- "Sacramentals... are sacred signs which bear a resemblance to the sacraments.... By them men are disposed to receive the chief effect of the sacraments, and various occasions of life are rendered holy." Catechism of the Catholic Church, #1667
The Problem: Most Christians find the veneration of the saints to be an abomination, because it detracts from the honor due to God. Therefore, the use of statues or other images is seen as a veiled form of idolatry, and a violation of the Ten Commandments.
The Truth: Honor given to the Body of Christ is honor given to Christ Himself. Thus, the use of statues, images, or photographs which remind us of those living in the Body of Christ are appropriate ways to focus our attention on His Glorified Mystical Body and become aware of the cloud of witnesses who surround us. Such images are never used as charms or amulets, but only as reminders of loved ones who are not with us in body, though they are with us in spirit through the Body of Christ.
Ex 20:4-5 "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; 5 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..."
Ex 25:18-21 And you shall make two cherubim of gold; of hammered work shall you make them, on the two ends of the mercy seat. 19 Make one cherub on the one end, and one cherub on the other end; of one piece with the mercy seat shall you make the cherubim on its two ends. 20 The cherubim shall spread out their wings above, overshadowing the mercy seat with their wings, their faces one to another; toward the mercy seat shall the faces of the cherubim be. 21 And you shall put the mercy seat on the top of the ark; and in the ark you shall put the testimony that I shall give you.
Immediately after telling the Israelites not to carve graven images, He commands them to do so. God does not violate His own laws. A thing is good only because it reflects the nature of who God is. God cannot command that which is against His nature. If statues and images were instrinsically evil, He would not have had the ark of
His Presence engraved with them. Yet how did the Israelites use these images?
Josh 3:14-16 So, when the people set out from their tents, to pass over the Jordan with the priests bearing the ark of the covenant before the people, 15 and when those who bore the ark had come to the Jordan, and the feet of the priests bearing the ark were dipped in the brink of the water (the Jordan overflows all its banks throughout the time of harvest), 16 the waters coming down from above stood and rose up in a heap far off, at Adam, the city that is beside Zarethan, and those flowing down toward the sea of the Arabah, the Salt Sea, were wholly cut off; and the people passed over opposite Jericho
The Israelites used the ark, covered in graven images, to win battles and part the Jordan.
Josh 7:6-8 Then Joshua rent his clothes, and fell to the earth upon his face before the ark of the Lord until the evening, he and the elders of Israel; and they put dust upon their heads. 7 And Joshua said, "Alas, O Lord GOD, why hast thou brought this people over the Jordan at all, to give us into the hands of the Amorites, to destroy us? Would that we had been content to dwell beyond the Jordan! 8 O Lord, what can I say, when Israel has turned their backs before their enemies!
Joshua directly violates the command against the use of graven images by bowing before them. God permits it. Why? Because the graven images of the ark are being used properly. While the casual observer might think Joshua is bowing down to graven images (for God reveals Himself to those whom He will, and a casual observer would not necessarily know of the presence of God upon the Ark), yet Joshua is merely using the images on the ark and the ark itself as a means of focusing his worship on the God who is beyond all created things.
Judg 20:27 And the people of Israel inquired of the Lord (for the ark of the covenant of God was there in those days)...
The Israelites consulted God through the use of an object covered in graven images.
2 Sam 6:13-16 and when those who bore the ark of the Lord had gone six paces, he sacrificed an ox and a fatling. 14 And David danced before the Lord with all his might; and David was girded with a linen ephod. 15 So David and all the house of Israel brought up the ark of the Lord with shouting, and with the sound of the horn. 16 As the ark of the Lord came into the city of David, Michal the daughter of Saul looked out of the window, and saw King David leaping and dancing before the Lord; and she despised him in her heart.
1 Kings 3:15 And Solomon awoke, and behold, it was a dream. Then he came to Jerusalem, and stood before the ark of the covenant of the Lord, and offered up burnt offerings and peace offerings, and made a feast for all his servants.
1 Kings 8:5 And King Solomon and all the congregation of Israel, who had assembled before him, were with him before the ark, sacrificing so many sheep and oxen that they could not be counted or numbered.
Were David and Solomon offering sacrifice to the graven images? The casual observer might think so. Yet each was actually using the images to focus his worship on the Lord.
1 Chron 13:6 And David and all Israel went up to Baalah, that is, to Kiriath-jearim which belongs to Judah, to bring up from there the ark of God, which is called by the name of the Lord who sits enthroned above the cherubim.
