On 7th December 2022, Fr. Dr. Moses WANJALA, Sdb, a Professor of Liturgy at Salesian Pontifical University, Studium Theologicum Salesianum – Jerusalem Campus, delivered a conference to the INTER-FAITH GROUP of the Association of Jewish and Christian academics and religious leaders in Jerusalem – Israel, on the theme: Sacred Art and Images in Catholic Liturgy and Worship.

In the first place, he clarified what sacred art or images (icon) and worship entail; what we use these images for; what reverence or respect we pay to images and how, why or with what attitude (intention) we use images, signs, symbols, objects, words and actions that involve the human person’s faculties of the body, mind, heart and soul, precisely the use of senses in Catholic liturgical Worship. In our “liturgy of life” or in our relationship (encounter) with God and with each other, we should always be conscious of what sacred images are used for, and with what intention we use them!

He emphasized the fact that Christian images, unfold beliefs, principles, themes and realities that should basically be drawn from the Sacred Scriptures. These images are mediations, means or vehicles that facilitate our understanding and relationship with God-others-self, in a way that enables every human person to transcend from the visible, material human realities of art to the invisible spiritual-divine realities, with a transformation or shift from (through) the body to the spirit.

Sacred art unfolds, reveals, conserves or keeps the religious, biblical traditions alive, since sacred images make it easier for the human person to visualize or understand an event (expressed in art) that would otherwise be difficult to imagine, explain or to understand only with mere words, however many they may be. Moreover, sacred images expound and manifest or reveal Biblical-moral messages, for the image has a strong power that speaks so much that its impacts remain easily imprinted in people’s minds, hearts, lives and whole being, for instance, the sacred image of Creation (cf. Gen 1 and 2); God’s Covenant with Noah (cf. Gen 9:1-17); the Jewish Passover (cf. Ex 12); Crossing the Red Sea (cf. Ex 14:21-29); the Washing of the feet (cf. Mt 26: 14-39; Jn 13:2-17) within the context of the Last Supper before Jesus’ crucifixion (cf. Mt 26:17-30; Mk 14:12-25; Lk 22:7-38; 1 Cor 11:23-25) unfold many human and Christian virtues like fraternity, solidarity, charity, patience, generosity, sacrifice, humility, tenderness, love, hospitality, friendship, care, forgiveness, peace, justice, reconciliation, forgiveness, unity.

The heart or centrality of our discussion on the question of images is based on the first commandment of the Decalogue which emphasizes that adoration should be given only to the one and unique God: “You shall not make for yourself a graven image (idol), 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” (Ex 20:4; cf. Deut 5:8).

On one hand, we could literally interpret the first commandment as an absolute commandment that completely forbids the making of any image or anything anywhere that represents human persons, animals, plants or any form of creation. In the same optic, God’s people are not only told not to adore and not to serve the images; they are commanded not to make any graven thing or even the likeness of anything at all in heaven above, on earth and under the earth! The fear is that if they try to represent anything or make any graven image like statues or pictures, just as it happened with the story of the “golden calf” in Exodus 32, they may end up adoring or worshipping it, and in this case, this is idolatry which is abominable, and yet the Law, instead, emphasizes that adoration should be totally addressed to the one unique and only God, and not to anything else or not to any strange gods.

On the other hand, however, the Old Testament exceptionally presents us with episodes, where some living things, according to the law, were used as ornaments or decorations of the Temple: with lions and bulls that supported the Temple basins (cf. 1 Kgs 7:25, 29); with garlands of fruits, flowers and trees (cf. Num 8:4; 1 Kgs 6:18; 7:36); with offering for the Tabernacle (cf. Ex 25-31; 35-40); with the Ark of the Covenant surrounded by “images of beasts” (cf. Ez 1:5;10-20) and with the lamp stand as described by the instructions given by God to Moses, generally in Exodus 25:1-40 (cf. 1 Kgs 6:23-8; 8:6-7), all these, were commanded to be made, without any intention to worship them.

Within this perspective, we, therefore, notice that the mysterious beings that cover and protect the place of divine revelation can be RE-PRESENTED by material realities, precisely to conceal, to express and to unfold the great Mystery of the powerful presence of God himself among His own people as the Author and Creator who gives life, even in our sinfulness, woundedness, helplessness, as noted in God’s healing intervention through the image of the blood on the door posts during the Exodus event (cf. Ex 12) and the image of the lifted fiery brazen serpent in the form of the Cross (cf. Num 21:5-9).

