A Latter-day Saint reader asks:
So, we have a ton of wonderful Catholics here in Costa Rica and lately I’ve seen a lot of them walking around town with Mother Mary statues and other people and saints singing and praising the statues, and I was a little curious on why they do it! I feel as if that is breaking the first commandment of “don’t worship other idols or people.” But I don’t want to get the wrong ideas without knowing the facts so an answer would be great because I find it a tad different! Haha, thanks for knowing all this stuff, by the way!
Concerning statues, it is true that God commands in the Bible:
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: you shall not bow down to them or serve them (Ex. 20:4–5, RSV-2CE).
But God’s commandment must be understood in context. Otherwise, how are we to understand the religious use of art in our own time? It is not only Catholics who employ images in worship, but most Christians. And we are following the practice of the ancient Jews themselves, whose synagogues were covered in beautiful scenes from the Old Testament.
Indeed, Latter-Day Saint missionaries also use painted likenesses of scenes from long ago to teach their inquirers. Several Mormon temples are adorned with statues of Moroni, and within the interior of your temples, basins used for baptisms are supported by bulls which recall Solomon’s temple (cf. 1 Kings 7:25). Religious paintings adorn the walls of your meeting halls and call to mind spiritual truths in vivid color. A surface reading of Exodus 20:4-5 would seem to indicate that these religious uses of art are disallowed. But you would agree with me that God cannot contradict himself, because he is God, and there is no deceit in him—only truth.
So, how are we to understand God’s commandment against graven images?
In the ancient near-east, many religions believed that casting an image of a god could somehow trap part of its spirit. Then, using often disturbing rituals, they believed they could coax the imprisoned spirit to do their bidding. This practice stands behind the prohibition of graven images and must be kept in mind when interpreting God’s word. Our Lord’s commandment is mainly telling us that we should not ever presume to think that we can contain or control God. Only in a secondary sense does it concern certain illegitimate uses of religious artwork. In fact, many kinds of images have always been used during worship, some of which were explicitly commanded by God:
And you shall make two cherubim of gold [i.e., two gold statues of angels]; 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 of 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 (Ex. 25:18–20).
1 Chronicles and Ezekiel 41:17-18 also spring to mind. Not to mention the bronze serpent that Moses was commanded to make (cf. Numbers 21:8-9). Everyone who looked upon it was healed, thus foreshadowing what Christ would do for the whole world upon the cross. Thus it is no surprise that Catholics, and most Christians, have continued to follow the ancient Jewish use of artistic imagery to call to mind heavenly realities and the heroes of faith who lived before us.
But you are right to suspect that the use of images can lead to dangerous territory. A few folk customs in some Catholic countries have arisen that are not in line with the Church’s teaching, which is the Gospel of Christ. And the serpent that Moses made was eventually and unfortunately worshipped as a snake god called Nehushtan (cf. 2 Kings 18:4), which is why King Hezekiah ordered its destruction. But such abuses are rare. They are the exception, not the rule.
The bottom line is, statues and other kinds of images are fine as long as they are used as a visual aid to focus our attention during worship. It is even fine to make offerings of flowers and such to remember and show respect for the people whom they depict. Indeed, this is exactly what all contemporary Americans do for our more recently deceased loved ones during funerals and candlelit vigils. We place offerings before photographs. The only difference with Catholics is, many of our saints died long before photographs were around. To an alien being from another planet, however, it would look like both Catholics and people visiting war memorials or coming together after a great tragedy were worshipping the dead. But we, because we are familiar with the meaning of our practices, know better.
Like the prohibition against images, many seemingly strange commandments in the Old Testament, like the prohibition against wearing clothing woven of two kinds of materials (cf. Leviticus 19:19), make more sense when read in their historical context. And many activities that seem to violate their literal sense in fact do no such thing. When God speaks, he speaks using all the figures of human speech—sarcasm, hyperbole, nuance, etc.—and he speaks in a way that relates to his audience at the time. Obviously, the commandment against graven images doesn’t mean we should torch our Bible coloring books. Neither do Catholics sin when we memorialize our saints using statues, nor does the U.S. government when it commissions statues of its own.