Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Idols of My Own Making

The summer of 2006 brought many interior changes. Christ’s love in me made my heart swell with joy each time we attended Mass. Like David, I longed to be in the house of God, our Catholic church. There the wonderful Presence of the Lord Jesus drew me to Himself. Christ’s presence in the Eucharist was for me a rich and soul satisfying certitude, better than any other church experience I had encountered. In His presence, the sorrow caused by division vanished as Messiah’s peace comforted me.

Soon I discovered I treasured all that reminded me of Jesus at the Catholic Church: the priests, the altar servers, the lectors, the cantor, and the people in the pews. In Christ, all are alive, all are His, and in Him we are all connected. At times I felt that deep connection with the community during Mass. Often the joy of Christ’s love seemed to flow through me to the congregation, and I rejoiced. It was a time of wonder.

But my Methodist, Presbyterian, Pentecostal, and Baptist mix of traditions rejected the design elements of the very place in which I rejoiced in Christ’s love – that being the Catholic Church’s sanctuary. Try as I would, I could not ignore the people I saw kneeling before statues. The scene reminded me of idolatry in the Old Testament, and I knew God’s clear message – no image is to receive worship. God alone deserves worship, and He is jealous of His right.

The statues seemed out of place.

Yet, I also knew Christ’s commandment to love our neighbor as our self. And so, the love of Christ led me to a more complete understanding of Catholic prayer. When I saw people praying before a statue of the Blessed Virgin, I too wanted to pray with them – not to the Blessed Virgin, but to agree with their prayers. I knew in my spirit that each brother or sister’s petition was directed to God, and knowing this, I asked myself, “Could prayer before icon or statue in the Roman Church be actually a means of Christ centered worship? What on the surface seemed to my Protestant Christian traditions so wrong – could it be right?”

Setting aside my reservations, I watched and listened; I read and prayed, and learned that the Catechism of the Catholic Church soundly condemns idolatry.

I slowly discovered God has given a unique gift to Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches. On many levels within and without the sanctuary, the very building is an open book of godly remembrances and forms a kind of catechetic (or teaching) puzzle. As I discovered the pieces linked together, I found a wealth of Biblical instruction.

The furnishings of the altar, the icons, the stained glass – the entire building, displays the promises of the Old Testament, and the completion of those promises in New. Here is the worship of the one God of Israel, the life of His Son -- Messiah Jesus -- and the life of His body, the Church. It is visible on the walls, floor, and ceiling. It’s all around any who care to see. The examples are many. The red glow of the lamp burning near the Tabernacle harkens back to the, ner tamid – which in Jewish tradition is a representation of the incense that burned before the Ark of the Covenant in the Temple. This ner tamid indicated God’s Presence in the synagogue. Now it burns in recognition that the Bread of Life – God in the flesh, the Christ in His Sacramental Presence – is with us.

The altar of the Jewish Temple, the table of Showbread, even the table in the upper room where Jesus ate the Last Supper, all meet their fulfillment in the table of Eucharist “celebration.” The altar also reminds us of the love feasts held in the homes of the early Christians, the love feast which is now the family’s Eucharistic meal, our Last Supper. And in sharing this meal, the Church anticipates the Marriage Supper of the Lamb.

I rejoiced in these lessons. But the statues and icons -- I wondered how they fit in.

Then I remembered the church has historically sought to make the Bible an aural, visual, and tactile experience.

Christ’s love, again, opened my eyes to see the images in paint and stone were instructive and uplifting. When I look at the statues of Mary and Joseph, they remind me that marriage is a holy covenantal relationship held together by Christ, the covenant Giver. In an icon of The Holy Family, Jesus, Mary, and Joseph call out the truth that God cares for His holy institution, the family. The statue of the Infant Jesus of Prague reminds me that Jesus was born very God and very man. It says to me, Christ, even as a child was God in the flesh. The saints that surround us remind me of Christ “in us, the hope of glory.” From age to age the Spirit of Christ is the same. These images evoke so many wonderful thoughts of what God has done through others, and what He is doing in the present. Yes, the entire sanctuary became for me an anthem of praise to Christ’s glory, and an encouragement that called me to press on in Christ.

It has taken some time for me to understand the difference between reverence and adulation. I now see that Icons and statues are made for reference, and not for worship. The images decorating our sanctuary represent snapshots of family, much like photos we display in our homes.

Instead of taking issue with these silent witnesses I now remember how much they are teaching me and calling me to Christ. And for that, I am thankful.