Not long ago a diocesan priest was celebrating a wedding Mass. The bride had been raised a Catholic, but the groom had not. He was a recent convert. His entire family and almost all of his friends at the wedding were non-Catholics. Since most of the bride’s guests weren’t Catholic either, it turned out that few people at the Mass understood what was going on, so the priest added explanations at appropriate points.
It’s traditional, at the conclusion of a Catholic wedding ceremony, for the bride to take a bouquet of flowers to a side altar and lay it at the feet of a statue of the Virgin Mary, at the same time praying to Mary, asking for her intercession (cf. 1 Tim. 2:1-4, Rev. 5:8, 8:3-4), that she might be as good a wife and mother as Mary had been.
A bad choice of words
When the time came for that gesture at this particular wedding, the priest tried to explain. He said that the placing of the flowers is done because “we Catholics worship Mary.” There was a collective sigh from the few Catholics in the church and a collective gasp from the non-Catholics, who felt their worst suspicions confirmed.
Was the priest right or wrong? Well, both. He was right, given his understanding of the word “worship,” though he was using it an almost archaic sense. He was surely wrong in using it in front of people who would misunderstand his meaning.
In common speech “worship” means the adoration given to God alone. In this sense Catholics don’t worship Mary or any of the other saints. In fact, the Catholic Church forbids any adoration to be given to any one or any thing but God. But in an older use of the term “worship” could cover not just the adoration of God but also the honor given to anyone deserving of honor.
Begin with the word itself. It comes from the Old English weorthscipe, which means the condition of being worthy of honor, respect, or dignity. To worship in the older, larger sense is to ascribe honor, worth, or excellence to someone, whether a sage, a magistrate, or God.
But there are different kinds of worship, just as there are different kinds of honor. The highest honor, and thus the highest worship, is given to God alone, while the honor or worship given to living men or to saints in heaven is of a different sort. Idolatry thus does not simply mean giving worship (in the old sense) to living men or to saints; it means giving them the kind reserved for God.
Nowadays, there is a problem using the word “worship” because in the popular mind it refers to the worship of God alone. For practical purposes it has come to mean nothing else than adoration. Although it was commonly used in the wider sense as recently as the nineteenth century (when, for instance, Orestes Brownson, an American Catholic writer, produced a book called The Worship of Mary), it is usually too confusing to use it that way now, as the example of the priest shows. It is wise to restrict its use to God and to use for saints and others terms like honor and veneration.
Is this distinction without a difference? It would be if the worship given to God were the same as the honor given to a saint. But it isn’t.
The term “worship” was used in the same way in the Bible that it used to be used in English. It could cover both the adoration given to God alone and the honor that is to be shown to certain human beings. In Hebrew, the term for worship is shakah. Its appropriately used for humans in a large number of passages.
For example, in Genesis 37:7-9 Joseph relates two dreams which God gave him concerning how his family would honor him in coming years. Translated literally the passage states: “‘[B]ehold, we were binding sheaves in the field, and lo, my sheaf arose and stood upright; and behold, your sheaves gathered round it, and worshipped [shakah] my sheaf.’ . . . Then he dreamed another dream, and told it to his brothers, and said, ‘Behold, I have dreamed another dream; and behold, the sun, the moon, and eleven stars were worshipping [shakah] me.'”
In Genesis 49:8, Jacob pronounced a prophetic blessing on his sons, and concerning Judah he stated: “Judah, your brothers shall praise you; your hand shall be on the neck of your enemies; your father’s sons shall worship [shakah] you.” And in Exodus 18:7, Moses honored his father-in-law, Jethro: “Moses went out to meet his father-in-law, and worshipped [shakah] him and kissed him; and they asked each other of their welfare, and went into the tent.”
Yet none of these passages were discussing the worship of adoration–the kind of worship given to God.
Consider how honor is given. We regularly give it to public officials. In the United States it is customary to address a judge as “Your Honor.” (It has been the British custom to address certain magistrates–here it comes–as “Your Worship,” but that is another can of worms.) In the marriage ceremony it used to be said that the wife would “love, honor, and obey” her husband. Letters to legislators are addressed to “The Honorable So-and-So.” And just about anyone, living or dead, who bears an exalted rank is said to be worthy of honor, and this particularly true of historical figures, as when children are (or at least used to be) instructed to honor the Founding Fathers.
These practices are entirely Biblical. We are explicitly commanded at numerous points in the Bible to honor certain people. One of the most important commands on this subject is the command to honor one’s parents: “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land which the Lord your God gives you.” (Ex. 20:12). God considered this command so important that he repeated it multiple times in the Bible (for example, Lev. 19:3, Deut. 5:16 Matt. 15:4, Luke 18:20, and Eph. 6:2-3). It was also important to give honor to one’s elders in general: “You shall rise up before the hoary head, and honor the face of an old man, and you shall fear your God: I am the Lord” (Lev. 19:32). It was also important to specially honor religious leaders: “Make sacred garments for your brother Aaron [the high priest], to give him dignity and honor” (Ex. 28:2).
