Sunday, April 01, 2012

Thy beauty long-desired, Part II

We sang "O Sacred Head" on Palm Sunday in church, with all the verses. In this post several years ago I meditated a bit on this one:

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.

As I sang it most recently, it seemed to me that the phrase about beauty was not particularly problematic (as it has sometimes seemed to me before). In the earlier post, I reflected on the fact that Mary, Jesus' mother, would have remembered his beauty as her child:
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.
But now I reflected, too: Is that not true of a man's friends as well? Don't his friends also love the details about him? C.S. Lewis said (I'm paraphrasing, as I don't own a copy of the essay in question) that if he loved a man as a friend he would not give up even the details of his mannerisms and dress. This makes sense to me. I can remember meeting with friends after years apart and thinking, with a feeling almost of joy, "Oh, yes, I remember that she would hold her hands in just that way."

So anyone who loved Jesus and saw him on the cross would have felt that his human beauty had been violated. Moreover, that human beauty was united in the minds of his followers with the idea that Jesus was the Messiah. Hence, it was "long-desired." Even though they had not yet understood everything, maybe did not yet understand that he was God Incarnate, they understood, as Peter said, that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of the living God. "The Christ" meant the Messiah, the anointed one, the one God had promised to send. So in all their interactions with him they were thinking, "This is the one. This man talking with me, eating with me, telling a parable, healing the blind, or making a joke. He is the Moshiach, the one God has promised to send. These hands, these eyes. This face is the face of the long-awaited One." It must have been an awesome thing to think of for those who were close to him. And now, look at what had been done to him through the malice of his enemies and the cruelty of the Romans.

It occurred to me too: At some level they had understood that Jesus had predicted his own resurrection. This comes up in the talk on the road to Emmaus, and even the chief priests knew it, which is why they asked Pilate for a watch on the tomb. So here the followers were, especially the ones like John and the women who had actually seen Jesus crucified. On the one hand, they had Jesus' own statements that this must happen, that he must suffer and die and rise again. It might seem then that his crucifixion was itself a part of a pattern, a necessary thing, a fulfillment of Jesus' own words. Yet on the other hand, how could it not, emotionally and existentially, seem like the final defeat? Who could stand and watch such a thing, who could literally go with him through his Holy Passion, and not be devastated by it? Crucifixion was not, in the normal course of events, significant of anything but the cruelty of man and the degradation of the victim, perhaps even the (as it was thought) deserved degradation of the victim. Hence the publication of their crimes above their crosses. The Roman soldiers were used to this sort of thing. They nailed him up there, sat down to watch him, and callously decided among themselves how to divide up his clothes. Later the apostles knew that even this cruel detail of the division of his clothing was a fulfillment of prophecy (from Psalm 22), but would any of them have been in emotional shape to think that through at the time? I'm inclined to doubt it. And if they did remember the Psalm, what must that have been like, psychologically? Like being torn in two, I should think--hoping and afraid to hope that this was not simply defeat, not simply the end.

This week, let us stand at the foot of the cross with them at earth's darkest hour. Even as our hearts strain forward to move past Good Friday and celebrate the glorious ending of the story, let us remember that if we suffer we shall also reign with him, if we die with him we shall also live with him.

In thy most bitter passion my heart to share doth cry,
With thee for my salvation upon the cross to die.
Ah, keep my heart thus movèd to stand thy cross beneath,
To mourn thee, well-belovèd, yet thank thee for thy death.

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