The Seven Word Sermon: Icons are OK: Christ set the precedent.
What is the second of the Ten Commandments?
Ask a Catholic, and they will tell you that it is, “Do not take the name of the Lord in vain.”
Ask a Protestant and they will say: “No, that is the third one. Before it comes, ‘Do not make an image of God.'”
But both agree that there are Ten Commandments, because we Catholics count “Do not covet your neighbour’s wife” as the ninth and “Do not covet his property” as number ten – the Protestants say they are both part of the Tenth Commandment.
It is very clear that the Old Testament required us not to make an image of anything in Heaven. Moses was horrified when he saw the people of Israel had made a golden calf. Jews and Muslims, to this day, take that commandment most seriously.
Yet from the earliest days of the Christian Church, we have felt free to make both statues and icons of our saints, and images of the crucified Christ.
Because we know what Jesus looks like.
In Jesus, God took the form of a man and walked among us. God himself chose a physical form to communicate to us the depths of His love. As St Paul says today, we preach Christ crucified.
Notable mystics have claimed that Jesus or Mary have appeared to them and commanded that images be made – St Margaret Mary Alacoque with Our Lord’s Sacred Heart, St Faustina painting Christ as the Divine Mercy, and St Catherine Labouré mass-producing the Miraculous Medal. In the case of Guadalupe, God himself provided St Juan Diego with a miraculous image of the Mother of God. Every time Heaven provides us with such an image, we are given another reminder that in Christ, God truly became man, born of a woman, and we beheld his glory.
We have evidence that images of Jesus were painted in Christian tombs in the Third Century, and one tradition says St Luke himself painted an icon of the Virgin Mary.
In the Eighth Century, this caused an almighty row among Christians. One side said the church had no authority to allow holy images, because Jesus had never said that was OK. The other side said God had given implicit permission by walking among us in human form. Christians turned violent. Images were smashed. Those who took action believed that, like Jesus cleansing the Temple, they were acting in a righteous cause to do God’s will.
Eventually, the world’s bishops met in a Council in the year 787 and agreed that images could be made and treated with honour – though the images themselves must not be worshipped as God should be worshipped.
800 years later, when the Protestant Reformation swept across Europe, the same thing happened. In Wales, as in many other places, statues were cast down and frescos were whitewashed over. The Reformers were acting in obedience to what they read in the Bible.
This issue shows us something profound about what it is to be a Catholic. We do not read the Bible alone. We trust that God also speaks through those traditions which go back to the time of the Apostles and through the bishops of our Church gathered in Council. If St Luke indeed painted an icon, that is reason enough to establish a tradition. If the Bishops in 787 decided that the implicit meaning of Christ becoming man was enough to overcome the explicit words of Moses, then the question is settled.
If friendly Protestants challenge us to justify our beliefs from the Bible, our answer must be that God also speaks apart from the Bible. For similar reasons we no longer keep the Sabbath on Saturday but gather to worship on the Lord’s Day, Sunday. In the Bible we read that the first Christians did this, but there is no explicit command to keep Sunday rather than Saturday, either. Yet even Protestants, except Seventh Day Adventists, observe Sundays!
The Bible does not number the Ten Commandments. How we count them is part of our tradition. Given our Catholic stance on images, it is quite understandable that we shy away from affirming that “Do not make an image” is one of the Ten Big Ones.The abridged version of today’s First Reading cuts out this instruction altogether! But it is there, in the Bible, within the text of the Ten Commandments, and in a world where we will meet other Christians who will ask questions, we need to know how to explain ourselves. There is no requirement for any Christian, Catholic or Protestant, to make use of holy images. We can agree to differ, and honour the sincerity (but not the request!) of those Protestants who urge us to clean out our Temple in obedience to the Second Commandment.
Meanwhile, as Lent continues, there are Ten Commandments to attend to, the Second of which asks us about our respect for God’s Holy Name. Perhaps something in our own personal Temple is in need of cleansing. So this week, let us take the Ten Commandments for our examination of conscience, and do so with all the zeal of Our Lord expelling the traders. On the need for this, I hope, all Christians can agree!