Our Lord the Beautiful
The Beauty of Jesus Christ by Gerald O’Collins S.J. (Oxford University Press 176pp, £25.00)
Review by Scott Coleman
God’s truth and goodness are well worn themes in Catholic theology and philosophy, but his beauty is an underdeveloped concept. In The Beauty of Jesus Christ O’Collins, building on the work of von Balthasar and Bentley Hart, encourages us to attend to this important way of looking at God, as reflected in Jesus Christ.
A Scheme of St Augustine
O’Collins takes as his starting point a comment from St Augustine in the Expositions of the Psalms that Christ is “beautiful in heaven, and beautiful on earth; beautiful in the womb …” and beautiful throughout and beyond His life on earth. St Augustine points to Christ’s beauty in these various ways, and this book explores each of them in turn, as well as adding a few of the author’s own (“beautiful in his baptism”). We are led mainly by a rigorous, but not overly critical, reading of the Scriptures (principally the Gospels, of course, but taking in the Old Testament, St Paul, and Revelation). But the author also draws on a variety of theology (fundamental, dogmatic, liturgical, sacramental, mystic) and culture (Rembrandt, Bach, Bernini, Dostoevsky, Gerard Manley Hopkins).
The first chapter offers some suggestions to the vexed question “what is beauty?” We move further than the unhelpful platitude ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’ to see that it is a real characteristic of things, and that beauty can be seen and appreciated by all. Nevertheless, O’Collins avoids overly precise solutions to complex philosophical debates, and tends to offer a ‘both/ and’ view and allows beauty to blur gently into related ideas of glory, light, holiness, unity, perfection etc. This allows a fruitful engagement with the variety of Scriptural images we encounter.
Beautiful ‘in Heaven’
The chapter on the beauty of Jesus as the pre-existent Word delves immediately into the account of creation, with the images of light, glory, wisdom, and logos. Typical of O’Collins’ imaginative approach is his link of radiant light in Genesis and the Psalms to its discussion in 1 John and to the medieval obsession with light that led to the development of Gothic architecture. He likewise uses a variety of patristic material to analyse both sophia and logos, so that we can see how Jesus reveals divine beauty and glory. In particular, he considers the Apologists’ dialogue with pagans, using the concept of logos to show how the beauty of Jesus can be discerned by all people, not just Christians. He leaves us with some tantalising thoughts about how this might fit into the ‘science vs. religion’ debate: discoveries in modern science lead us to marvel about the universe and thus wonder about the Logos who creates it and renders it intelligible.
Beautiful on Earth
As we progress to Christ’s life on earth and public ministry, we continue with a fruitful engagement with the whole of Scripture. When discussing the man born blind from John 9, we also take in a growing idea of light from Genesis (light as God’s creative act) to 1 John (light as an image of God Himself). But there is more here than mere fine, scholarly distinctions in Scriptural in- terpretation. The beauty of Christ is evident in the effect it produces on others (as in the Visitation, when St John leaps in Elizabeth’s womb in response), and this continues in our musical settings of Mary’s outpouring of joy in the Magnificat and the beauty of paintings of the nativity.
In his miracles, the interior beauty of Christ is made clear. Jesus’ reaction to the leper in Mk 1:40-45 could be called compassion, but this underestimates the force of the original splanchnistheis, which might better be rendered ‘his heart went out to him’ (though its Greek meaning actually evokes the entrails). This verb has an immediacy and weight that captures the emotional beauty of Christ, and occurs in other passages such as the parable of the Good Samaritan. Jesus’ miracles have a still greater significance, though; his beauty is seen in the raising of the widow’s son in Nain, where he hints at a new relationship between parents and children, and calls us all to life. This ‘calling to life’ is summed up in the beautiful new vision of Christian life in the beatitudes.
Beautiful on the Cross
O’Collins acknowledges immediately the difficulty and paradox of the beauty of the Cross, not least in the light of the song of the suffering servant: “He had no form or majesty that we should look at him” (Isaiah 53:2). The physical beauty of Christ is no longer evident, and the image of him beaten, scourged, and wounded is indeed a horrible one. But throughout the passion we see aspects of his interior beauty: his courage in washing his disciples’ feet; his dignity and offer of forgiveness, even when betrayed by a friend; his “stunning self-forgetfulness” (p. 109) when having compassion on the women of Jerusalem. Especially striking is Christ’s beauty in giving birth to the Church from his wounded side on the Cross (which O’Collins compares to the beauty, and yet suffering, of a woman giving birth to her child). We are also offered a more personal encounter with Christ’s tragic beauty as he describes the spiritual experience of celebrating the Eucharist in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
Some of the limitations of O’Collins’ approach are evident in this section, however. He considers the historicity of the words of institution at the Last Supper but does not have space to give an adequate account of extensive scholarly debate on this issue. In the end, however, he incorporates ideas from both Marcan and Lukan traditions and rather glosses over the problematic questions. Would it not be better simply to take the Gospel accounts as they are, and move more swiftly into his admirable treatment of their representation in Christian art?
Beautiful in His Risen Life
The themes of light, glory and the revelation of divine beauty come to their expected and joyful conclusion in the final chapter, which discusses the risen Christ.
in the Gospels, St Paul, and Revelation, as well as Christ sending the beautiful Holy Spirit.
The book has effectively raised an unusual way of reading the Gospels that naturally incorporates a wide range of the reader’s experiences. Its modest aim was to flesh out St Augustine’s brief comments, but it raises much wider, fascinating issues. The question repeatedly on my mind was how the beauty and attractiveness of Christ relate to evangelisation in the Church today. We, as members of Christ’s body, already share in his beauty (p. 137) - so how do we show this to the world? This hitherto unfamiliar territory will no doubt provoke other readers to further reflections on the role of beauty in the faith and in the world.
Scott Coleman is studying for the priesthood.