Beauty and the GospelPosted: January 30, 2011
In her chapter for the book For the Beauty of the Church Catholic artist and journalist Barbara Nicolosi gives us three elements that make up the nature of beauty (quoting Thomas Aquinas). They are:
The Elements of Beauty
Wholeness, says Nicolosi, “means that nothing is missing.” This element plays itself out in two ways. First, for something to be whole, it cannot have anything missing. A beautiful object is sufficient in itself—all necessary elements are accounted for. To use Nicolosi’s example, “people don’t listen to Mozart’s Ave Verum and say, ‘Needs another high G in there. Oh well.’” Second, in order to be whole, beauty cannot be gratuitous. In other words, a beautiful object is efficient. So, when we see something beautiful, we see something complete and whole. To adopt biblical language, there is nothing to add or take away.
Harmony is the sense that “all of those parts that are present are related to one another in a complementary relationship.” Each piece functions exactly as it is supposed to function, and relates to all the other pieces exactly as it was meant to relate. Harmony is community (of persons or elements) as it was meant to be. This is why the biblical vision of gospel community is beautiful. The way it is lived out in this life may be messy, but it is beautiful in pointing toward the future community free of sin. And in its future fullness, biblical community will be utterly beautiful.
These two words, when together, illustrate the biblical concept of shalom, the harmonious wholeness of God’s intentions for how things are supposed to be. No wonder, then, that some would include them in their definition of beautiful. Beauty takes us beyond ourselves and our present circumstances, and transports us into a picture of what things were supposed to be and what God promises he will restore them to. These two elements are not all there is to beauty in Aquinas’ view, however.
Radiance, the third and final element, “communicates something profound to us, some kind of moral, spiritual, or intellectual enlightenment.” Or, to put it another way, beauty has a message to be proclaimed. For Nicolosi, this proclamation is personal. We hint at this element when we say that a sunset, painting, music, etc. speaks to us or moves us. And this message affects us.
When these three elements combine in an act of beauty we see a peculiar result: Humility. The great splendor of the thing reminds us of our smallness. I think I’m paraphrasing John Piper when I say no one stands at the edge of the grand canyon and proclaims how great they are. They stand in awe of the beauty of what stands before them; beauty that is large, weighty, and absolutely outside of themselves.
This beauty-wrought humility can, when rightly understand, serve a redemptive focus. I don’t mean that beauty, itself abstractly, redeems us, but it serves as a redemptive metaphor. As Nicolosi says, [beauty] “subverts the problem of the garden of Eden.” The Fall came about as Adam and Eve rebelled by rejecting their creaturelyness. They wanted to be like God, and so on have we all down through the generations. “But,” argues Nicolosi, “the beautiful makes us content in our creaturehood: ‘I’m small, and that’s okay.’”
The Beauty of the Gospel
I’m not going to argue over whether you should adopt this definition of beauty or not. Rather, I want to bring out, assuming these elements, the beauty of the gospel.
When it comes to a crucifixion no one would argue for beauty in an aesthetic sense. The form of a broken, bled-out human being certainly isn’t pleasing to the eye. And this lack of beauty is most true particularly in a crucifixion where the death sentence is piggy-backed onto a miscarriage of justice. But here, in the gospel account, is kingdom subversion. In one of the most brutal acts of physical horror and treachery on a cosmic scale, God weaves together the elements of beauty. Consider:
Wholeness – in the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ, there is not one aspect that is missing. Sin is wholely dealt with in such a way that people can be wholely saved, and the whole universe will be wholely restored. Jesus’ substitutionary (in our place) death, burial and resurrection is sufficient to cover all of our sins. But it is also efficient – there is nothing gratuitous in Jesus’ suffering. This is astounding, as we see the level of physical, emotional, and spiritual horror in the acts of flogging, crucifixion, and alienation from God while taking on the fullness of God’s wrath for all of our sins. How is this not gratuitous? Because, for sin to be forgiven, it must be paid for. And for all of our sins to be forgiven, they must all be paid for. Jesus did not face an ounce of wrath more than what our sins fully deserved, but how much wrath they did deserve! For such suffering to be efficient, our sins must be far greater than we tend to believe.
Harmony – in the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ, every part and element of the gospel relate and play off one another in exactly the way that they were meant to, and in exactly the way that was necessary for redemption to be accomplished. There is no gospel without Jesus’ death. That was the penalty par-excellence of sin – physical and spiritual death, and separation from God. On the cross, Jesus felt the weight of each, in our place. There is also no gospel without Jesus’ burial. To have no burial is to have a savior who got off the cross. The burial of Jesus stands defiantly in the face of those who said Jesus didn’t really die on the cross, as if first century people were too ignorant to know whether someone had died or not. And, of course, there is no gospel without Jesus’ resurrection. Without it, our faith, says Paul, is in vain. If there is no resurrection, we are left in our sins, and death is still reigning undefeated.
Radiance – in the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ, there is a message of hope which radiates. Sin is the great human problem, because it places us out of God’s favor and under his wrath, severing our relationship with him. But in the Gospel, there is a message which comes to us personally and corporately that God is setting things right. He does this personally, with us, through the work of his son. The gospel calls us to place our trust and faith in Jesus and his death, burial, and resurrection in our place so that we can have all of our sins forgiven, our relationship with God restored, and the promise that one day, we will live as God intended, in his presence forever, free of sin, death, and pain.
And even in the horror of crucifixion, that is beautiful.
Image by Wolfgang Staudt.