A Strange Beauty



An encounter with true beauty can be troubling, especially if we have settled for so much less. It may be our sensitivity to the juxtaposition of opposites, and their apparent lack of resolve. At times we hope for the triumph of good over evil, that beauty will overcome darkness, and serenity displace antagonism. But we cannot find it within ourselves to do more than hope. We cannot achieve the redemptive resolution for which we haltingly reach out our hands and hearts.

It is not an accident that the figure of Jesus recedes into the background of this painting, while those who oppose and crucify him grab our visual interest. Stanley Spencer, who adopted what he called a neo-primitive style, was far too gifted a colorist, and master of light and dark, to let that happen unawares. As Spencer has rendered him, Jesus’ skin tone and color match the wood of the cross, and also the clothing of the man with the hammer swung over his head, as well as much of the sky and of the ground below… including the tunic of Mary Magdalene, prostrate on the ground. This forms a compelling visual symbol of his Jesus’ total identification with us in his incarnation, and his complete joining with us, and with our world of tearing hurts and suffering.

In fact, it is precisely because —in Spencer’s composition and coloring— Jesus could blend in so well with the background of everyday life, that those who opposed him could literally gain the upper hand, with hammers and nails. But this is only the marvel of the incarnation of our God in Jesus, that the fullness of divinity could be so thoroughly joined to the incompleteness of humanity. As the Gospels attest, it was a joining so thorough that many did not notice or have regard for his divinity. When we do notice that thorough joining, when we come face to face with the truths it represents, we have either one or the other of two reactions. When we get close enough to see —to really see him— there are only two responses. We throw ourselves down in humility before him. Or, we seek to throw him down, to humble him before us.

These paradoxes are brought to their greatest prominence when, as he predicted, he is lifted up. His lifting up is his glorification, and the glorification of God within him. Yet his lifting up is on a cross, and in the agony of a humiliating public execution. Here we see a ‘strange beauty’ — the strange beauty of the Lord — a beauty for which museums better prepare us than do our malls. Let us “behold the fair beauty of the Lord, and seek him in his temple.” We will find him! We will find him in the “temple” he promised to raise in three days.


The painting above is The Crucifixion, 1958, by Stanley Spencer. This reflection is based on my homily for Good Friday, which also makes reference to Charles Wesley’s text, “Lo! He comes, with clouds descending.” Click here for a link to this homily.

Beauty and Authority


A noticeable antipathy toward “authority” pervades our culture. We think of authority as external to us, and as having the capacity to constrain our free choices and self-expression. Modern and ancient examples support this impression. Think of recent stories about the Port Authority of NY & NJ and the closure of traffic lanes leading to a major bridge. Or the Gospel centurion who referred to himself as “a man under authority,” who also had soldiers under him.

Given this, it may seem incongruous to mention the words “beauty” and “authority” in the same breath. But then, compare these sentences: “I was arrested by the authorities;” and, “I was arrested by her beauty.” Beauty has authority!

Years after studying with Oliver O’Donovan, I remain curious about an insight he offers concerning authority. Put in my own words, an authority is something that makes our responses or actions intelligible. When we defer to an older person, we are responding in part to the authority of age. If we set aside a long-held idea when presented with a compelling reason to see the matter differently, we respond to the authority of truth. The natural authority of beauty functions in a similar way. By selecting a stunning handmade cross for our church rather than one from a religious supply catalogue, we are responding to the authority of beauty.

These examples help us recognize how authority functions internally within us as we respond to the world. Authority is not simply a feature of our encounter with various officials and institutions, and it does more than compel. Authority invites responses by summoning our attention and prompting our discernment. This concept of authority imbues a prayer for the feast of The Transfiguration:

“O God, who on the holy mount revealed… your well-beloved Son, wonderfully transfigured, in raiment white and glistening: Mercifully grant that we, being delivered from the disquietude of this world, may by faith behold the King in his beauty…”

The beauty of the King arouses our deference by his appearance. As we look at him more and more, we disregard competing objects of attention. Beholding the fair beauty of the Lord, we will seek him in his temple  (Ps 27).

The above painting, Transfiguration (2003), by Armando Alemdar Ara, is reproduced with permission from the artist. The prayer is a collect in the Book of Common Prayer, p. 243.