The New Testament stresses the importance of honoring others no less than the Old Testament. The Apostle Paul commanded: “Pay all of them their dues, taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due” (Rom. 13:7). He also stated this as a principle regarding one’s employers: “Slaves, be obedient to those who are your earthly masters, with fear and trembling, in singleness of heart, as to Christ” (Eph. 6:5). “Let all who are under the yoke of slavery regard their masters as worthy of all honor, so that the name of God and the teaching may not be defamed” (1 Tim. 6:1). Perhaps the broadest command to honor others is found in 1 Peter: “Honor all men. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor” (1 Peter 2:17).
The New Testament also stresses the importance of honoring religious figures. Paul spoke of the need to give them special honor in 1 Timothy: “Let the presbyters [priests] who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching” (1 Tim. 5:17). Christ himself promised special blessings to those who honor religious figures: “He who receives a prophet because he is a prophet shall receive a prophet’s reward, and he who receives a righteous man [saint] because he is a righteous man shall receive a righteous man’s reward” (Matt. 10:41).
So, if there can be nothing wrong with honoring the living, who still have an opportunity to ruin their lives through sin, there certainly can be no argument against giving honor to saints whose lives are done and who ended them in sanctity. If people should be honored in general God’s special friends certainly should.
When we speak of honoring the saints, and particularly Mary, the greatest of the saints, what do we mean? How is this honor demonstrated? One way is through art. Our regard for the saints is shown through the employment of statues or paintings, just as we honor a deceased relative by keeping his photograph on the mantelpiece.
People who do not know better sometimes say that Catholics worship statues. Not only is this untrue, it is even untrue that Catholics honor statues. After all, a statue is nothing but a carved block of marble or a chunk of plaster, and no one gives honor to marble yet unquarried or to plaster still in the mixing bowl.
The fact that someone kneels before a statue to pray does not mean that he is praying to the statue, just as the fact that one kneels with a Bible in his hands to pray does not mean that he is worshipping the Bible. Statues or paintings or other artistic devices are used to recall to the mind the person or thing depicted. Just as it is easier to remember one’s mother by looking at her photograph, so it is easier to recall the lives of the saints by looking at representations of them.
The use of statues and icons for liturgical purposes (as opposed to idols) also had a place in the Old Testament. In Exodus 25:18-20, God commanded: “And you shall make two cherubim of gold; of hammered work shall you make them, on the two ends of the mercy seat. Make one cherub on the one end, and one cherub on the other end; of one piece with the mercy seat shall you make the cherubim on its two ends. The cherubim shall spread out their wings above, overshadowing the mercy seat with their wings, their faces one to another; toward the mercy seat shall the faces of the cherubim be.”
In Numbers 21:8-9, he told Moses: “‘Make a fiery serpent, and set it on a pole; and every one who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.’ So Moses made a bronze serpent, and set it on a pole; and if a serpent bit any man, he would look at the bronze serpent and live.” This shows the actual ceremonial use of a statue (looking to it) in order to receive a blessing from God (healing from snakebite). In John 3:14, Jesus tells us that he himself is what the bronze serpent represented, so it was a symbolic representation of Jesus. There was no problem with this statue–God had commanded it to be made–so long as people did not worship it. When they did, the righteous king Hezekiah had it destroyed (2 Kgs. 18:4). This clearly shows the difference between the proper religious use of statues and idolatry.
When the time came to build the Temple in Jerusalem, God inspired David’s plans for it, which included “his plan for the golden chariot of the cherubim that spread their wings and covered the ark of the covenant of the LORD. All this he made clear by the writing from the hand of the LORD concerning it, all the work to be done according to the plan” (1 Chr. 28:18-19).
In obedience to this divinely inspired plan, Solomon built two gigantic, golden statues of cherubim: “In the most holy place he made two cherubim of wood and overlaid them with gold. The wings of the cherubim together extended twenty cubits: one wing of the one, of five cubits, touched the wall of the house, and its other wing, of five cubits, touched the wing of the other cherub; and of this cherub, one wing, of five cubits, touched the wall of the house, and the other wing, also of five cubits, was joined to the wing of the first cherub. The wings of these cherubim extended twenty cubits; the cherubim stood on their feet, facing the nave. And he made the veil of blue and purple and crimson fabrics and fine linen, and worked cherubim on it” (2 Chr. 3:10-13).
Imitation is the biblical form of honor
The most important form of honoring the saints, to which all the other forms are related, is the imitation of them in their relationship with God. Paul wrote extensively about the importance of spiritual imitation. He stated: “I urge you, then, be imitators of me. Therefore I sent to you Timothy, my beloved and faithful child in the Lord, to remind you of my ways in Christ, as I teach them everywhere in every church” (1 Cor. 4:16-17). Later he told the same group: “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ. I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions even as I have delivered them to you” (1 Cor. 11:1-2). He elsewhere stated that he specifically patterned his behavior to foster imitation: “For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us; we were not idle when we were with you, we did not eat any one’s bread without paying, but with toil and labor we worked night and day, that we might not burden any of you. It was not because we have not that right, but to give you in our conduct an example to imitate” (2 Thess. 3:7-9). Hebrews also stresses the importance of imitating true spiritual leaders: “Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God; consider the outcome of their life, and imitate their faith” (Heb. 13:7).
One of the most important passages on imitation is found in Hebrews. Chapter 11 of that book, the Bible’s well-known “hall of fame” chapter, presents numerous examples of the Old Testament saints for our imitation. It concludes with the famous exhortation: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us”–the race which the saints have run before us.
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