“The mystery of Christ’s incarnation and sacrificial death provides the inner line of tension, always a line of beauty, along which the world moves toward its transfiguration”

Glory’s traces and heaven’s anticipations are present extraliturgically in the devastation as well as, paradigmatically, in the liturgy, and these extra-liturgical traces are proper occasions for delight. Such traces are evident to most human creatures principally as beauty, and this is evident in the nonhuman world, animate and inanimate; in relations among human creatures; and in human artifacts.

That there are traces of the unfallen cosmos’ beauty in the nonhuman world is uncontroversial. Christians and pagans agree that the nonhuman world, animate and inanimate, is sometimes beautiful, and that delight is an appropriate response to that beauty, even though they disagree about how to describe and account for those beauties. Christians understand them to be a remnant of the ordered beauty of the cosmos, as an anticipation of that cosmos renewed as heaven, and always and essentially, as showing the world, no matter how damaged, to be created by the LORD, spirit-infused and spoken by the word.

Gerard Manley Hopkins provides an instance of response of this kind to the nonhuman world’s beauties that, though not typical in its own beauty, is entirely so in accounting for beauty by relating it to Christ.

I kiss my hand
To the stars, lovely-asunder
Starlight, wafting him out of it; and
Glow, glory in thunder;
Kiss my hand to the dappled-with-damson west:
Since, tho’ he is under the world’s splendour and wonder,
His mystery must be instressed, stressed;
For I greet him the days I meet him, and bless when I understand.

The beauties in question are those of starlight and sunset and thunder. Hopkins kisses his hand to them, acknowledging and celebrating their beauty, delighting in it. But they are not delighted in as self-sufficiently beautiful things: the pagans can do that, and they do. No, they are referred beyond themselves. The “lovely-asunder / Starlight” is said to be “wafting him out of it,” and the “him” in question is Christ. The stars’ beauty shows his; they are beautiful because he is. He is “under the world’s splendour and wonder,” which means at least that he informs it, makes it what it is, and, to those with eyes to see, is evident in a veiled way in it. But the veiled must be emphasized, and Hopkins does that by writing that his (Christ’s) “mystery must be instressed, stressed.” “Mystery” here should be read as the whole mystery of the second person of the Trinity, which means, in Hopkins, as in Christian thought generally, not just the eternal begetting of the Logos by the Father, but also the sacrifice of the incarnate Son for the healing of the world and the culmination of that healing in the world’s renewal as cosmos. This mystery stressed the world in something like the same way that a geological fault stresses the rock in which it is found: the fault provides a line of cleavage along which future movements of the rock will occur, and the mystery of Christ’s incarnation and sacrificial death provides the inner line of tension, always a line of beauty, along which the world moves toward its transfiguration. Inanimate beauty’s traces—stars, thunder, sunset—are the evidence of this stress, and for the evidence to be appropriated and understood, to whatever limited extent is possible, it “must be instressed,” which is to say intentionally participated in by the Christian, made into the fault line that orders the existence of the perceiver of inanimate beauty in the same way that it orders the beauty perceived.

Paul J. Griffiths

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1 Response to “The mystery of Christ’s incarnation and sacrificial death provides the inner line of tension, always a line of beauty, along which the world moves toward its transfiguration”

  1. brian says:

    This is the kind of creative theology that we all ought to aim for and appreciate. Griffiths consistent use of the poet as a helpful interlocutor is worth noting.

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