The Image of the Unseen God
St Paul tells us that Jesus Christ is ‘the image of the unseen God.’ (Col. 1:15) In other words, in Jesus we see what God is really like. The reason images were forbidden in the Old Testament was that God’s intended image was still to come. While graven images of God were forbidden the Old Testament, there were plenty of word pictures of God. The images are rich and abundant. God is portrayed as a Good Shepherd, a Faithful Husband or a Glorious King. God bears the image of a Loving Father, a Suffering Servant, the Powerful Creator or a Heavenly Master. When Jesus comes, the gospels show how he fulfils and completes each one of these Old Testament images of God.
Once Jesus, the true image of God, came to earth images were not only allowed, but necessary. So each image of Jesus Christ reminds us that he is the image of the unseen God. Whether it is in a Crucifix, the Stations of the Cross, an icon of Christ, a mosaic, a painting or a statue of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, each image of the Lord is a reminder that he is the image of the Unseen God. He is God made visible.
Furthermore, if we were originally made in the image of God. Jesus the God-Man has come in order to restore that image to its perfection. St Paul says, ‘Just as we have born the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven.’ (I Cor. 15.49) We are being renewed in knowledge in the image of our creator (Col. 3:10) In other words, ‘we shall be like him.’ (I John 3:2) The purpose of Jesus’ work on earth is not only to redeem us, but to transform us into his likeness. Catholics have images in church not just to be reminded of role models, but to be reminded that our destiny is to be transformed into the likeness of Christ. Each image of a saint in a Catholic Church is a reminder that that real, historical person was transformed by God’s grace to show forth the image of Christ in the world.
Whenever you see a Catholic image therefore, you are really looking at an image of Jesus Christ, for each saint is a window through whom Christ can be seen. Each saint has been transformed into the image of Christ while he is also being made into all that God created him to be. So when you see a statue of the Virgin Mary or Saint Joseph or Saint Anthony in a way you are looking at another version of Jesus because you are looking at a person who has been transformed into a real and living icon of Christ.
Iconoclasm and the 3Ms
‘Iconoclasm’ is a wonderful and scary word. It sounds a bit dangerous– In fact, ‘iconoclasm’ is a dangerous word because it means ‘destruction of the images.’ The iconoclasm controversy in the eighth century saw theologians, emperors, empresses, archbishops and armies fighting over whether or not Christians were allowed to have images in their churches. In the seventh century several forces had made Christians suspicious of physical images. The Monophysites were a group of Christians who de-emphasized the physical aspect of Jesus’ humanity. The Manichaeans were a group of philosophers who thought the physical world was evil. At the same time, in the Eastern Church, the new religion of Mohammedism or Islam, was on the march. These three ‘M’s’ of Monophysitism, Manichaenism and Mohammedism made people conclude that all images were wrong. At one point The Emperor Leo III actually sent in the troops to pull down all the icons and burn them. There were riots. Appeals were made to the Pope, and theologians set about trying to defend the use of icons.
St John of Damascus was the chief among them, and he said, “The apostles saw Christ bodily, his sufferings and his miracles and they heard his words. We are double beings with a body and soul…it is impossible for us to have access to the spiritual without the corporeal, while listening to audible words we hear with our corporeal ears and thus grasp spiritual things. In the same way it is through corporeal seeing that we arrive at spiritual insight.” In other words, “We are physical people and it makes sense for us to have physical worship.” This argument points to an even more profound reason for images in worship.
If we really believe in the incarnation, and if we really believe that ordinary human beings can be transformed into the likeness of Christ, than this transformation actually includes our physical bodies. It is not just our souls that are saved, but all of us. St Paul says, For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. (Rom 6:5) This means our bodies will be transformed and glorified, and if this is true, then it makes sense to have physical images in our churches to remind us of those who have already gone through this real and everlasting transformation.