Apologia: The Fullness of Christian Truth

``Where the Bishop is, there let the multitude of believers be;
even as where Jesus is, there is the Catholic Church'' Ignatius of Antioch, 1st c. A.D

Sacramentals I

Dura Europus Synagogue

God's prohibition against "graven images" (pecel is the relevant Hebrew word, which the Jews translated as "eidoloi", i.e. "idols," in the Septuagint) in the First Commandment (or Second Commandment, depending on your numbering system of the Decalogue) in no way prohibits art; it's a prohibition against the making of idols, i.e., false gods. This can be the only interpretation of this Commandment for any other interpretation would make a liar out of God -- blasphemy! He commands Moses to make a fiery serpent (Numbers 21:8) and commands the Israelites to adorn the Ark of the Covenant with statues of gilded cherubim (Exodus 25 and Exodus 26). Solomon's Temple was dripping in ornateness -- carved cherubim, palm trees, open flowers (I Kings 6) -- and it was commanded to be so by God (1 Chronicles 28:18-19). Ezekiel's visionary Temple (Ezekiel 41) was likewise filled with statuary... And what to make of interior of the 3rd c. Dura Europus Synagogue, literally covered in frescoes (see picture above for one of the many Old Testament scenes depicted in the synagogue)?

From the very earliest times, Christians, too, have used images to aid in worship, just as our Hebrew ancestors did. Here is how 19th c. archaeologist Rodolfo Lanciani describes his investigation of just one single area of the Christian Catacombs:

When, on December 19, I entered the cubiculum no. 54, in which the paintings are, and he began to point out to me the outlines of figures and objects, I thought he was laboring under an optical delusion; I could see nothing beyond a blackened and mouldy plaster surface. My eyes, however, soon became initiated to the new experience, and able to round the lines of this curious palimpsest. The dark spots soon grew into shape, and lovely groups, inspired by the purest Christian symbolism, appeared on the walls. There are thirteen pictures, representing the following-named subjects: the Annunciation, the three Magi following the star (which is shaped like the monogram Chi-Rho), their Adoration at Bethlehem, the Baptism of our Lord, the Last Judgment, the healing of the blind, the woman of Samaria, the Good Shepherd (twice), the Orantes (twice).

See the fresco of Christ as the Good Shepherd from the Priscilla Catacombs and the statue of Christ as the Good Shepherd, ca. A.D. 225 below.

Christ as Good Shepherd, Catacombs

Catholics use statuary and other icons in the same way most people use photographs of their children on their desks at the office: to remind them of someone. A statue of Christ reminds us where all salvation comes from. Seeing an icon of Mary reminds us of her humility before her Son and Savior and acts as a "window into Heaven". A statue of St. Francis of Asissi reminds us of his obedience. A statue of Thérèse of Lisieux reminds us that all of us can find sainthood even if we're "little" and "unimportant". And so on. [see Communion of Saints for more on the Saints themselves as opposed to representations of them]

The Catechism of the Catholic Church makes very clear the Catholic stance against idolatry:

2112 The first commandment condemns polytheism. It requires man neither to believe in, nor to venerate, other divinities than the one true God. Scripture constantly recalls this rejection of "idols, [of] silver and gold, the work of men's hands. They have mouths, but do not speak; eyes, but do not see." These empty idols make their worshippers empty: "Those who make them are like them; so are all who trust in them."God, however, is the "living God" who gives life and intervenes in history.

2113 Idolatry not only refers to false pagan worship. It remains a constant temptation to faith. Idolatry consists in divinizing what is not God. Man commits idolatry whenever he honors and reveres a creature in place of God, whether this be gods or demons (for example, satanism), power, pleasure, race, ancestors, the state, money, etc. Jesus says, "You cannot serve God and mammon." Many martyrs died for not adoring "the Beast" refusing even to simulate such worship. Idolatry rejects the unique Lordship of God; it is therefore incompatible with communion with God.