We also gradually realize that not only the ancient Jewish Synagogues but also the early Christian Churches in the first Centuries of persecution, precisely in the Catacombs and on sarcophagi, were painted with representations of scenes from the Old and New Testaments, with symbols of fish, loaves, vines, palms, candle lights, but most especially, with the images of the ministry or deeds of Christ, the Good Shepherd. These poor, persecuted first Christian communities of the early Centuries often used images to visibly express their inner-most, profound or deep joyful and sorrowful sentiments, beliefs or trust in God in every situation. With the many gifts, specifically the gifts of wisdom and (in) art, we could say that the Bible was not only written in Words but also expressed in art in order to facilitate the comprehension of God’s marvelous works right from Creation, through-with-in His Redemption in Jesus Christ to His second coming at the end of time, even to those who could not read and write. Sacred art was not regarded as mere images of the past events in history but rather, these sacred images were celebrated as a live narrative (haggadah or telling of God’s works) that commemorate, remember or re-call to mind God’s wonderful deeds of love, His providence and His interventions towards his people in the past, and how these deeds of the past are celebrated, re-enacted, re-lived, and made alive in the present moment hic et nunc (here and now) within the Liturgy, Sacraments and in people’s lives or ways of living today (culture), in view of the future life with God forever, all thanks to the mediation of the sacred Words and sacred images that are always derived from the events that are revealed and described from within the Sacred Scriptures. Basically, during these festive moments, every human person and every community participates in God’s action in time, and the Sacred images themselves, as remembrance in visible form, are involved in the re-presentation of these WONDERS (marvels) of God towards humanity.

Regarding the use, treatment, intention and reverence paid to the sacred images, we learn that it was very clear right from the first Christians that no art or images should be adored because adoration is reserved only for the One and unique Almighty God. But yet, the place of honour that the Christians gave to their sacred symbols, signs, pictures, images or icons and the care with which they decorated them, argue that they treated their most Sacred-Biblical images - with at least decent respect or reverence because these sacred images were seen as vehicles or signs that eventually led or pointed to the Divine. For instance, if it was seen as normal for people to revere, bow, kiss, incense the imperial eagles, images and empty throne of Caesar (without suspecting any form of idolatry), then the early Christians also found it, even more appropriate that more reverence should be given to what is real, fundamental and transcendental, that is: the Images of Christ our Saviour; the Word of God which is spirit and life for us; the Cross, symbol of our Salvation, pointing to the Passion, Death, Resurrection and new life with God through-with-in Christ; the Altar, place of Sacrifice where God Himself feeds His own people with His own Body and Blood, etc.

The only reasonable standard measure in venerating any person, image or object by means of genuflections, bows, kisses, incense and any signs or gestures, is always the INTENTION or aim of any person that uses them, because sacred images are only a means for us to know, to love and to serve better the One and only God, but they are not at all an end in themselves. In other words, although it is clear that the sign of anyone or anything in itself, like the national flag, the statue of an outstanding or esteemed person or Saint, is not the prototype (original), it is equally clear that a respect, reverence or honour given to the sign of the image of someone or something represented by the image, is a respect to the person or the thing of which it is a sign, and similarly, a disrespect or insult to the same sign (image) of anyone or anything is a disrespect or insult to the person or thing signified in the image. Hence, we honour or respect the prototype (the original that we may not even physically see) by honouring the sign or symbol (that visibly represents or points to the prototype).

It is within this perspective of the intention and honour awarded to the image that Trent remarks:

Images of Christ, the Virgin Mother of God, and other saints are to be held and kept especially in churches, that due honour and reverence are to be paid to them, not that any divinity or power is thought to be in them for the sake of which they may be worshipped, or that anything can be asked of them, or that any trust may be put in images, as was done by the heathen who put their trust in their idols [Psalm 134:15], but because the honour shown to them is referred to the prototypes which they represent, so that by kissing, uncovering to, kneeling before images we adore Christ and honour the saints whose likeness they bear (Denzinger, no. 986). 

Honouring any sacred image, thus, leads us to honor and adore “one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (Eph 4:6) because “we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose” (Rom 8). The Image of Jesus Christ and those of the Saints are not pictures, for they enable us to move from the material realm to the spiritual realm that enables us to perceive the Invisible through the visible realities.

