Review: The Beauty of Jesus Christ

Fr Andrew Hamilton SJ reviews a new book from Fr Gerald O’Collins, "The Beauty of Jesus Christ, Filling out a Scheme of St Augustine".

Gerald O’Collins, S.J., The Beauty of Jesus Christ, Filling out a Scheme of St Augustine, Oxford University Press, ISBN 978019885363

In writing his latest book, Fr Gerald O’Collins was inspired by a striking passage from St Augustine. It reflected on all the ways in which Christ is beautiful, both as the eternal Son of God and in his life, death and rising. Augustine offered his hearers a Christian reading of the words of a wedding psalm. Fr O’Collins uses St Augustine’s list to amplify his idea, explaining where Christ’s beauty is to be found, and showing how it inspired writers, artists and musicians in their own beautiful works.

Beauty is elusive. It is easy to point to examples, but much harder to pin down in words. This book begins by discussing different analyses of beauty, based on the three qualities described by Thomas Aquinas: perfection, proportion and splendour. His evocation of splendour or radiance is particularly striking, because it cannot be produced at will. It is like the difference between a lifeless body and a living human being, where life makes all the difference but is not a quality that can be captured and tacked on. He explores other qualities, too, that offer different angles on beauty, most notably that of gratuity. Beauty is ultimately a gift.

In the most closely argued section of the book, Fr O’Collins asks why, in comparison with Christ’s truth and goodness, the beauty of Christ receives so little attention. He attributes this to the central place that the Servant Song of Isaiah played in shaping the description of Jesus’ Passion. The song describes the Servant as disfigured, with no beauty in him. That is an understated description of the state of a man who has been flogged, stripped naked, nailed to a cross and left to hang there. To describe Jesus as beautiful in his dying is a stretch, just as it would be to ascribe beauty to people tortured, starved and made victims of plague, terminal cancer or other afflictions that seem to strip away their humanity. In this explanation of how Jesus can be described as beautiful in his Passion, O’Collins focuses on the inner beauty of Christ in enduring this suffering and the nobility of the salvation that came through it.

The book encourages its readers to explore further the theme of Christ’s beauty. In presenting a catalogue of the ways in which Christ is beautiful, it explores many different aspects of beauty as a quality, as a noun. When I reflect on my own experience of beauty, I wonder if beauty might not helpfully be seen as a verb as well as a noun. Beauty is not just a quality but a performance in which something or someone is made beautiful. If, for example, you are leaving a room in which you have been listening to a Mozart symphony, are you ever tempted to leave it playing because it blesses the air? The beauty of music makes beautiful. The same question is raised on an early morning walk where the rising sun suddenly illuminates tree trunks and grass, and strikes fire off parrots. To say only that the scene is beautiful is limp. It seems more accurate to say that beauty acts to touch the scene, just as with a sudden storm cloud, it leaves it. In writing, too, finding a beautiful line to catch a deep feeling is more like being beautified than introducing a quality into otherwise dull words. The beauty of the line is gratuitous in the sense that beauty has touched the writer, not just in the sense that something beautiful has been freely given to the reader.

Following this fancy, we might say that not only is Christ beautiful, but even more significantly, Christ makes beautiful. At all points and encounters of his being and his life he momentarily illuminates the places, events, relationships and words, revealing to those with eyes graced to see the perfection and proportion of the world that God has made, and leaving the participants who catch fire from the sight thankful for the gift. He blesses the air and opens people’s eyes to its beauty and to their own possibilities. That is true not only when Jesus walks amid the flowers of the field and the birds of the air, but in the pain and abandonment of his dehumanising death. To those given to accompany him he reveals the beauty of God’s love.    

From that perspective we can understand how apparently ugly people and horrible events can be beautiful. Through the grace of interior radiance people in the most desolate of conditions can form beautiful relationships and illuminate a self-centred world by self-giving. They make what would be an otherwise alienating world beautiful.

Fr Andrew Hamilton SJ