2114 Human life finds its unity in the adoration of the one God. The commandment to worship the Lord alone integrates man and saves him from an endless disintegration. Idolatry is a perversion of man's innate religious sense. An idolater is someone who "transfers his indestructible notion of God to anything other than God." [quoting Origen's Contra Celsum]

Another important thing to keep in mind when considering whether or not images displease God, which they obviously don't in themselves or He wouldn't have commanded the Israelites to make some, is to remember that God became flesh in the Person of Jesus Christ. Christ is an "icon" of the Father: "He who believes in Me, believes not in Me but in Him Who sent Me. And he who sees Me sees Him Who sent Me" (John 12:44-45). Christ is "iconic" in the sense that there was God Himself, in a form that we can see. As St. John of Damascas (b. A.D. 676) wrote:

"It is obvious that when you contemplate God becoming man, then you may depict Him clothed in human form. When the invisible One becomes visible to flesh, you may then draw His likeness. When He who is bodiless and without form, immeasurable in the boundlessness of His own nature, existing in the form of God, empties Himself and takes the form of a servant in substance and in stature and is found in a body of flesh, then you may draw His image and show it to anyone willing to gaze upon it"

If you truly believe, though, that God doesn't want people making statues, icons, or other images at all, for any reason, be sure to contact the Louvre and have them throw out all the Bernini and Michelangelo sculpture and paintings by Rembrandt... We might have to get rid of the Lincoln Memorial and Mount Rushmore, also. Oh, and don't forget to toss out your daughter's dolls, your "Precious Moments" figurines, teddy bear refrigerator magnets, family pictures, and video collection, too! The Taliban awaits you.


Most statues in Catholic Churches aren't "graven" anyway; they come from plaster molds. I wouldn't have thought about getting persnickety about such things, but then I came across this conversation online (edited):

Tessy62 - what exactly is a graven image?
BrBob - Carved
decrease - it is like idol, Tessy.
BrBob - Like a statue
Tessy62 - what about crosses in churches, statues in catholic churches?
flick - does it have to be carved or just made by man?
DelaYah - graven......6459. pecel, peh'-sel; from H6458; an idol:--carved (graven) image.
BrBob - Yeah, Tessy
Tessy62 - those are wrong too?
Schmuel - yep they are graven images
decrease - yeah there are many relics, statue of Mary, etc in Catholic churches.
DelaYah - very wrong!
deemike - what if i carved a bear out of wood and sold it for a way to make my food
Tessy62 - gee.
BrBob - No problem with that
Tessy62 - as long u dont worship it right?
BrBob - Unless you worship the bear
Schmuel - or the food
claudia - deemike.....I think it is something you bow the knee to or worship
deemike - that is what i think also
Tessy62 - thats chilling. i bet people dont think about it..even crosses are wrong?
deemike - i have some glass bears that my son gave me when he was a little boy
BrTom - The glass bears are OK
Hmmm, so: images of Mary and crosses are bad (whether they are truly "graven" or not); graven images of bears are OK, at least if you sell them for food; glass images of bears are most definitely OK, at least if given to you by your son. In fact all images -- even "graven" ones! -- seem to be OK unless they're Catholic or the Washington Monument (which probably is a Masonic thing).

It's either that sort of hypocrisy that's being shown above, or it's a simple matter of their not believing that Catholics don't worship plaster, wood, or marble, no matter how many Catholics tell them they don't, no matter how deeply the Catechism expresses the Church's abhorrence of idolatry. The only answer to that, I guess, is "whatever."

Or is it the respect shown for sacred objects that's the problem? Catholics bow to icons and pray in front of (not to) statues -- surely that's idolatry, eh? Nope. I don't know about you, but when the American flag comes out, my hand goes right over my heart. Am I worshipping cloth? I think not, and most Americans know the difference between respect shown for one's country through the flag and "cloth-worship." I also kiss pictures of family members (I can't help it; I'm Italian) but am not in love with photographs per se. And how much you want to bet that the owner of the glass bears above doesn't treat those bears with loving care? Is that "worship" of the glass bears or a simple expression of love for her son? Don't you have a special place in your house for Holy Scripture? Don't you treat that "mere paper" in a special way? I imagine that if you are like most Christians, the idea of throwing Scripture against the wall or spitting on it is nauseating. Does this mean you worship a book? The Ark of the Covenant with its carved cherubim and the stone tablets it contained were "things" that were treated with great reverence. Were the Israelites worshipping those objects? And if you still don't get it, would you mind if someone threw darts at pictures of your children? And if you were to mind, does that make you an idolator? I mean, really. Think about it.

