Temples of Ceramic Deities
On those rare occasions when a commentator is flummoxed for a topic to write on, where does he turn? Inwardly, very often. So please forgive me for today’s column, which is personal at best and theological only in an ancillary way.
It was while worshipping in our wonderful little church in rural Virginia yesterday that I was suddenly struck with an epiphany of sorts. As our preacher was winding down an excellent sermon on the real meaning of Christmas (“it’s not about trees and candles and manger scenes, but about the Savior”), I was troubled by an odd specter directly in front of me. It was our communion table. This fairly large-sized table is normally adorned with offering plates on either side and a large-print Bible in the middle, opened to a biblical text (which one, I have never bothered to discover).
Yesterday, however, I noticed that all this had changed. The Bible had been removed from its position of prominence and shuffled off to one side of the table, its place of honor having been taken by a now prominently-positioned manger scene, replete with a ceramic Jesus surrounded by all the typical trappings—animals, Mary and Joseph, and, of course, the “three” wise men. On the table was a small Christmas tree, and the table itself was surrounded by several large poinsettia plants that straddled the floor of the sanctuary. A much larger Christmas tree (decorated to the hilt) stood beside the organ, and Christmas candles throughout the sanctuary completed the ornamentation.
What, you ask, did I find so disturbing about this scenario? It is open to criticism from many angles. It fails to grasp the New Testament teaching on the centrality of Scripture (sola scriptura) and the danger of human traditions. It fails the test of historical accuracy (the wise men, of course, were not present at the birth of Jesus but later visited the “boy” in the “house”). It confuses church tradition with biblical truth. It misconceives the psychology of Christmas by feeding our capitalistic urges. But the basic criticism must surely be that it loses sight of the Second Commandment, which forbids the worship of God in any way that is unworthy of Him (Exod 20:4-6).
This law, of course, is not limited to crude pagan statues. It includes the more subtle, “Christian” (if you will) forms of idolatry as well. It points to the principle (stated so eloquently by Charles Hodge) that “idolatry consists not only in the worship of false gods, but in the worship of the true God by images.” For Christians, this means that visual or pictorial representations of the Triune God, or any Person of the Trinity, for the purposes of worship are forbidden. In the words of J. I. Packer, “statues and pictures of the One whom we worship are not to be used as an aid to worship.” After all, the Lord God said it quite plainly: “Thou shalt not make any likeness of any thing.” The reason is that whatever image we concoct, whatever statue or figurine we produce, rather than accurately depicting the Object of our worship, ultimately ends up distorting Him. It inevitable obscures His glory, or His love, or His power, or some other attribute of His and thus conceals, rather than reveals, who He really is.
As I see it, the real difficulty with all of our Christian hubbub at advent season lies not so much in the fact that the early church had no interest whatsoever in celebrating our Savior’s birth, or in the fact that the holiday itself is based on a pagan rite (sun-worship), or in any of the many other (valid, in my view) objections that can be made against a Christian celebrating “Christ’s Mass.” It lies rather in the fact that the cradle of Bethlehem finds it true meaning only in the cross of Calvary. As James Denny has rightly insisted, “The New Testament knows nothing of an incarnation which can be defined apart from its relation to atonement…. Not Bethlehem, but Calvary, is the focus of the revelation, and any contribution of Christianity which ignores or denies this distorts Christianity by putting it out of focus.” What Denny is saying is that the incarnation is simply not the point. It is its meaning that matters: that the Son of God should take upon Himself humanity and die the death of a common criminal for our salvation.
As I sat riveted to the scene before me, I noticed one last, poignant, thing. Just below all the glitter of Christmas—just below the manger bed, and the ceramic Christ-Child, and the animals, and the little Christmas tree, and the magi—was an inscription written in large letters upon the front of the communion table. They were the words of our Savior: “This do ye in remembrance of Me.” The “This”—what, I asked myself, was Jesus referring to? It certainly wasn’t the observance of Christmas, but something infinitely more profound. Our Lord Jesus desired for His people to celebrate, not His birth, but His Supper, eaten as a full meal foreshadowing the great wedding supper of the Lamb made possible through the gift of His own body and blood. The Lord’s Supper was the last meal Jesus shared with His disciples before His crucifixion. It was the one ceremony that Jesus committed to His followers for their faithful observance. Thus we read that the early Christians “devoted themselves … to the fellowship, that is, the breaking of the bread” (so the Greek of Acts 2:42). These believers ate the Lord’s Supper weekly, and it was, in fact, the main reason they came together in the first place (see Acts 20:7; 1 Cor 11:18). It was, as Steve Atkerson of the New Testament Restoration Foundation likes to put it, the true “happy hour” of the early church.
I couldn’t help but notice the irony. Here we spend a month of frenetic activity in elaborate preparations adorning our humble church sanctuary in candles and greens, in the lighting of the Advent Candle, in the reading of the Christmas story, in decorating trees and tables, in canceling Bible Study so that we can rehearse our Christmas play. Yet how often does our congregation celebrate the Lord’s Supper, the one memorial that Jesus Himself commanded us to observe? Once a quarter.
As I looked upon those lonely, forgotten words, “This do ye in remembrance of Me,” my heart was grieved beyond measure. I felt like Paul upon entering Athens, of whom it was said, “His spirit was provoked within him as he beheld the city full of idols” (Acts 17:16). When I first visited Athens and saw the workmanship of the architects and sculptors, I admired them as works of art. But to Paul they were temples and images of pagan deities. Whatever he may have thought of the art of Athens, the spectacle of a city dedicated to false worship stirred in him the conviction that here were people who needed the truth of the gospel. And I wondered to myself as I walked to my car after the service: Could not the same be said of us who worship in temples of ceramic deities?
December 15, 2003
David Alan Black is the editor of www.daveblackonline.com.