During the liturgical celebrations, the deeds of God in the past are made present, thanks to the mediation of the sacred Words and sacred images that are always derived from the events that are revealed and described from within the Sacred Scriptures. In the liturgical celebration of life, every human person and every family and community participates fully consciously and actively in God’s action in time, and these Sacred images themselves, as remembrance in visible form, are involved in the re-presentation of the marvelous WONDERS that God our Father did in the past; that He continues to do now and that He will do in the future for his people, always out of love for His children.

One of the greatest Sacred Image is the Image of the GOOD SHEPHERD (Jn 10:11-18; cf. Ps 23) that sums up the entire History of our Salvation, when at the fullness of time (cf. Gal 4:4-7), God entered into the sensible world of our time and history, with the Incarnation of the “Word that became flesh and dwelt among us” in Jesus Christ (cf. Jn 1:14); recapitulating everything in Christ (cf. Eph 1:3-10); searched for the lost sheep (cf. Lk 15) and made a homeward path into the Church of the Jews and Gentiles, thereby reconciling and embracing every human person and the whole of creation, and orienting everything back to God, the Creator, Alpha and Omega of everything.

At this point, we emphasize the Supremacy of the Image (Icon) of the Invisible God, made visible in Jesus Christ, inviting us to journey from our Creation to our Deification; and from our being created in the image and likeness of God to our being united in the Trinitarian communion relationship:

The Son is the IMAGE of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the Cross (Col 1:15-20).

St. Paul  presents Jesus Christ as the Image of the Invisible God (cf. Col 1:15-20) implying that by focusing our glance at Christ, we concretely experience, already now, the true nature of God and come to know, love and serve the Father whom we have not yet physically seen. It is worth highlighting the close, intrinsic relationship between the invisible Father and the visible Son Jesus Christ at the incarnation, through the Holy Spirit. It is impressive that even before Christ is explicitly described as the Image of God, right from Genesis, the first pages of the Scriptures, the human person is said to have been created in the image and likeness of God (cf. Gen 1:27).

It is important to note that Jesus Christ as the Visible Image of the Invisible God, is not like other finite images or objects or paintings of persons or things that are a means that lead or point to God, but rather the Person of Jesus Christ Himself is the INFINITE God Himself, the Beginning and END of everything; the Son of God that was present right from the beginning and that created the world with His own Word that incarnated or became visible in the flesh for our Salvation and now dwells among His own people and journeys with everyone at all times and in all circumstances, for He assures everyone: “surely, I am with you always, to the very end of time (age)” (Mt 28:20).

All in all, it is Christ who perfectly Images God and the image of the human person is mirrored, signified and fulfilled in the Image of Christ. There is no better or fuller way of seeing and finding the Image of God than to behold, gaze and be illumined, warmed and set aflame by the incarnate Person of Jesus Christ, for whoever has seen Christ, has seen the Father (cf. Jn 14:8-10), because Jesus, the Son and the Father are one (cf. Jn 10:30; Jn 17:21). We notice that God our Father gives us Jesus Christ as a Visual or Visible example of what or who the Image of God is. Through the Holy Spirit who dwells within us, every human person is invited to conform his/her life to the life, heart and Person of Jesus Christ (cf. Rom 8:29) in order to become true sons and daughters of God our Father, because in conforming our image to the Image of God in Christ, we actualize, realize, fulfill and find meaning in our human vocation or calling, for the goal, aim and purpose of the existence (lives) of every human person is our “Deification”, that is, to become Divine like Jesus who is God made flesh (human) for the Salvation of all.

In our attempt to understand the significant impact of sacred images, the senses are not to be discarded, but they should be expanded to their widest capacity, so as to lead us from the visible reality of images to the INVISIBLE DIVINE reality – God Himself, because in the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by His Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe (Heb 1:1-4).

Essentially, the images of beauty, in which the mystery of the Invisible God becomes visible (as described in the Sacred Scriptures), are an essential part of Christian worship. The real “action” in liturgy in which we are all supposed to participate is the action of God Himself who acts through His Spirit and works through-with-in us, thanks for the mediation of everything that is within us and around us, including the images.

In liturgy and life, sacred images do not merely illustrate the succession of past events of the history of Salvation, but they rather point to a presence as they reveal the inner unity of God’s continuous healing and salvific action in every reality of the human person today, here and now, as noted in the Sacraments, most especially, in Baptism, Eucharist and Penance (Reconciliation). In this way, these sacred images, signs, symbols and Sacraments are tangible or visible mediations that enable us to encounter the Divine and having been empowered by the Divine, they enable us to nourish and empower each other with the Divine life and love infused and operating in and through us. In other words, these images and Sacraments facilitate the dialogue and encounter with God, with the person himself and with every human and created realities.

