SCRIPTURE READINGS: [ Ex 40:16-2134-38Ps 83:3-6,8,11Mt 13:47-53 ]

Catholics are often accused of not being faithful to the bible and branded as idol worshippers.  This is because of the rich sacramentals, icons, images and symbols that we use for our worship, devotion and liturgy.  Are we breaking the first commandment as some accuse us of?  What does the first commandment forbid?  “You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them or serve them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God.”  (Ex 20:3f)

If that were so, it would seem contradictory that Moses, having punished the Israelites for making the golden calf, ordered the construction of a Tabernacle to house the Ark where the Ten Commandments were kept and where they could offer burnt offerings.  (cf Ex 35-40)  This Tent of Meeting would become the sacred place where God was present in a very special way. “The cloud covered the Tent of Meeting and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle.  Moses could not enter the Tent of Meeting because of the cloud that rested on it and because of the glory of the Lord that filled the tabernacle.”   Not only was it the Sacred Presence of God, we read that the Tabernacle accompanied and guided them along their journey.  “At every stage of their journey, whenever the cloud rose from the tabernacle the sons of Israel would resume their march.  If the cloud did not rise, they waited and would not march until it did.  For the cloud of the Lord rested on the tabernacle by day, and a fire shone within the cloud by night, for all the House of Israel to see.  And so it was for every stage of their journey.”

The truth remains that in spite of the anger that God and Moses felt with the people who made the golden calf, there was still the human need to remember the presence of God.  That was what Aaron said to Moses. “Let not the anger of my Lord burn hot; you know the people, that they are set on evil. For they said to me, ‘Make us gods who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.’”  (Ex 32:22f)  Human beings are not pure spirit and we need tangible things to see and feel to help us feel the closeness of God and of our loved ones.  Human beings need signs, symbols and things to convey the deeper reality of their experiences.   We need sacred symbols.  Hence, since time immemorial, shrines have been constructed so that God could be remembered and worshipped.

This explains why the Tabernacle was replaced 500 years later by the Temple built by King Solomon.  Jesus Himself would visit the Temple yearly for worship.  The Temple was most sacred to the Israelites and the Jews.  In their history, the destruction and desecration of the Temple was considered the most heinous crimes that could be committed.  The Maccabean brothers died to purify the Temple as we read in the book of Maccabees.  It was one of the charges against Jesus when he was brought to trial before the High Priest. (cf Mt 26:61)  In years to come, the Torah was considered the most holy book of the Jews.  The psalmist felt the presence of God in the Temple.  He said, “How lovely is your dwelling-place, Lord, God of hosts.  My soul is longing and yearning, is yearning for the courts of the Lord. They are happy, who dwell in your house, forever singing your praise.  They walk with ever-growing strength, they will see the God of gods in Zion. One day within your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere. The threshold of the house of God I prefer to the dwellings of the wicked.”  So we cannot deny the need of human beings to create symbols and things to remind them of God’s presence.

Thus, in the Catholic Church, we make use of many signs and symbols to mediate God’s presence so that people could be led to contemplate on the greatness and splendor of God.  Just like in the Old Testament where Moses ordered the people to establish an elaborate liturgy with the intricate vestments and sacred vessels to enhance the awesomeness of God’s presence, so does the Church as well in her liturgy.  No one can deny that such sacramentals employed by the Church enrich and bring out the liturgical celebration and help the worshippers to experience interiorly what they express externally.

This is where there is a thin line between idolatry and sacramentals.  Idolatry is to make an image and worship it as a god.  To render homage to something that is of the earth, created by God who is the source of everything is to deny that there is only one God. This is what the first commandment seeks to emphasize that God is One.  There is also the historical context where the pagan neighbours of the Israelites worshipped many other gods that they had carved for themselves.  To worship a thing as if it is a god, is to worship an illusion and to worship nothingness.  In other words, idols are not real.  As the psalm says, “Their idols are silver and gold, the work of men’s hands. They have mouths, but do not speak; eyes, but do not see. They have ears, but do not hear; noses, but do not smell. They have hands, but do not feel; feet, but do not walk; and they do not make a sound in their throat. Those who make them are like them; so are all who trust in them.”  (Ps 115:4-8)

Sacramentals are different.  They are instituted by the Church.  They are not identified with the reality but put us in a right disposition to receive God’s grace.  Sacramentals “are sacred signs which bear a resemblance to the sacraments. They signify effects, particularly of a spiritual nature, which are obtained through the intercession of the Church. By them, men are disposed to receive the chief effect of the sacraments, and various occasions in life are rendered holy” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 1667). They are firstly not carved images of God who is pure Spirit, but they are images of people and things that we have seen, for example, the image of the cross, the crucifix, our Lord, Mary and the Saints.   These images help us to focus our eyes on God.  Catholics do not identify the sacred things as the reality itself but as means by which God works so that we can experience tangibly His presence, as in the Temple or the Ark of the Covenant which the Israelites brought with them to win battles against their enemies.

At its highest level, the Church uses Sacraments instituted by Christ which are outward signs that give grace to those who receive them worthily.  The Eucharist is par excellence of the presence of Christ because He transformed bread and wine to be His body and blood.  Another sacrament is the Sacrament of the Sick. Even Jesus asked the disciples to use oil to heal the sick.  “And they cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many that were sick and healed them.”  (Mk 6:13)  St James exhorted the Christians to do the same.  “Is any among you sick? 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; and the prayer of faith will save the sick man, and the Lord will raise him up; and if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven.”  (Jms 5:14)

Of course, these are means to the endwhich is to experience God’s healing grace and His presence.  As Jesus told the Samaritan woman, it is not which mountain we should worship “but true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for such the Father seeks to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” (Jn 4:23f)  In other words, it is the motive, the intention and the disposition of the heart and mind that matters.  The externals are merely means for us to create the right disposition for us to encounter God.  They are necessary means because human beings need to communicate and encounter reality through the incarnational means.  Sacraments and sacramentals are based on the Incarnation of our Lord.  God became man so that we can see Him as Jesus told Philip, “He who has seen me has seen the Father.’  (Jn 14:9)

The gospel puts everything in perspective.  In the parable of the dragnet, Jesus speaks about the need to sort out what is good and what is bad.  In the same way, we need to be vigilant with regard to the use of sacramentals, that popular piety does not fall into superstition but means to encounter God and the sacred.  The Church has this grave responsibility to ensure that they are used rightly.  “Manifestations of popular piety are subject to the jurisdiction of the local Ordinary. It is for him to regulate such manifestations, to encourage them as a means of assisting the faithful in living the Christian life, and to purify and evangelize them where necessary. He is also to ensure that they do not substitute for the Liturgy nor become part of the liturgical celebrations.”  (CDF, Directory On Popular Piety, no 21)

Indeed, Jesus encourages us to appreciate the past traditions and yet be open to new developments as well because faith is dynamic and circumstances are changing.  If the Church were to just insist on past traditions, we would be out of sync with the world.  When our symbols cannot mediate God’s presence anymore, we would have dead symbols which are useless and superstitious.  But we must be careful not to throw out all old traditions because they have much to teach us and are of use to us in our faith.  Truly, “every scribe who becomes a disciple of the kingdom of heaven is like a householder who brings out from his storeroom things both new and old.”