Thursday, February 28, 2019

Towards a Language of Beauty: I. Beauty and the Incarnation

"Then we went to Greece, and the Greeks led us to the edifices where they worship their God, and we knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth. For on earth there is no such splendor or such beauty, and we are at a loss how to describe it. We only know that God dwells there among men... for we cannot forget that beauty."
- The Primary Chronicle, account of the conversion of the Kievan Rus

It is the classical Christian conviction that all of history, time, creation, and meaning begin and end--and "live, and move, and have their being" in the Logos of God, who is the second person of the Holy Trinity, and for our sake was "incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and became man." It is for this reason that, for most of church history, one of the primary objects of Christian art--one might say the favorite meditation on beauty--is that of the Christ child seated on the lap of the Virgin.

Madonna and Child, Catacombs, c. AD 150

The Adoration of the Magi, detail from sarcophagus, c. AD 200

Theotokos Hodegetria "She who shows the way", Hagia Sophia, c. 9th Century
In the typical image, the Christ child--who appears in Eastern iconography not as a normal baby, but with an enlarged forehead to show him as the Word and Wisdom of the Father--sits enthroned upon the lap of the Virgin Mary, she (the source of his humanity) framing him, directing our eye toward him, "showing us the way" to worship him.

It must be stressed first and foremost that such images are icons of the Incarnation. Christians do not believe that God became every man, or just any man, but a particular man who like all particular men had a particular mother. And it was only in that particularity that the real universality of the Gospel was achieved. The fact that attempts have been made--and indeed are still being made--to erase the mother from the image entirely perhaps says something about our inability to come to terms with this particularity, and with our confused and damaged sense of individualism in which we seek to know each piece of the mosaic apart from all the others. But we do not know Christ apart from his full humanity, and that humanity is not an abstract idea. It is a person.

The hymnography of the Church has never tired of meditating on this image, poetically understanding Christ as the same God whom Ezekiel saw enthroned in glory upon the cherubim:
I behold a strange and wonderful mystery:
The cave a heaven, the Virgin a cherubic throne,
And the manger a noble place in which hath lain Christ
The uncontained God.
Let us therefore praise and magnify him.
- Katabasiae of the Nativity
This paradox--what Tolkien described as the "singer entering into the tale"--is the whole basis of the classical Christian understanding of beauty and wonder. It is the source of the absolute Christian confidence that finite creation can be the means of knowing an infinite God. Thus, by extension, bread and wine, water and oil are not merely things, nor are they some kind of an audio-visual aid to our teaching, but rather the real means of real participation and communion with one who is unknowable, and yet makes Himself known.


I have begun with the Incarnation and the Sacraments due in part to a set of articles by Peter Leithart, published in First Things back in 2016. The provocative title of the article series was, “Why Protestants Can’t Write.” You could sum up Letihart’s argument in his very first sentence: “Blame it on Marburg.” For those who don’t know, the 1529 Marburg Colloquy was the first major “church split” of the Magisterial Reformation, between the German Martin Luther—and his followers—and the Swiss Reformer Ulrich Zwingli and his followers. The dispute was over the Eucharist: Luther held with a fifteen centuries-old reading of the New Testament and argued that that Eucharist was really the body and blood of Christ, although rejecting explanation of Transubstantiation.

To Zwingli, on the other hand, “myth or ritual… was no longer literally and symbolically real and true.” The traditional understanding of the Eucharist was, in other words, superstitious nonsense. And the vast majority of Protestantism followed Zwingli’s view that “literal truth is over here, while symbols drift off in another direction. At best, they live in adjoining rooms; at worst, in widely separated neighborhoods.”

That brings us to Leithart’s thesis, which he offers “in a fit of gleeful reductionism”:
“Modern Protestants can’t write because we have no sacramental theology. Protestants will learn to write when we have reckoned with the tragic results of Marburg, and have exorcised the ghost of Zwingli from our poetics. Protestants need not give up our Protestantism to do this, as there are abundant sacramental resources within our own tradition. But contemporary Protestants do need to give up the instinctive anti-sacramentalism that infects so much of Protestantism, especially American Protestantism.”
And, if my own story is anything to judge by, any Protestant writer who can survive the immediate spike in his blood-pressure long enough to read Leithart’s argument to the end will see that he has a point. But the problem goes back much farther than Marburg. Anti-sacramentalism is really part of a distinctively Gnostic way of viewing our relationship with the God who is Truth.

