Signs and Symbols: Permitted and Desired by God Himself
This month's class we will focus on signs, icons and symbols used in the church and their significance.
There are several controversies surrounding the usage of images by the Church. Catholics have been accused of idol worship with clear citations from the bible prohibiting the use of images. To explain the history of icons and symbols in the Church, let us look back to the early days of the church, long before the invention of the Printing Press in the 15th century. The only for passing on the faith then was orally. Without the printing press, creating several copies of the scriptures was not only a difficult task, but an expensive one as well. That is why the few sacred writings that existed were carefully preserved.
The use of images, signs and symbols was therefore a necessary secondary means of transmitting the faith. The beauty in spreading the salvation story through images and art is that the story remains imprinted in people’s hearts. They were also very effective in communicating the message in a most concise manner: a picture/painting/drawing could recount a story in much deeper way than a "Charla" could. Thus sacred art was born. When we meet people that argue against them, let us remind them that the church we have today was born over 2000 years ago on the back of the sacred art and images. It truly provides us with the Christianity as we know it today. It was a most essential part of our history, without which there probably would have been no better way to spread the Christian religion.
Besides being an effective means of reawakening the faith, there is also that element of adoration and devotion that sacred art evoke, that draws us in to reflect much more intimately on the mysteries of Christ. Sacred Art, icons and statues are true and beautiful because they evoke and glorify the transcendental mystery of God. The images and symbols on their own do not mean anything. They remain in use in the church today because of what they represent and the story they tell. They are merely symbols and pointers to the deeper, invisible mysteries of God.
The best illustration of this is in the book of Numbers, chapter 21 when God asked Moses to carve a serpent and everyone who was beaten by the serpent should look upon it to live. It was not the serpent that healed the people, it was merely a symbol through which God healed them. Christ Himself alluded to that event in John Chapter 3 when he said that “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up”
We also read in Exodus when God was giving instructions on the construction of the ark of the Covenant, that they should make images of two Cherubim angels to be placed on the ark. If God himself gave these instructions and God cannot contradict himself, then these images are permitted by God Himself. The commandment not to worship images was clear but the veneration of images does not pertain to worship.
There are so many signs and symbols that the church uses to reflect on the mysteries of God and all of them are effective means of deep contemplation on the scriptures. Take the rosary for instance. In the sorrowful mysteries, we reflect on the passion of Jesus; the ridicule, shame and several falls He had to endure but for every fall, he always managed to get up. This encourages us not to become despondent after several failed attempts in practicing our faith but to continue striving to reach our destined call to perfection.
The fear of people misconstruing the use of images and creating idols out of them, while justified, also exists in practically any other form of idolization, material or not. It could be said of the music during worship – when it stops being a pointer to God and takes the place of God. The same could be said of money, when it is regarded as an end, and not a means for the greater good of people. The same can be said about ourselves when it becomes about us and not about Him.