There was a television show back in the day called "People are Funny," hosted by Art Linkletter. In an episode that aired on April 4, 1955, Mr. Linkletter invited a female champion skeet shooter on to the show, ostensibly to show off her skills with a gun. Pictures of various faces would drop down, and she was to shoot the images between the eyes. Unbeknownst to her, Mr. Linkletter arranged things such that one of the pictures that dropped was of the woman's husband. Here's how it went:

Mrs. Thompson: Ohhhhh no! (audience laughs)
Art Linkletter: Whats' the matter, Mrs. Thompson?
Mrs. Thompson: Well, that's my husband!
Art Linkletter: No, no, no, no, Mrs. Thompson, that is not your husband; --
Mrs. Thompson: Oh yes, it is!
Art Linkletter: --- that's a picture of your husband.
Mrs. Thompson: Oh, well, I still won't shoot him.
Art Linkletter: For forty dollars you won't shoot it?

Needless to say, Mrs. Thompson refused.

Because of the illogic and hypocrisy of some people's attitudes toward Catholics on this matter (similar Old Testament practices and post-Temple Jewish behaviors don't seem to bother these same people), I sometimes I think it all amount to bigotry against non-Jewish Mediterranean and Eastern cultures. Truly. The Pope kisses the ground of a country he visits, or a visitor to the Vatican kisses his ring (to honor his ministry, don't you know), and some Protestants have coronaries! Meanwhile, the Italian, the Spaniard, the Russian, the Pole, and the Greek "get it" just fine. I hate to break it to everyone, but the first Christians were Jews and Peter took his ministry to Rome, Italy, a place where the men kiss each other on the cheek, the women talk with their hands, and the children are above average. I can see how these physical, sometimes emotional displays can make someone who is not used to them uncomfortable, but -- well, we're perfectly fine with it, thanks. Just don't assume the worst ("They kiss the Pope's ring!!!!! They think he is God!!!!!!!!!!!!!" Devil-children, them Catlickers are!!!!).

Christ as the Good Shepherd, ca. A.D. 225
Christ as the Good Shepherd,
ca. A.D. 225 


And this brings us to:

Holy water (which recalls our Baptism), blessed salt, holy oil ("chrism" or "oil of gladness"), relics, the sign of the cross, the blessing of meals, homes and liturgical implements, etc. -- the entire concept that objects and rituals can become "sacramentals," can be "set apart" and consecrated for devotional use. "Where's THAT in the Bible?" Catholics are often asked as they are accused of being dabblers in "magic." The answer: everywhere! From the Old Testament bones of Elisha and consecrations of altars and tabernacles and candesticks to the New Testament miracles involving material things like the hem of Jesus' garment, the mere shadow of St. Peter, and even mud and spit, blessed objects and ritual are entirely Biblical (see Relevant Scripture below).

A reminder: "And God saw every thing that He had made, and, behold, it was very good." To believe that nature in itself is evil is the heresy of gnosticism! Nature is GOOD. Matter and flesh are GOOD. God Himself took on flesh -- how bad can flesh be? But God's sacramental creation is broken and has been since sin entered the world through Adam. Christ redeems, however, and the Holy Spirit sanctifies. The Church, in Her wisdom, calls on the power of God to do just those things as Her priests bless objects or people to dedicate them to a sacred purpose. From the Catechism:

For well-disposed members of the faithful, the liturgy of the sacraments and sacramentals sanctifies almost every event of their lives with the divine grace which flows from the Paschal mystery of the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Christ. From this source all sacraments and sacramentals draw their power. There is scarcely any proper use of material things which cannot be thus directed toward the sanctification of men and the praise of God. [emphasis mine]

If you don't like the idea of sacred things, then the burden of proof is on you: when did God change the nature of these things? When did the bones of Elisha lose their sacredness? At what point in St. Peter's life did his shadow lose its power to heal, by the grace of Christ? If you came across the robe that Jesus wore when the bleeding woman touched the hem, would you think that it's just a piece of fabric -- or would you treat it as a holy relic? Where does God say in the Bible that there is no longer any such thing as a sacred object?

