Friday, 4 March 2016

Icons and idolatry

The first two Commandments delivered by Moses to the people of Israel make it clear only one supreme God can be worshipped and obeyed. This confronts the ancient and primitive notion of there being gods and spirits present in the natural order, which have powers of their own that must be placated, or controlled if not revered. The issue is not whether these things exist, but the insistence that their nature is not absolute, not worthy of worship. All of creation has but a single source, so to ascribe reverence and authority to any aspect of the created order denies the absoluteness of its creator.

'I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before Me. You shall not make for yourself an idol, or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth ..' (Exodus 20:3-4)

Any way God can be imagined can do no more than point somewhere beyond itself - not necessarily in the right direction. Images, like words are products of the creative process. However admirable and praiseworthy they are, they do not merit being worshipped for any reason. God in Hebrew cultic practise is not portrayed in images. The Temple sanctuary, considered the divine throne room, is an empty space. Hence the prohibition of images for use in worship, lest the creature and the creator be confused.

This prohibition still stands, although artistic evocation of aspects of the divine mystery has become permissible in decoration or for didactic purposes, understanding that nothing can be allowed to detract from the absolute demand for worship to be directed with God. The veneration of saints and holy places is not thought to contradict this insistence, being understood as a high level of love and admiration that falls far short of the adoration given to God. 

In our time, exaltation of images of every kind, giving things 'iconic' status with no reference to the original meaning of that word has grown at a time when belief in God in the sense Judaism, Christianity and Islam adhere to it, is becoming less common. Abandonment of God has been equated with lapse into idolatry since the time of Moses. Many down the ages found they were uneasy with use of images in devotion, that veneration distracts from worship. What matters is that our chosen path to prayer reflects what is helpful and builds us up in undistracted loving devotion to God, not pursuing the kind of illusory status seeking that is given to contemporary use of images.

Asked which was the greatest commandment, Jesus responded not by quoting Exodus, but first by quoting Moses in Deuteronomy 6:4-5.

‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.'

This is how children of Israel should respond to the One whose sovereign actions alone delivered them from slavery to freedom. Love is how any human being who becomes aware of the way God's redeeming work in Jesus gives meaning to our lives. The commandment calls upon all people to take heed, to remember the essential priority, and not to confuse the admiration of creation and creatures with worshipping the one who is beyond imagining or understanding, the One whose love is the source of our live. 

Returning that love is what assures us of life in abundance, now and in the unknown, unknowable future.

' What shall I return to the Lord, for his bounty to me? I will lift up the cup of salvation and call upon the name of the Lord ... I will offer to you a sacrifice of thanksgiving, and call upon the name of the Lord.' (Psalm 115:12-13,17)

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