“The devotion one has to God’s saints does not terminate in them, but reaches to God through his saints. To honor the excellence of a saint is also to honor the object of their love. We honor them because they excelled in love of God. Thus, ‘to honor the Blessed Virgin Mary is to glorify God’ is a proper expression of truth.”
These words of the Angelic Doctor of the Church, St. Thomas Aquinas, sum up perfectly the reason why Catholics through all centuries have honored Our Lady. Unfortunately, statues and other images of Mary are often condemned and neglected under the guise of religion, or desecrated in the name of “art.” Mary revealed to Sister Lucia that such irreverence deeply wounds her Immaculate Heart.
To make amends for these minimalist omissions or sacrilegious commissions, we ought to show special honor to her images. We ought to take on the attitude of St. Bernard of Clairvaux, who exclaimed, “De Maria numquam satis!” (About Mary, never enough!). But we should also be able to explain our enthusiasm, and why we love to have innumerable statues and paintings of her.
When speaking with non-Catholic Christians on the subject of statues, they will surely know the passage in Exodus where God condemns the making of images (Exod. 20:4-5). They will often overlook, however, the fact that God also commands that images be made. Five chapters after God declares that no graven images should be made of anything that is in heaven or on earth, God commanded Moses, “Make two cherubim of beaten gold” (Exod. 25:18). Later in 1 Kings 6 and 7, Solomon fills the temple of God with graven images from heaven above and earth below. Within the Sanctuary were wooden cherubim that were eighteen feet tall, while bronze oxen and carved lions could be found throughout the temple.
It was obvious to Solomon as well as to Moses that images may be made, so long as they are not idolized. Because something is an image does not mean that it is an idol. For example, no one would presume that New Yorkers are idolaters because of the presence of the Statue of Liberty. Furthermore, a son should not be considered an idolater if he has a picture of his mother in his family room.
If one can have a picture of an earthly mother in his house, should one not expect to find a picture of Jesus’ mother in the Church, which is the house of God? Some may argue that images are permissible, so long as they are never used for religious purposes. However, since images filled the temple of Solomon—which was the most religious place in Israel—this argument is not biblically sound.
While images may be created, they may never be given the worship that is due to God alone. For a prime example, consider Numbers 21, where God commanded Moses to make a bronze serpent to heal the Israelites. This bronze serpent was kept by the Israelites for hundreds of years, until it was destroyed because some began to idolize it. In the words of Martin Luther, “Nothing else can be drawn from the words: ‘Thou shalt have no strange gods before me’ except what relates to idolatry. But where pictures or sculptures are made without idolatry, the making of such things is not forbidden.”
Some will concede that having an image is permissible, but showing reverence to it is nothing short of idolatry. So, if a Catholic bows before a created thing, does this necessitate an act of divine worship? Throughout the scriptures, one can read of numerous examples of men bowing before others (Gen 33:3; 1 Kings 1:23), lying prostrate before angels (Gen 19:1), and falling to the ground before the Ark of the Covenant (Jos. 7:6) without dishonoring God. However, the Bible records that the same postures are idolatrous when given to men (Acts 10:25-26), angels (Rev. 19:10), or things (Judges 2:17) in other circumstances.
The Greek word proskuneo is often used in these passages to describe an act such as bowing down before another. In two passages, the word may connote the same external action of bowing, but be permissible in one account and blasphemous in the other. The distinction is not to be found in the external posture, but in the disposition of the heart. When Cornelius fell to the feet of Peter in Acts 10:25 to pay him homage, Peter reprimanded him, saying, “Get up, I myself am also a human being.” But when David prostrated himself on the ground three times before Jonathan, he received no such rebuke (1 Sam. 20:41). The reason for the different responses is because worship is ultimately determined within the mind and heart of the one making the act of reverence. Jonathan knew that David was not worshiping him, but paying him reverence.
In the same way, a Catholic bows reverently before a statue of Mary. The honor is shown not because the image is a goddess deserving of divine worship, but because it is a visible representation of a person who deserves honor and love. This is done with the same intention of a homesick child kissing a picture of his mother.
It is also worth clarifying that Catholics do not pray to statues, but rather pray before them. Catholics are well aware that a porcelain saint cannot hear them or answer their petitions. The sculpture or painting serves only as a visible reminder of the reality that currently lies beyond one’s senses. It is for this reason that Martin Luther said, “One cannot grasp spiritual things unless images are made of them.”
To honor an image of Mary is to honor the spiritual and maternal reality beyond that image—Our Mother.
Jason Evert, a Catholic Apologist with Catholic Answers, holds a Graduate degree in Theology from Franciscan University of Steubenville. He specializes in the area of Christian chastity, and offers chasitity talks to thousands of youth each year.