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December 24, 2013

What's In An Image?

By Brittany Tedesco

The celebration of Ganesha Jayanti, captured by Christian Aid staff member while in India.

“It was the height of the holiday season, and the city was completely decked out for the celebration and revelry. Holiday shoppers crowded the stores and markets. Tiny colored lights twinkled from the eaves of homes and businesses.

“All the houses of worship glowed with luminous decorations. Children dressed up in costumes to re-enact the ‘old, old story’”. . . the birth of the one to whom they sing praises: Ganesh.

Who?

Ganesh: a revered Hindu deity depicted as a man with the head of an elephant, he is widely worshipped in India and even in some Buddhist cultures.

The opening sentences were written by Christian Aid staff member, Gary Glover, after visiting India several years ago during the celebration of Ganesha Jayanti (literally “Ganesh’s birthday”).

Several accounts exist on the birth of Ganesh, but most assert that he was born to the goddess, Parvati, and beheaded by his father, the god Shiva, who replaced his head with that of an elephant’s.

Regardless of exactly how Ganesh is thought to have come into being, one thing is for sure: throughout the centuries, he’s gained a wide following of devotees, many of whom are highly dedicated to his worship.

This worship can take many forms. . . some chant the Ganesha Sahasranama, a thousand names depicting the many attributes ascribed to Ganesh. Others offer to this idol sacrifices of red flowers, incense, or modakas (a special sweet made especially for Ganesh, who I learned is a bit of a sweet-tooth). Serious followers of the god will, on special days, walk around a hill seven times on which a temple to Ganesh sits.

In Hinduism this kind of devotion to a deity is called bhakti, and is one of the ways Hindus perceive they can attain salvation which to them, roughly defined, means liberation from the endless cycle of reincarnation to a state of ultimate bliss.

In his book, Beyond Opinion, Christian scholar, Ravi Zacharias, quotes a pastor in South India on how bhakti is fostered by idol worship and vice versa: “The growth of the bhakti movement in India has taken place in close association with image worship. Most of the bhakti saints have worshipped images in the Hindu temples. Some of them have lived in the precincts of the temples and have spent much time in the service of idols. Many of the beautiful bhakti hymns are in praise of the deities represented by the images.”

Worshipping a man-made image, to me, seems so primitive, foreign, and ignorant. This, because I know what God’s Word has to say on the matter. I know what the second of the Ten Commandments says. I’ve read God’s satirical account of idol worship in Isaiah 44:9-18. I’ve read John’s gentle approach: “Little children, guard yourselves from idols.” (1 John 5:21)

The God of the Bible is clear on idols, but without the knowledge of Him, worshipping an image of a divine being is quite normal—in that it is quite human. Multitudes of people throughout this earth practice idol worship. Modern man is not so unlike the ancient Israelites, chastised by God for worshipping man-made images.

So why does the human heart have such a strong propensity toward idol worship? What is it in us that longs to see an image of the deity we worship?

What’s in an image?

An image conveys something about the nature of the divine. An image makes it a little easier to connect with the divine on a relational level.

Understanding our human hearts, God provided us with an image of Himself. . . in the form of Jesus Christ.

“He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.” (Colossians 1:15)

Writes Zacharias: “The human longing for a visual representation of God should not be discouraged but rather directed to the person of Jesus Christ.”

This is the task of native missionaries in India and throughout South Asia—to share the message of Emmanuel, God with us. A God who loves us enough to provide us with an image of Himself. . . and to send that image to a dirty, sinful planet to endure a humiliating birth inside of a stable and a criminal’s death on a cross.

Every year at this time, multiple Christian Aid-assisted ministries hold Christmas banquets where they share the message of Emmanuel – the Son of God given, not just to Mary and Joseph, but to us. He was born unto us and He died for us.

And for those who accept His death on the cross as the ransom for their sins, salvation is given. No act of bhakti can earn it. . . though bhakti (devotion) will surely follow when one realizes what they’ve been given in the person of Jesus Christ, the one, true image of God.

Merry Christmas!

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