Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington

From the

Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane

Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302

Cheap idols

by Father Michael Savelesky, for the Inland Register

(From the Feb. 25, 2010 edition of the Inland Register)

Father Michael Savelesky Some years ago some friends and I had the rather unique experience (especially for North American Anglos) of making a trek to see the Pyramids of the Sun and the Moon at the ancient Mayan site of Teotihuacan. A visit to this ancient site just outside Mexico City is the lure of both those who bear documentary camera and as well as those whose chests simply are laden with tourist pins.

Who wouldn’t want a souvenir from this magnificent place of long-forgotten and mysterious happenings? The chance came to us as we were loading into the bus after an exhausting afternoon of hiking up and down what seemed like every inch of the site. An elderly local man – feigning the pained labor of a just-competed archeological dig – approached us with a bag of three-inch figurines.

“Just uncovered these in the northwest corner of the site,” the man panted.

“Are they the real thing!?” came the excited query from three naďve tourists.

“As real as God can make them,” the man replied in broken English.

“What do you want for them?” asked the fat-walleted Americans.

“Twenty pesos.”

A flick of the bills and the deal was made. We held in our hands the treasure of a lifetime!

Or did we? Those little figurines, perhaps the focus of ancient pagan ritual, sure looked real to us! Why, even the dirt was still clinging to them and I could have sworn that they smelled of recent sacrifice and burnt offerings! Maybe even a bleeding heart or two!?

We squirreled our treasures onto the bus with us, perhaps wondering if we had been duped. Our excited conversation quickly turned to the realization that there is no way a treasure of such sort was going to be sold to random tourists like us. These clay figures fell way short of the reality. (Not bad imitations, though.)

My little god still sits on the library shelf in my den. I often find myself pausing before it with a sense of wonder. I realize that it’s not the real thing. But I have seen scores of such figurines unearthed in this or that archeological dig. The shelves and hallways of the stunningly awesome Archeological Museum in Mexico City are loaded with them (large and small). Surely, archaeologists wish these things could speak (the real ones, that is). Who knows who made them, or why? Sitting in stony silence, they raise more questions than they answer. Deaf, dumb, lifeless. My replica – like the real ones – has big ears but can’t hear a thing; lips that are frozen in silence, and eyes that simply stare straight ahead.

The worship of these plaster, metal and sometimes wooden statues was a common practice in Mayan times. Those times and ways were no different than the ones we often encounter in the Old Testament times. The holding of such items in the hands of an archeologist in Mexico (or Palestine) may peak interest, but in Old Testament times such an act of “ownership” received the strongest condemnation.

Are we not all familiar, for example, with the story in Exodus and the worship of the Golden Calf – and the blazing wrath of God’s prophet Moses?! Chances are, the object of worship was not much larger than figurines and images which stand in dusty silence on the shelves of many a museum. Even after the time of Moses, the People of God struggled with the temptation to worship idols. Referring to these same kinds of statuettes, God’s prophets angrily comment on the figurines’ emptiness – they have eyes but cannot see; they have ears but cannot hear; they have shape but no heart that can understand. Deaf, dumb, lifeless. The prophets knew the source of these items of molded mud and metal: the work of human hands. How on earth could they have become the very objects of worship?

The worship of these things was the worst possible sin because it turned a human creation into a god. The blindness and stupidity of it all, ranted the prophets! These gods cannot save! The entire prophetic tradition of Israel struggled against the influence of the pagan gods. God - the living, compassionate God of Israel – wants a personal love relationship, not the empty religious gestures accorded to empty idols. Only God can save. Things cannot.

A look at the pagan gods of old (real or imitation) can prod us toward an examination of our own lives of faith. Not a bad thing to do during Lent. We look at these figurines with a certain historical curiosity, but their lesson is clear: Any form of idol worship is dead-ended. In its silence, pottery pieces speak little but silence, now as well as at the time of its manufacture.

It is doubtful that the ancient peoples awoke on a Thursday morning and decided out of boredom to take up the ritual of idol worship. Insensitive to the subtle but sure working of God’s spirit in their hearts, they most likely lapsed into the clutches of idolatry. Trying to satisfy a deep, wordless hunger, they, like all people, found themselves trying blindly to give shape to a mystery which hounded them. In a sense, they cannot be condemned too readily for their vain attempts. In a sense, they did not know any better.

We who claim the title “Christian” have no such excuse for the subtle and not-so-subtle forms of idolatry which creep into our lives. The God who tugs at every human heart has become manifest in Jesus of Nazareth. Our fullness of life in him motivates taking of yet another go at letting our lives be changed and transformed by the Good News that he is. His eyes saw us; his ears heard us; his heart loved us. In Jesus, God established once and for all time a clear, visible love relationship that truly saves.

All grappling with pagan idolatry is a struggle to know and be known by the living God. The Good News is that we do not have to struggle in silent darkness, worshipping the works of our own hands. Whether it takes the shape of a golden calf, a wallet full of money, bulging muscles, pretty looks, grades, reputation or success, idolatry is the same poison of the human heart in every age. These things have their appropriate place in our lives, but in themselves they cannot save. They have neither eyes, nor ears, nor heart. Only God can save us – and has: in Jesus.

(Father Savelesky is the diocese's Director of Deacon Formation and pastor of Assumption Parish in Spokane.)

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