The Sign of the Cross

Self-described Torah-true Jews to this day wear tefillin on their foreheads and arms as a sign of their identity and devotion1. This practice stems from Deuteronomy 6:4-8:

"Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God is one LORD: And thou shalt love the LORD thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might. And these words, which I command thee this day, shall be in thine heart: And thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children, and shalt talk of them when thou sittest in thine house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up. And thou shalt bind them for a sign upon thine hand, and they shall be as frontlets between thine eyes."

Compare those words with the words of St. Cyril, Bishop of Jerusalem (d. A.D. 386)

"Let us, therefore, not be ashamed of the Cross of Christ; but though another hide it, do thou openly seal it upon thy forehead, that the devils may behold the royal sign and flee trembling far away. Make then this sign at eating and drinking, at sitting, at lying down, at rising up, at speaking, at walking: in a word, at every act."

God speaking, through Ezekiel, to the remnant of Israel (and don't forget that the Church is "Israel"!), tells the faithful:

And the LORD said unto him, Go through the midst of the city, through the midst of Jerusalem, and set a mark upon the foreheads of the men that sigh and that cry for all the abominations that be done in the midst thereof. (Ezekiel 9:4)

The Catholic Sign of the Cross is absolutely ancient, rooted not only in the Old Testament but the New (Revelation/Apocalypse speaks of those who have the sign of God in their foreheads -- and those who have the sign of the Beast in their foreheads. See Relevant Scripture below). When Catholics undergo the Sacrament of Confirmation, the Bishop (sometimes a priest) seals the sign on our foreheads with holy chrism ("oil of gladness"). St. John of Damascus wrote, "This was given to us as a sign on our forehead, just as the circumcision was given to Israel: for by it we believers are separated and distinguished from unbelievers." Crossing one's self recalls this seal, and the invocation that is said while making this holy sign calls on our God -- the Father, His Son, and the Holy Spirit (the use of holy water when making this sign also recalls our Baptism).

The Sign of the Cross is made thusly2: Using two fingers signifying the two natures of Christ (human and divine) or three fingers signifying the Trinity (Eastern Catholic and Orthodox use):

  • touch the forehead and say (or pray mentally) "In the name of the Father,"
  • touch the breastbone and say "and of the Son,"

  • touch the left shoulder, then right shoulder, as you say "and of the Holy Ghost"3

Eastern Catholics (and Orthodox) go from right shoulder to left and end by touching their right side, above the hip, to symbolize Christ's being pierced by the sword. We send a visible sign to the world and follow the advice of St. Ephrem of Syria (died A.D. 373):

"Mark all your actions with the sign of the lifegiving Cross. Do not go out from "the door of your house till you have signed yourself with the Cross. Do not neglect that sign whether in eating or drinking or going to sleep, or in the home or going on a journey. There is no habit to be compared with it. Let it be a protecting wall round all your conduct, and teach it to your children that they may earnestly learn the custom."

1 Similar to the way many good Catholics keep holy water fonts near their front doors, Torah-true Jews also, to this day, affix to their doorposts a mezuzah, a little box containing a scroll inscribed with passages of the Torah. And, as a sidenote, they also kiss the mezuzah and tefillin as a display of veneration for what they represent.

2 There are other signs of the Cross that Catholics make, too. One is to cross one's self or another making a small cross on the forehead with the thumb (think of blessing your children in this way!. NB: the use of "bless" here refers to a parental blessing -- i.e., more or less a prayer for God's grace for your child. Priests alone have the power to bless in the name of the Church, to bless objects rendering them sacramentals, etc.).

Another sign is the large sign made in the air by bishops, priests, and others in blessing persons or material objects.

