|Christ Pantocrator, one of the first images of Christ developed by the early church|
Image from sophiainstitutenyc.org
Yesterday I talked about what it means to make an idol and worship it. Here is the text from Exodus 20: "You are not to make any idol or image of other gods. In fact, you are not to make an image of anything in the heavens above, on the earth below, or in the water beneath. You are not to bow down and serve any image, for I, the Eternal your God, am a jealous God." (Exodus 20:4-5a, The Voice).
A graven image (how the King James version translates it) is an idol carved out of stone, wood, or metal. What is at the heart of this directive is a caution against creating the gods we want: gods who would give us control over the complexities and problems of life. An idol is a counterfeit, a dangerous substitute for relationship with the one True God (The Voice commentary). The second word given by God is a reminder that the Holy One is beyond our senses, the Father in heaven cannot be controlled or manipulated, and the Eternal is a living person, not an object.
Shortly after these directives were given to the nation of Israel, we read the story of Aaron making a golden calf for the people to worship (Exodus 32). Because Moses was nowhere to be seen (he was up on the mountain doing God knows what), the people came to Aaron and asked him to make them a god, something tangible they could worship, something which could lead them forward, give them direction. Aaron asked for their gold, the people willingly gave it, and out of this he fashioned an idol in the shape of a calf. The people were elated, Aaron built an altar in front of the golden calf and declared that they would have a feast to the Eternal One. And so the idol worship began.
Some sobering lessons to learn from this story.
1. True worship of God is not birthed in impatience.
2. True worship of God is not birthed out of a need for something tangible.
3. True worship of God is not birthed through demanding that leaders make something happen.
4. True worship of God is not found in expensive and impressive furnishings and equipment.
5. True worship of God is not a payment for something to happen. Worship is a reflection of God's loving generosity and faithfulness, not an exchange whereby we give God worship in order to secure God's generosity.
6. True worship of God not a product of our own imagination or labour.
7. True worship of God is not about pleasing or appeasing people.
8. We must be careful not to redefine idolatry and call it worship. God tells us how to worship him, we can't do it any way we want See Exodus 21-31 and John 4:23-24.
So does this mean that we should avoid all imagery, all paintings, pictures, statues, or visual representations of God? The overly cautious iconoclasts would probably say yes. I side more with the Orthodox who view icons as an important aid in worship. Icons, like hymns, prayers, scripture readings, and other rituals we regularly incorporate in our personal and corporate worship, are windows offering movement in two directions: we commune with God and he communes with us. Instead of using words to describe God, icons use colours, lines, and shapes. Some call it theology in colour. The second word is not about outlawing images, but about how we use images. We can gaze at a picture in a magazine and desire to possess and own the object or person. That's an idolatrous gaze. Or we can gaze at a picture of a loved one and grow in affection for them, desiring to be with them. That's an iconic gaze. The iconic picture is meant to lead us to an encounter.
Similarly, in Celtic spirituality we have this phrase, "thin place," which refers to a place where the boundary between heaven and earth is very thin, where one can catch a glimpse of the divine. In the Old Testament we find many such thin places: the burning bush, Mount Sinai, the covenant God made with Israel, the pillar of cloud and pillar of fire, the tabernacle, the fiery furnace (Daniel). In the New Testament, the primary thin place is Jesus, where heaven and earth, divine and human, co-exist in a person. I believe that thin places are sometimes happened upon, like the burning bush, but we can also cultivate thin places in our lives. When I sit down at my table every morning and read the scriptures, I am cultivating a thin place. The more I do it, the more likely I am to encounter Jesus there. When we meet every week as a faith community, we are cultivating a thin place. Every time we gather together to worship, to pray, to speak about Jesus, to love and care for each other, we invite the presence of God into our midst.
Dean and I visited the Abbey at Iona a few years ago. This is a place where God has been worshiped daily for over a millennium, where prayers have been prayed by many saints over hundreds of years. And it is one of those thin places where the presence of God is tangible. St. Joseph's Oratory in Montreal is another thin place, a place with a rich history of healing, a place where hundreds come to pray and worship. It is great to visit these special places, but I am equally devoted to creating thin places in my own life, cultivating worship and prayer in faithful ways which not only draw me close to God but make his presence available for others.
Let this be one of the gifts we, as worshipers of God, give this world: a thin place where others can encounter God.