This is probably easiest to illustrate when we consider the differences in corporate worship between the average evangelical service and the churches of catholic tradition: The focus of evangelical protestant worship is the sermon, because God can only be apprehended mentally. Terry Johnson, a contemporary Reformed theologian, puts it this way:
“the worship of Reformed Protestantism is simple. We merely read, preach, pray, sing and see the Word of God… True faith comes through the word (Rom. 10:17). True worship then must be primarily (though not absolutely) non-material, non-sensual, and non-symbolic.” (Johnson, Reformed Worship, pp. 38 & 47.)
At more than one point in Protestant history, this tendency has extended towards docetist beliefs about the Incarnation itself; Puritan catechist, iconoclast, and Bishop of the Church of England Gervase Babington made it very clear that the Incarnation was at best a temporary occurrence:
Where the scripture spoke of Christ having parts such as feet, hands and face, these were merely temporary forms in which he appeared to men and in which ‘he lay hid even when he was seen’…
By contrast, the focus of Christian worship everywhere before the Reformation (and still in the
churches of more orthodox Christology) was and is the sacrament: meeting God and communing with him with our whole being, our bodies as well as our minds. In this sense Christ is truly the mediator--he "mediates" the experience of the Holy Trinity and the experience of humanity, enabling real participation, right now and in the flesh, with the Life which is the source of all life.


So how does this affect our understanding of beauty? For the Puritan, the Incarnation was a hat-trick that God pulled off at one point in time—Christ folding himself down into physical space for a little while, or only "seemed" to be human, so that he could pay for the wrath of the Father on our behalf. Beyond this, it does not have any kind of ongoing implications. We therefore meet with truth by learning about and then agreeing to true things.

At its worst, this line of thinking leads to some of the ugliest examples of iconoclasm as illustrated by Cromwell and his Roundheads. At best, art produced by this mindset will tend towards moralism and sermonizing. Its most successful contemporary expression is probably the half-dozen or so films by the Kendrick brothers. It has been said that the Kendrick brothers themselves do not consider what they are doing to be art: they are preaching through the medium of film.

For the classical Christian, the Incarnation makes possible the heavenly liturgy and the perfect sacrifice offered once and for all “at the end of the ages.” Because it is eternal, it is ongoing, and therefore it continues to have ongoing implications. It is the catching up of the physical into the spiritual, the earthly into the heavenly, so that there is a real man with a real body offering a real sacrifice really seated at the right hand of the Father. All of physical creation, therefore, but especially human activity, is potentially salvific if it participates in the work of Christ. That is why theologians such as Alexander Schmemman have characterized the Church not as an institution with sacraments, but as the sacrament itself, one with the institutions and rites necessary for taking everything human and earthly and bringing it up into the life of the Holy Trinity.

This understanding of the Incarnation was used by St. John of Damascus in a series of three treatises he wrote defending the use of sacred art (which included not only icons, but vestments, crosses, and beautiful church buildings) in Christian worship. Writing against the iconoclast heresy of the 8th Century, St. John eerily anticipated Evangelical worship in America today:
If you say that God ought only to be apprehended spiritually, then take away everything bodily, the lights, the fragrant incense, even vocal prayer, the divine mysteries themselves that are celebrated with matter, the bread, the wine, the oil of chrismation, the form of the cross.
The Incarnation, St. John argues, has confirmed the use of holy things in worship—something prefigured by the tabernacle, cherubic images, the ark, the rod of Aaron, the tablets of stone, the manna and the shewbread of the Old Covenant, but brought to its fullness in Christ. Perhaps the words of Holy Scripture itself are most revealing: in the Bible, the Word of God is a person, not a book; the New Covenant is bread and wine, body and blood, not a contract or an agreement. We apprehend the Truth with our whole being, not just our intellect.

To put it another way, in her article on the sacramental imagination in the writings of George
MacDonald, Heather Ward argues that “we can regard Christian fantasy-writing as the outcome of an imagination that works in sacramental terms, seeing the material world as participant in, and mediator of, the divine.”

This view of the Incarnation has, to one degree or another, underpinned the greatest monuments of Christian art, both in literature and in the fine arts. It produced Mozart and Bach, Rubilev and Da Vinci, Notre-Dame de Paris and St. Basil’s Cathedral. It gave us Dostoyevsky and Dante. And, I would argue, it gave us Tolkien and Lewis, though they articulated and implemented it to different degrees and in different ways. In the next post in this series, I will begin an examination of the sacramental imagination in Tolkien's legendarium.

Currently reading: For the Life of the World, Fr Alexander Schmemann
Current audio book: The Brothers Karamazov
Currently translating: The Aeneid, Virgil


  1. As one raised Catholic, I regard the Host as something holy even if I am also unsure about transubstantiation. I have also have a great respect for intelligent, scholarly sermons. A friend of mine is a Methodist minister. I attended one of his services, which happened to be a communion service. Afterwards, as he and I left the church, he took what left of the bread, tore it apart, and threw it on the ground. I was stunned. Seeing my face, he explained, among other things, that they believed in returning the bread to the earth after the communion service. The power of the meaning of the Eucharist was that great for me, even if I doubt my church's teaching on it. There is great beauty even in the idea of it, and that beauty is compelling, more so than any sermon.

    1. I will admit that I find that anecdote a little horrifying now, though in my old tradition (which was Baptist) we'd just throw away whatever was left. But my "nose" (nous, maybe?) tells me that what happens in a Baptist "Lord's Table" service is not the same thing that happens at Mass or in the Divine Liturgy. They are not for the same thing.

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