Sunday, March 16, 2008

Thy beauty, long-desired

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.


William Luse said...

We have absolutely no reason to believe that he was especially handsome.

What reason do we have to believe that he wasn't? If the image on the Shroud resurrects (so to speak) its importance, the man pictured there strikes me as distinctively, ruggedly handsome. Not that it makes any difference either way, but I don't see the point in presuming. When Isaiah (the Man of Sorrows passage) says that he will have no form or comeliness, no "beauty that we should desire him," I don't think he's talking about that kind of beauty at all (otherwise, the passage could be read in one sense blasphemous). The nation is waiting for a Deliverer. The "appearance", the comeliness, they are looking for is of a princely nature, royally arrayed, or in some way obviously anointed, by force of arms, or whatever. But He will not come that way at all.

Poetry that's any good should work on more than one level, and I think the verse cited from the song achieves this. However ordinary He looked before His agony and crucifixion, it must certainly have been beautiful compared to after. And then there is the beauty of divine truth, emodied in His very person - the words he spoke, the works (many miraculous) of His hands, the integrity of His intellect, His mercy (for the woman taken in adultery), even His tenderness towards children. His followers see all this being taken from them, when in fact it is only beginning. And has not this been the plight of all men since the Fall, that God's beauty and power seem "all expired", His light "quenched" from the sight of men? And now that some, by faith, have finally seen it, it appears to be going away again. I think the verse captures well (insofar as a mere song can do such a thing) both the sense of immediate loss and mankind's longing for the Desire of Nations.

Lydia McGrew said...

You're quite right about the meaning. The "face" or "head" obviously stands for the whole person. The grief is the grief for his death, for the loss of the person en toto.

Again, I'm probably too literal-minded. I really cannot abide the poetry of St. John of the Cross, btw. They had a bunch of it translated in First Things a couple of years ago. All that "embracing my beloved" stuff creeped me out.

This isn't actually like that, though. It just refers to Christ's "beauty" and asks him to show "the brightness of his face." Probably this will work the best for me if I think of the brightness in terms of intelligence, wisdom, liveliness. Which is one of the levels I think you are describing. And all of which was surely there in life. There's much humor in the Gospels, actually. Very Jewish humor, I might add. And when you do see someone you love suffering or dying, I imagine that one of the things that would stab most would be remembering the gleam in his eye, the way he looked when he said this or that.

Speaking of God's light being quenched and taken from the sight of men, I recommend Potok's _The Chosen_. There's this whole reverberating theme of the silence of God all through it. Not Christian, of course, but it cries out _for_ Christianity unconsciously, as it were. The old Rebbe says at the end to his son, "You will be a tzaddik for the world. And the world needs a tzaddik." A tzaddik is a just or righteous man. As to what the character in the book means by a tzaddik, well, you almost have to read the book. But as a hint, in that man's view, a tzaddik bears the sorrows of his people. Very like Isaiah 53, in fact.

William Luse said...

I really cannot abide the poetry of St. John of the Cross, btw. They had a bunch of it translated in First Things a couple of years ago. All that "embracing my beloved" stuff creeped me out.


I've only seen snatches of it. Piety and poetry can be merged by greatness, but I'm thinking more of Herbert, Donne, etc. And the Bible in places. I was wondering what you thought of the Song of Solomon?

Lydia McGrew said...

Er, very beautiful, the Song of Songs. But I'm afraid it really is about erotic love between a man and a woman, not about Christ and the Church and stuff like that. And some of it I don't understand, chiefly because I'm pretty obviously just missing cultural references--e.g., why it is considered a compliment to a lady to tell her that her neck is like a tower with shields hung around it. :-)

William Luse said...

why it is considered a compliment to a lady to tell her that her neck is like a tower with shields hung around it.

That's the Church connection you've been missing!

Er, very beautiful


Lydia McGrew said...

I think actually the Eastern mentality of Solomon's day just had a somewhat different set of physical compliments than the Western mentality.