The 1.5 Commandment

The tricky thing about the commandments is figuring out how to break them up. Astute readers of Scripture and Catholic catechetical materials will notice that there are actually different ways of breaking up the Ten Commandments. The original Hebrew text refers to them as (pedantry alert!) the “Ten Words” but doesn’t do all that tidy stuff with the tablets and the Roman numerals clearly delineating where one commandment leaves off and another starts. As a result, you have to make a judgment call about whether you will (as some Protestants do) break apart the 1.0 and 1.5 commandments (the ones about worshipping God alone and not worshipping graven images) and squish together the ninth and tenth commandments (about coveting your neighbor’s wife and your neighbor’s stuff) or vice versa. Some of our more conspiracy-minded separated brethren have dark visions of Catholics tunneling under their houses because of all this, but a brief glance at the Catechism of the Catholic Church or any Catholic Bible would dispel the notion that anything has gotten deleted. It’s all there, safe and sound. The trick is just figuring out how to break up the text so it all works out to be Ten, not Eleven, Commandments.

For our purposes, I’m going to eschew the “Traditional Catechetical Formula” the Catechism mentions and go with breaking apart the first commandment so that we can look at Commandment 1.5, the prohibition against graven images. That’s because the paranoia of conspiracy theorists like the guy above deserves to be addressed, if only because many Catholics find themselves stumped by the apparent contradiction between the commandment and their lived experience as Catholics. If Scripture bids us as follows:

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. (Exodus 20:4)

…then what’s up with that Mary statue or that crucifix?

It’s a reasonable question, but it’s also worth noting that critics of the Faith expend almost all their cries of “This breaks the Commandment!” solely on the Mary statue and the crucifix, while paying no attention whatsoever to their own bowling trophies, IXOYE fish bumper stickers, family photo albums, Christmas tree angels and children’s drawings of the house with the smiling sun up in the corner that they stuck to the fridge this afternoon. All these things are likenesses of things in heaven above, earth beneath, and water under the earth too. Some of them, like the bowling trophy, are even genyoowine graven images. But these images don’t count because they are either not churchy images or they are the right kind of churchy images, acceptable in Evangelical or Fundamentalist circles.

Also overlooked in all this inconsistent hubbub about supposed Catholic violations of the commandment is the fact that God himself, just a few chapters after he gives the prohibition against images, tells Moses:

And you shall make two cherubim of gold; of hammered work shall you make them, on the two ends of the mercy seat. 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. 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. (Exodus 25:18-20)

In other words, the God who (seemingly) forbade images almost immediately commanded the Israelites to make an image. What gives?

What gives is the prohibition of idolatry. Old Testament piety is absolute in barring Israel from acting like pagans and worshipping creatures—including the amazingly easy-to-worship work of one’s own hands. (Indeed, as pagan myths like Pygmalion and modern phenomena like workaholism show, it is amazingly easy to fall in love with and give your life over to the service of the work of your own hands.) The constant temptation of paganism was to confuse things which remind us of God with God Himself. And so a whole host of creatures was worshiped by pagan antiquity (and by modern post-Christian paganism). But as the images of the cherubim eloquently attest, it is quite possible to have images which are not the object of worship but which instead point us to him who alone must be worshipped. That was the silent message of the cherubim as they faced one another on the Mercy Seat atop the Ark of the Covenant, bowing in adoration of the Invisible God. It was a sharp but undeniable foreshadow of what was to come when God himself took flesh and became an image himself.

That is why Catholics can have statues or icons in our Church while retaining this commandment in our Bible. C.S. Lewis remarks of Israel that it was the destiny of that nation to be turned from the likeness to the Reality. And so, all short cuts (like physical images) were denied them by this commandment, because they were being prepared not for the revelation of a God without an image, but for the revelation of Jesus, who is the true "image of the invisible God" (Col 1:15). When that image came and God stamped his likeness on the human face of Jesus, the prohibition was transfigured. It is still true that no creaturely image can be adored as a god. But it is even truer that images are now a participation in the light of God, shining through the Incarnate God who is Jesus Christ. Saints, who are members of his body, are now windows into God, not barriers to his light or cheap Brand X substitutes for his glory. Therefore, in honoring their images (not worshipping them), we honor (not worship) the saints they represent and in honoring the saints, we honor their Lord, who is the True Image of God.

Copyright 2009 - Mark P. Shea