1 Chron 16:4 Moreover he appointed certain of the Levites as ministers before the ark of the Lord, to invoke, to thank, and to praise the Lord, the God of Israel
Why before the ark? Isn't God everywhere present? People minister in front of the graven images, yet no harm comes to them.
Psalm 132:8 Arise, O Lord, and go to thy resting place, thou and the ark of thy might.
Can graven images even enter heaven?
Num 21:8-9 And the Lord said to Moses, "Make a fiery serpent, and set it on a pole; and every one who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live." 9 So Moses made a bronze serpent, and set it on a pole; and if a serpent bit any man, he would look at the bronze serpent and live.
Now, it is true that God commanded Moses to use this image. But why a SERPENT? One might reply that the serpent symbolizes Christ raised up on the cross, and so it does. But the very problem modern Christians have with statues is their symbolism. God used the very image of Satan, found in Genesis, to symbolize Jesus Christ, so that by looking upon a serpent, the people might be healed. If the serpent can symbolize Christ on the cross, isn't it possible for a statue of Mary to symbolize the incarnation of Christ on earth? Couldn't a statue of Joseph symbolize the loving protection with which Christ guards His people, just as Joseph guarded the Holy Family? Don't the whole family of saints both symbolize and actualize, i.e, make up a part of, the Living Body of Jesus Christ?
1 Kings 6:23-35 In the inner sanctuary he made two cherubim of olivewood, each ten cubits high. 24 Five cubits was the length of one wing of the cherub, and five cubits the length of the other wing of the cherub; it was ten cubits from the tip of one wing to the tip of the other. 25 The other cherub also measured ten cubits; both cherubim had the same measure and the same form. 26 The height of one cherub was ten cubits, and so was that of the other cherub. 27 He put the cherubim in the innermost part of the house; and the wings of the cherubim were spread out so that a wing of one touched the one wall, and a wing of the other cherub touched the other wall; their other wings touched each other in the middle of the house. 28 And he overlaid the cherubim with gold.
29 He carved all the walls of the house round about with carved figures of cherubim and palm trees and open flowers, in the inner and outer rooms. 30 The floor of the house he overlaid with gold in the inner and outer rooms.
31 For the entrance to the inner sanctuary he made doors of olivewood; the lintel and the doorposts formed a pentagon. 32 He covered the two doors of olivewood with carvings of cherubim, palm trees, and open flowers; he overlaid them with gold, and spread gold upon the cherubim and upon the palm trees.
33 So also he made for the entrance to the nave doorposts of olivewood, in the form of a square, 34 and two doors of cypress wood; the two leaves of the one door were folding, and the two leaves of the other door were folding. 35 On them he carved cherubim and palm trees and open flowers; and he overlaid them with gold evenly applied upon the carved work.
Clearly, the prohibition on graven images is not total - it depends on how one uses them. If you use images for idolatry, i.e., you think the statue contains a spirit, or is itself a god, it is mortal sin. If it is used to focus attention on the gifts, the honors, the glories bestowed by God to His faithful, it is a proper and fitting way to honor the glory of God in His creation.
Just as a national flag symbolizes a whole country, its people, its values, its history, its hopes and dreams, so a statue or icon symbolizes the gifts of grace and mercy God has poured out on all peoples. A flag is just colored fabric, a statue is just formed concrete, an icon just paint on wood. But one can try to trample on the hopes, dreams, values and virtues of a people by dishonoring and trampling on their national flag. And one can attempt to attack God by burning and breaking the images of the virtuous peoples He has raised up among us.
Do you have a cross on the steeple of your church or in its sanctuary? Is it the One True Cross? Or is it merely a statue of the One True Cross? You do not worship the statue of the Cross, yet you use the statue of the Cross in your worship to remind you of the Persons who love us. That is also exactly how every Catholic uses statues, medallions and icons.
God made us. We are material creatures. He knows how we think, and what we need. He permits us to use material things which remind us of His presence in our lives, whether it be a reminder of the presence of God over the ark, the presence of Christ in Galilee, or the presence of God in the lives of the saints who make up the Body of Christ.
If Catholics truly worshipped any statue or image as God, we would say so - after all, we readily admit that we worship as God what appears to be unleavened bread and grape wine, which seems a lot less sensible than worshiping statues. But Catholics do not worship statues. We worship God in the Eucharist.