This morning we sang "O Sacred Head." I always have a bit of trouble wrapping my mind around verse 2:
Thy beauty, long-desirèd,
hath vanished from our sight;
thy power is all expirèd,
and quenched the light of light.
Ah me! for whom thou diest,
hide not so far thy grace:
show me, O Love most highest,
the brightness of thy face.
The image is clear enough: Jesus on the cross had been so beaten by the soldiers that his face could hardly be seen clearly. But what about the "beauty" part? The trouble here is my over-literal mind. I immediately start thinking about what Jesus probably really looked like. We have absolutely no reason to believe that he was especially handsome. In fact, Isaiah 53 prophecies that he will not be particularly impressive in appearance. Considering the matter literally and historically, rather than devotionally, we should picture Our Lord at the time of his death as a Jewish man in his early 30's, toughened by outdoor living, bearded, probably dark-eyed. OMEA, as the new expression is. So what's the special "beauty" the hymn writer is talking about?
Well, the hymn writer isn't thinking literally and historically but rather devotionally. There are several different strands or traditions, both Protestant and Catholic, of the "beautiful Jeus" motif, including the "beautiful name" motif. And I have to admit that none of them speak to me very deeply. So I'd like to take this in a totally different direction from the one the author probably intended: Consider it, in the terms of E.D. Hirsch, a matter of the "significance" of the lyrics (to me and possibly to you) rather than of their "meaning."
I was suddenly struck while singing the song with the thought that babies do appear beautiful to their mothers, even if not to strangers. When you are bonding with your newborn, you do a lot of looking down and gazing. I've never had a son, only daughters, but as far as I know it's the same way with sons as with daughters. Now, Jesus was of course someone's Son. And Mary had doubtless seen him in many different situations before he grew up and became a bearded and perhaps somewhat scruffy, outdoor-living itinerant preacher. She had seen him laughing, running, studying Torah, intent over work with Joseph, asking the questions at the Passover meal, enjoying his food, seen him grow in strength and, yes, in beauty. So even from a purely literal, human, and historical perspective, there was one person at the foot of the cross who would have had a real meaning for the notion that his beauty had "vanished from our sight." That one person would have that contrast in mind--the face battered almost beyond recognition in contrast to the tiny infant face, the laughing boyish face, the young man with a twinkle in his eye, all those images of peace, joy, and relaxation. That human beauty that every mother's son, made in the image of God, has in the eyes of a woman who loves him.
And that thought finally gave me an entrance into the devotional possibilities of that verse of the song. For he "humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross"--and that was what it meant: That by cruel men, his human worth was set aside and his human flesh, that humanity in which he had been loved and had loved, had felt the sun and the wind, had eaten and played, had sung and learned, was tortured and killed. In that, he is like every young man cruelly slaughtered by his enemies, every young man mourned by his mother. But with a difference. Because this Victim was not just a victim, and this Victim finally conquered death. And this Victim died for all the sons of men, that by His death they might be redeemed.