Yet another is the series of small crosses made by the thumb on the forehead, lips and breast just before the Gospel reading at Mass. The sign on the forehead is to show that we believe the Gospel, the sign on the lips is to show that we respect if and desire to speak of it, and the sign on our breast is to show that we love the Gospel and want it kept in our hearts.

3 The words in Latin are "In nomine Patris et Filii et Spiritus Sancti." Hebrew Catholics often sign themselves using the appropriate Hebrew words: "B'shem haAv (In the name of the Father) v'haBen (and of the Son) v'Ruach haKodesh (and of the Holy Spirit)."

Relevant Scripture

Genesis 1:31
And God saw every thing that he had made, and, behold, it was very good. And the evening and the morning were the sixth day.

Exodus 13:19
And Moses took the bones of Joseph with him: for he had straitly sworn the children of Israel, saying, God will surely visit you; and ye shall carry up my bones away hence with you.

Exodus 25:18-22
"And you shall make two cherubim of gold; of hammered work shall you make them, on the two ends of the kapporeth. Make one cherub on the one end, and one cherub on the other end; of one piece with the kapporeth shall you make the cherubim on its two ends. The cherubim shall spread out their wings above, overshadowing the kapporeth with their wings, their faces one to another; toward the kapporeth shall the faces of the cherubim be. And you shall put the kapporeth on the top of the ark; and in the ark you shall put the testimony that I shall give you. There I will meet with you, and from above the kapporeth, from between the two cherubim that are upon the ark of the testimony, I will speak with you of all that I will give you in commandment for the people of Israel."

Exodus 26:1
"Moreover you shall make the tabernacle with ten curtains of fine twined linen and blue and purple and scarlet stuff; with cherubim skilfully worked shall you make them."

Exodus 29:7
Then shalt thou take the anointing oil, and pour it upon his head, and anoint him.

Exodus 30:25-31
And thou shalt make it an oil of holy ointment, an ointment compound after the art of the apothecary: it shall be an holy anointing oil. And thou shalt anoint the tabernacle of the congregation therewith, and the ark of the testimony, And the table and all his vessels, and the candlestick and his vessels, and the altar of incense, And the altar of burnt offering with all his vessels, and the laver and his foot. And thou shalt sanctify them, that they may be most holy: whatsoever toucheth them shall be holy. And thou shalt anoint Aaron and his sons, and consecrate them, that they may minister unto me in the priest's office. And thou shalt speak unto the children of Israel, saying, This shall be an holy anointing oil unto me throughout your generations.

Leviticus 2:13
And every offering of your grain offering you shall season with salt; you shall not allow the salt of the covenant of your God to be lacking from your grain offering. With all your offerings you shall offer salt.

Numbers 5:17
And the priest shall take holy water in an earthen vessel; and of the dust that is in the floor of the tabernacle the priest shall take, and put it into the water:

Numbers 21:8
And the LORD said unto Moses, Make thee a fiery serpent, and set it upon a pole: and it shall come to pass, that every one that is bitten, when he looketh upon it, shall live. [Note John 3:14 - "And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up"]

Deuteronomy 6:4-8
Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God is one LORD: And thou shalt love the LORD thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might. And these words, which I command thee this day, shall be in thine heart: And thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children, and shalt talk of them when thou sittest in thine house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up. And thou shalt bind them for a sign upon thine hand, and they shall be as frontlets between thine eyes.

1 Kings. 6:23-28
In the inner sanctuary he made two cherubim of olivewood, each ten cubits high. Five cubits was the length of one wing of the cherub, and five cubits the length of the other wing of the cherub; it was ten cubits from the tip of one wing to the tip of the other. The other cherub also measured ten cubits; both cherubim had the same measure and the same form. The height of one cherub was ten cubits, and so was that of the other cherub. He put the cherubim in the innermost part of the house; and the wings of the cherubim were spread out so that a wing of one touched the one wall, and a wing of the other cherub touched the other wall; their other wings touched each other in the middle of the house. And he overlaid the cherubim with gold.

1 Kings 6:29-30
And he carved all the walls of the house round about with carved figures of cherubims and palm trees and open flowers, within and without.

