Becoming Beautiful Saints
I say more: the just man justices;
Keeps grace: that keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God's eye what in God's eye he is —
Chríst — for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men's faces.
-Gerard Manley Hopkins
This week an earthquake shook the state of Victoria, rippling out to neighboring states. With the epicenter 75 miles away, we experienced only a tremor at our house. At first I felt a slight shaking, and I looked around to see what the cause could be. Then, as I stood up out of my chair, I saw the walls in front of me swaying, the windows vibrating as if in a high wind. Lasting less than thirty seconds, the earthquake nevertheless decentered me: I felt off-balance, disoriented, unsure of what I had experienced and certain that I would not be able to forget it. The effect lingered throughout the day.
Beauty, says philosopher Simone Weil, has a similar effect. Beauty arrests us in such a way that we are decentered—no longer can we imagine that we are at the center. Instead, experiences of beauty draw us out of ourselves and towards what is beautiful. We have moments—in the majesty of a mountain peak or an artist’s masterpiece, in the swell of an orchestra’s finale, in the piercing clarity of a poem’s metaphor—when beauty will not let us go unchanged.
If the beauty of flora and fauna, music and art, math and poetry, can act so powerfully on us, how much more so the One who is Beauty?
The Beautification of the Saints
As the saints before us affirm—Moses, Paul, Mary of Bethany, the Samaritan woman, to name just a few—an encounter with God does not leave one unchanged. When God calls people, he calls them to a life transformed. This transformation is both immediate and gradual: immediate in our being made new creations, gradual in the purging of sinful desires and habits.
When we speak of this process, we usually speak in terms of goodness—a gradual transformation in which, through the power of the Spirit, we put off sin and instead practice righteousness. The moral implications of our salvation tend to dominate our understanding of what it means to be made more and more like Christ.
Our transformation, however, is not only moral, but also aesthetic: the Spirit makes us more and more beautiful. The Son, as the true image of the Father, reveals the Father’s beauty as well as his moral perfection. To be conformed to his image, then, means not only being made holy, but also beautiful.
Beautiful in the Image of Christ
If we are made more beautiful in imitation of Christ through the work of the beautifying Spirit, what does a growth in beauty look like for the saints?
First, it means that the Spirit causes us to grow in holiness. We can see the connection between holiness and beauty with the Psalms’ repeated phrase “the beauty of holiness” (Ps 29:2, 96:9). As the beauty of the tabernacle, temple, and the priestly garments show, holiness is beautiful, and becoming more beautiful after the image of Christ means becoming more holy.
Second, it means that the Spirit empowers us to imitate the humble, self-giving love of Christ. As we’ve seen, the cross is the place where Christ’s beauty is most clearly revealed, because there he demonstrates the depth of his love. Giving up his rights, not grasping at glory, laying down his life—this is the kind of love, the form of beauty that we are called to imitate.
This kind of beauty is, of course, antithetical to our natural impulses. We want glamour and prestige—the outward beauty that can be admired by others and wielded for the sake of popularity and power. Imitating Christ, however, means resisting the spectacular that draws attention to ourselves. Instead of charm, we cultivate a radical humility that seeks charity and counts others as more important than ourselves (Phil 2:1-4).
The beauty of holiness and humble, self-giving love, while expressed in the lives of individual saints, also finds expression corporately. One of the most profound metaphors of our corporate identity in Christ is that of a bride: the transformation of the saints is the beautification of a bride for the Son.
Throughout the Scriptures, bridal metaphors are used to describe God’s people. Revelation speaks of the wedding of the Lamb, at which the church will be “a bride beautifully dressed for her husband” (Rev. 19:7, 21:2). Paul also speaks of this goal in Ephesians 5: “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.” This metaphor is rooted in the Old Testament pictures of Israel as the bride and God as the bridegroom. The bridal metaphor speaks to the communal nature of our transformation. Together we are built up; together we are beautified (Eph 4:12).
When Christ comes again, this beautification will be complete: then “we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is” (1 Jn 3:2). Our vision of God, John testifies, is transformative. If the beauty of the created things around us, in their own derivative ways, change us, how much more will the vision of God? As people beautified by the Spirit, our beauty will then be perfected and glorified. Together we will be presented to Christ as his bride. This is the end of our salvation, of our being made more and more beautiful in the image of the Son.
This article, the fourth in a series on the subject of beauty (see here and here and here for the previous posts), is a guest post by Laura Cerbus. Originally from Western Pennsylvania, Laura lives and teaches in Melbourne, Australia, where she is becoming acquainted with the beauty and grief of cross-cultural life. Along with her husband and three children, she worships and serves in a local church revitalization. She writes at lauracerbus.com.