Summary: Depictions of events from the Bible in image are in no way a violation of the first commandment, but help the events transcend the passing of time and become present in our midst.
Monday of 8th Week in Course
Feb 28 2011
Spirit of the Liturgy
The young man arrived full of enthusiasm, and he went away sorrowful. The English can’t do proper justice to the original meaning of the Greek. The same word is used of the disciples when Jesus told them he would ultimately be murdered. It’s used of the comrades of the servant who was thrown into debtors’ prison over a few pennies. Peter is described with the same word when Jesus asks him a third time if he loves Jesus. And St. Paul tells the Corinthians that this kind of sorrow is what overwhelmed him when he had to admonish them for their many errors.
Thus the tragedy of this story is the tragedy of Israel, the nation called by God to venerate Him and to draw all nations to themselves and to right worship of the Father. But, distracted by possessions, their own vision of liberation, or a worship of Law instead of the God of Law, they turned away from their true happiness. They rejected the Son of God, as each of us in one way or another have turned from true happiness at times toward some lesser good. The first sin is always against the first commandment–putting some lesser good before obedience to and worship of the one True God.
The Holy Father reminds us, as we study the spirit of Liturgy, that the second part of the first commandment forbids the making of “a graven image, or any likeness of anything created.” Yet there is a notable exception, at the very center of Hebrew worship. The Ark of the Covenant, which had a gold covering called the mercy seat, was considered the throne of God. On either end of the Ark were two cherubim of gold [SHOW DRAWING]. Their wings were spread out and their faces were toward the mercy seat. The feet of the invisible God were imagined to rest on this mercy seat. But God Himself was not visible. To look on God was to risk instant death. Even to touch the Ark brought death. Then, each year, on Yom Kippur, the high priest would enter the Holy of Holies, where the Ark was kept, and sprinkle blood for atonement for sin. But the blood of animals can not atone for human sins of disobedience. As we have seen, this action is a foreshadowing of something greater, a perfect offering of obedience, in the freely chosen death of the Son of God.
St. Paul saw “the crucified Christ as the true and living ‘place of expiation’, of whom the ‘mercy seat’ or kapporeth” that had been lost in Babylonian captivity was a symbol. In the time of Christ the Holy of Holies was empty, as it had been for hundreds of years. But in Christ the veil over reality was lifted, and in the crucified Christ we can see the true face of the Father’s love.
In the Eastern churches, we often see this icon [SHOW ICON DRAWING]. It “takes up this link between the Ark of the Covenant and the Paschal Mystery of Christ when it shows Christ standing on cross-shaped slabs, which symbolize the grave but also suggest a reference” to the mercy seat in the Holy of Holies. Note that when Christ appears to the women in the Gospel, there were also angels, like the cherubim that flanked the mercy seat. “The fundamental image of the OT is retained, but it is reshaped in the light of the Resurrection and given a new center: the God who no longer completely conceals himself but now shows himself in the form of the Son.” (116)
Christians reared in Calvinist ecclesial communities look on our depictions of angels and saints and even Christ on the cross as an offense against the first commandment. But archaeology shows that in the time of Christ, “and well into the third century,” synagogues and the new Christian churches “were richly decorated with representations of scenes from the Bible.” They were considered a pictorial narrative that both called the historical reality to mind and in some way made it present. The OT images became signs of the sacraments–Noah’s ark and the Red Sea crossing as images of baptism; the sacrifice of Isaac as a sign of the Eucharist. By the use of pictures and statues “we are taken into the events. The events themselves transcend the passing of time and become present in our midst through the sacramental action of the Church.” (117)