Tuesday 4 January 2011
Some years ago, maybe ten or more, an art-treasure was found in the attic of an old Jesuit house in Dublin. It was a masterpiece – a Caravaggio – and it is beautiful. It now hangs in the National Gallery, holding pride of place. What is amazing is how the Jesuits could sit on a masterpiece probably for decades and not know its value or worth. It would take an art expert with a trained eye to make the discovery. Its beauty lay hidden.
Of course, that is what I think is happening in today’s Gospel: it is the beauty of Christ. For thirty years he has been kept hidden, dusting in an attic somewhere - a place called Nazareth. Now suddenly he is revealed, the secret is made known, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” This is another epiphany, a showing forth of the divine beauty hidden in Christ. That is why the Feast of the Baptism and the Epiphany follow on the heels of each other. It is the Church’s way of saying that both are a revelation of Christ, a showing forth of the divine beauty: firstly a little babe now as young carpenter from Nazareth who has come like many others to be baptised by John. He is simply one of the crowd before this voice comes from the clouds and the dove alights on him, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” The trained eye of the Father like that of the artist sees the hidden beauty in Christ and reveals it.
Now Christ appears before the gaze of the crowds. He is on exhibition if you like. He begins his public ministry, preaching, baptising, curing the sick, driving out demons. All of this is to try to draw others to the Father, to bring them, welcome them like babes into the divine life, into the features of the Son’s life with his Father. That’s what happened to us on the day that we were baptised. We were “clothed in Christ”; we “put on Christ”. When the Father looked at us he saw his beloved Son. We call it our adoptive sonship.
Of course it is a divine life that John the Baptist also longed for, “I need to be baptised by you and do you come to me?” Even the words, the astonishment of John the Baptist point to the divine beauty. He would become a disciple of Christ, already in his heart he is one – he believes. And that’s what faith is – it when we begin to see the divine beauty revealed in Jesus Christ. We see this all through the Scriptures and it is handed down to us in the Church’s tradition – the masterpiece of the redemption being played out by the Father’s hand, under an expert eye. The final brush-strokes will come in Jerusalem.
This is the final exposition – the abandoned figure upon the cross. This is the final stroke, the eye of the Father sees his masterpiece completed as does Jesus, “Father into your hands I commend my Spirit.” “It is consummated”. Or as St. John tells us, “They will look upon the one whom they have pierced.” This is most complete revelation of the Father, given in Jesus Christ. The divine beauty is fully revealed. It is as if nothing more can be said; God has become as if dumb, says John of the cross. We see the perfect redemption; the beauty hidden in Christ is fully revealed on the cross. He is of course the figure of perfect abandonment to his Father. “This is my beloved Son”. “This is my chosen one in whom my soul delights…he does not cry out or shout aloud or make his voice heard in the streets…faithfully he brings true justice.”
This is also what the baptism in the Jordan by John points to: it is the baptism of the cross. During the course of his ministry Jesus often referred to this, “There is a baptism which I have yet to receive and how great is my anguish until it is accomplished.” It is also the meaning of our own baptism: where the world is cleansed by beauty. Just as Jesus sanctified the waters of the Jordan by being baptised there so he sanctifies the world in Jerusalem. It is the victory of the cross, the meaning of our baptism. It is from here that the healing waters flow - from the wounded side of the Christ - the folly of the cross, the moment where all moments meet, all places, times, places, where history and the cosmos are made whole: it is the redemption of beauty.
It is also the beginning of the new creation – the wonderful sacrament of the Church flowing from the wounded side of Christ; it is from here that the Church receives her mission, “Go make disciples of all nations. Baptise them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” So we can begin to see what is the mission of the Church: to transfigure the world through beauty.
That is what is happening when the Church celebrates the liturgy – the fruits of the redemption are made accessible to our present age. This is particularly true of the Eucharist when the unique event of history opens up to our eyes and ears. We gaze upon the beauty of Christ. We look upon the one whom we have pierced. What is important here is being configured to Christ, becoming his chosen ones, the ones made beautiful at baptism. And that work of the redemption is carried is carried on in the Eucharist – not only did water come streaming from the wounded side of Christ but also blood, the cup that we drink, making us one body in a world in a world transfigured by Christ.
The liturgy is the public work of the Church – the leitourgos. It is a hymn to beauty, a calendar to beauty. All during the liturgical year we watch the masterpiece of our redemption unfold before our eyes. All our senses are enlivened by the liturgy - the sense of touch, smell, sight, hearing, even the taste of the glorious Host upon our tongue. Our minds are quickened to beauty. Our hearts are made new here – we become a new creation, and part of that redemption that is wrought in Christ. Were it to be celebrated, hidden from view, even in the dusty attic of a Jesuit house, by a few people, it would still be the work of Christ, the transfiguration of the world by beauty, and each one of us by the baptism of the cross.