We now evidence some basic characteristics of Sacred images. Christian sacred images are intended to be: Trinitarian, for the Holy Spirit gives us the gift to see, to know and to love Christ – the Image of God – that leads us to the Father; Christological, for they reveal the Paschal memorial and new life accomplished in Christ; Sacred, since they come from Scripture and prayer and lead us to the prayer of the Word of God; Sacramental and Anamnetical, for they make historical-Biblical events of God’s action in the past, present, in view of the future; Liturgical, because they draw us eastward to the celebration of the entire Mystery or life of Christ centered around His Paschal mystery, enabling us to encounter God through our brothers and sisters and in all creation; Incarnational, for they manifest how God became flesh, entering and purifying our human fragilities and realities – so material can now illustrate God, and how the material (flesh) draws us to experience and encounter the Divine; Eschatological, because they point towards the final destiny of every human person and the world to come where we shall experience happiness forever as we see God face to face (cf. 2 Cor 3:7-18).

As a psycho-somatic being, composed of body and soul, the human person participates in liturgy, or in his encounter with the Divine, not only through his soul but also through his body, thanks to the mediation of sacred art, images, signs, symbols, postures, gestures, voices, vestments, matter easily perceived by the body, that facilitate a full, conscious, active and effective participation in liturgical Worship and life, because Catholic liturgy is the liturgy of the Word made flesh (sacramental and concrete). In the liturgy of the Word made flesh, matter (like the image) is the vehicle towards the Divine.

On speaking about sacred art and sacred furnishings, the Second Vatican Council Document Sacrosanctum concilium (SC 122-130) promotes and emphasizes the importance of art in the Catholic Church because it promotes Christian spirituality and strengthens our way of believing (faith), our way of praying the Word of God and our way of living the Word of God (lex orandi, lex credendi, lex vivendi). The Catholic Church promotes all forms of art and admits all styles from every period and peoples, as long as these forms of art help the human person to grow and strengthen his/her relationship with God and with each other. Sacrosanctum Concilium  also reminds us that the Bishop has the responsibility of promoting the sobriety, modesty and noble beauty in all art works (architecture, pictures, statues, articles and vestments used for liturgical sacred actions) by getting help of trained artists, experts and craftsmen for art works, always drawing inspiration from the Holy Scriptures, with an aim of facilitating the encounter of the human with the Divine, ensuring that art inspires Faith, Morals and Christian Piety (love, peace, harmony, unity, solidarity, fraternity), and making sure that it does not offend the true religious sense. Providentially, even Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger reflects on the theme of art, images, body and liturgy in part three and four of his book: “The Spirit of the Liturgy,” San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2000.

We may sum up the question of veneration of any form of sacred art and images in liturgy with some conclusive highlights: it is forbidden to give Divine Worship or adoration directed to anything or anyone because Supreme Adoration, Supplication and Worship belongs and should be always directed to One God alone; we should respect or honour the angels and Saints because they imitate Jesus Christ who, though He was in the form of God, He humbled Himself, emptied Himself, took the form of a slave – servant, became human as we are (cf. Phil 2:6-8); Jesus loved, sacrificed Himself for us and offered His whole life for the poor, least, last, lost, sinners, marginalized and broken hearted, reconciling, saving, healing and bringing everyone back to God; we should give a relative honour or respect to sacred images, relics, crucifixes and holy pictures, for they are linked to Christ and are memorials or commemorations of Him, bearing in mind that sacred images point to a real presence - God; it is clear for us that our one and primary intention is to pray to God alone and that we do not pray to any images, pictures or statues, since they can neither see nor hear nor help us, but we use these sacred images as one of the languages or means to pray to God alone; we Worship, adore, trust and glorify ONLY ONE GOD; Jesus Christ is the Visible Image (per excellence) of the Invisible God, not like other finite images that are a means that lead to God, but rather He Himself is the INFINITE God made Visible, in flesh for us. In a nutshell, sacred images are like a sign post pointing to the original Author of everything that exists; they are a vehicle or a means to an end, pointing to the DIVINE who receives and deserves ALL the honour, respect, adoration, glory and thanksgiving because our God is the beginning and end (Alpha and Omega) of everything that exists.

Fr Moses Wanjala SDB

7th December 2022

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