2 Kings 13:20-21
And Elisha died, and they buried him. And the bands of the Moabites invaded the land at the coming in of the year. And it came to pass, as they were burying a man, that, behold, they spied a band of men; and they cast the man into the sepulchre of Elisha: and when the man was let down, and touched the bones of Elisha, he revived, and stood up on his feet.

1 Chronicles 28:18-19
And for the altar of incense refined gold by weight; and gold for the pattern of the chariot of the cherubims, that spread out their wings, and covered the ark of the covenant of the LORD. All this, said David, the LORD made me understand in writing by his hand upon me, even all the works of this pattern.

Ezekiel 9:4
And the LORD said unto him, Go through the midst of the city, through the midst of Jerusalem, and set a mark upon the foreheads of the men that sigh and that cry for all the abominations that be done in the midst thereof.

Ezekiel. 41:17-19
"And on all the walls round about in the inner room and the nave were carved likenesses of cherubim and palm trees, a palm tree between cherub and cherub. Every cherub had two faces: the face of a man toward the palm tree on the one side, and the face of a young lion toward the palm tree on the other side. They were carved on the whole temple round about"

Matthew 26: 7-10
There came unto him a woman having an alabaster box of very precious ointment, and poured it on his head, as he sat at meat. But when his disciples saw it, they had indignation, saying, To what purpose is this waste? For this ointment might have been sold for much, and given to the poor. When Jesus understood it, he said unto them, Why trouble ye the woman? for she hath wrought a good work upon me.

Mark 5:25
And a certain woman, which had an issue of blood twelve years, And had suffered many things of many physicians, and had spent all that she had, and was nothing bettered, but rather grew worse, When she had heard of Jesus, came in the press behind, and touched his garment. For she said, If I may touch but his clothes, I shall be whole. And straightway the fountain of her blood was dried up; and she felt in her body that she was healed of that plague.

Mark 6:13
And they cast out many devils, and anointed with oil many that were sick, and healed them.

Mark 7:32-35
And they bring unto him one that was deaf, and had an impediment in his speech; and they beseech him to put his hand upon him. And he took him aside from the multitude, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spit, and touched his tongue; And looking up to heaven, he sighed, and saith unto him, Ephphatha, that is, Be opened.

Mark 8:22-24
And he cometh to Bethsaida; and they bring a blind man unto him, and besought him to touch him. And he took the blind man by the hand, and led him out of the town; and when he had spit on his eyes, and put his hands upon him, he asked him if he saw ought. And he looked up, and said, I see men as trees, walking.

John 9:6
When he had thus spoken, he spat on the ground, and made clay of the spittle, and he anointed the eyes of the blind man with the clay,

Acts 5:15-16
Insomuch that they brought forth the sick into the streets, and laid them on beds and couches, that at the least the shadow of Peter passing by might overshadow some of them. There came also a multitude out of the cities round about unto Jerusalem, bringing sick folks, and them which were vexed with unclean spirits: and they were healed every one.

Acts 19:11-12
And God wrought special miracles by the hands of Paul: So that from his body were brought unto the sick handkerchiefs or aprons, and the diseases departed from them, and the evil spirits went out of them.

Galatians 3:13-14
Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us: for it is written, Cursed is every one that hangeth on a tree: That the blessing of Abraham might come on the Gentiles through Jesus Christ; that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith.

James 5:14
Is any sick among you? let him call for the elders of the church; and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord:

Revelation 7:3
Saying, Hurt not the earth, neither the sea, nor the trees, till we have sealed the servants of our God in their foreheads.

Revelation 9:4
And it was commanded them that they should not hurt the grass of the earth, neither any green thing, neither any tree; but only those men which have not the seal of God in their foreheads.

Revelation 14:9-10
And the third angel followed them, saying with a loud voice, If any man worship the beast and his image, and receive his mark in his forehead, or in his hand, The same shall drink of the wine of the wrath of God, which is poured out without mixture into the cup of his indignation; and he shall be tormented with fire and brimstone in the presence of the holy angels, and in the presence of the Lamb [the Antichrist has his sign, too!]

Further Reading

"Sacramentals" entry from the Catholic Encyclopedia


Defense of Catholicism