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Veneration of Icons and Images

Veneration of Icons and Religious Images

– Answered by Father Johann Roten, S.M.

Q: Why doesn't the Catholic Church discourage bowing down to images of Mary or Jesus or any icon?

A: It is the first commandment that makes reference to graven images and idols (Deut. 4,15-16). This aspect of the first commandment means not to replace God the ineffable and omnipotent with a graven image. He is infinitely greater than all the material aliases of him. On the other hand, God himself ordained or permitted the making of images that pointed symbolically toward his holiness and salvific power: see the bronze serpent, the ark of the covenant, and the cherubim (Num. 21,4-9; Wis. 16,5-14; Ex. 25, 10-22; 1 Kings 6,23-28; 7, 23-26). The seventh Ecumenical Council of Nicaea (787) justified the veneration of icons of Christ, his mother and the angels and saints. The ultimate justification of images is God's incarnation in Christ: by taking a human body and nature, God made himself visible and material. The honor paid to sacred images is a "respectful veneration," not the adoration due to God alone. Christian veneration of images is not idolatrous, sacrilegious because the honor rendered to an image passes to its prototype, meaning to the person portrayed in the image. Images are mere things in themselves, but they are leading us on to God incarnate. The "bowing down" has a variety of meanings: in some cultures people like you and me bow before each other. Therefore it is important to know what the "bowing down" means. In the Catholic Church "bowing down" is contrasted to genuflection (kneeling). Generally, the latter indicates worship (God), the former is a lesser act on honoring somebody, i.e. Mary or a saint.

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