waging spiritual warfare here on Earth, while the last is that standing in the presence of God. The penitent Church in the middle is that temporarily residing in purgatory. In these domains there is hierarchy—something God expressly instituted in marriages, in homes, in society (government), and in the Church. John’s revelation shows that the throne of God is encircled by 24 elders. And Jesus disciples quarreled about who would sit at his right hand—a decision Jesus did not dismiss but rather disowned.

Along that note, the Divine Comedy by Dante dramatizes the hierarchy of hell (inferno), purgatory (purgatorio) and heaven (paradiso) with various levels. Saints are those who’ve attained the highest level, standing in the presence of God as part of the beatific vision. The Catholic Church acknowledges certain saints by name and declared to be in the presence of God and interceding on our behalf. Revelation talks about the prayers of the saints before the throne of God.

Analysis

The Catholic communion of saints is more fluid than the rigid Protestant counterpart. Jesus, in lecturing the Sadducees (the equivalent of Protestants in first century Judaism) about the Resurrection in Matthew 22:23-29, underscores the reality—those that are “dead” are not dead but, arguably, more living than those around us on Earth. We see glimpse of this in the Transfiguration. With that premise in mind, it is argued that the Catholic praying to the saints for intercession is no different than people on Earth asking to pray for each other for specific reasons. Because “the effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much” [James 5:16], the Church figures the prayers of those close to God will avail even more.

As a corollary to this doctrine we have a related idea of praying to Mary with which Protestants really, really struggle. The Hail Mary being the best known Catholic prayer in this regard goes like this:

Hail, Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee, blessed art thou among all women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb Jesus.

This first part of the prayer is straight from scripture, Luke, so no objections to quoting scripture. If we adhere to the idea that the saints are still alive, including Mary, saying this to her in prayer is not worship—it merely restates an enduring fact in this salutation. The second part of the prayer was added in the middle ages:

Holy Mary, mother of God, prayer for us sinners now and at the hour of our death.

Here the prayer asks for Mary’s intercession, addressing her as the mother of God which is also scriptural—Jesus’ human nature came from Mary. It was also understood that the mother of the King (the Queen in Israelite monarchy) had special access to the King. This is supported by the fact that Mary badgers Jesus into turning water into wine at the wedding of Cana, even though it wasn’t time for Jesus’ ministry.  He honors her request and does it.

So then, the Catholic practice of praying to the saints including petitions to Mary are not ungrounded. Perhaps the Catholics are not as wrong-headed as one might believe.

Consider Hebrews 12: 1 which talks about a great cloud of witnesses.