JESUS AND WABI-SABI
THE MISSING PORTRAIT
What Jesus looked like has been a subject of endless speculation and artistic representation. Almost inexplicably the most popular article I have written for this blog has been Colton Burpo’s “Real” Heaven, Akiane’s Jesus and New Christ Images http://wp.me/p2v96G-lH. I suspect its popularity could be involved with its inclusion of an attempt to make theological sense of certain biblical claims about Jesus’ appearance and go some way to “identikit” a true image of him aided by the true and still working astrology for Jesus I claim to possess.
But something was absent from that exercise because I didn’t know it until recently. And because I believe the heavens do “utter knowledge” as per Ps 19, do tell us the truth and help to reveal real mysteries, I have to add the following to my perception of the subject.
There are many asteroids in the heavens and many will be irrelevant to us because they are just names that must land somewhere. Even so, name, place and concept asteroids when significantly placed in a birth chart repay our attention. Accordingly I believe the following fact has some value. It tells us something about the appearance of Jesus and even supplies clues to the nature of incarnation because the relevant celestial factor was within conjunction of his ascendant (the body, the personal style) at the time of birth.
WABI SABI: CONCEPT AND ASTEROID
The relevant asteroid is the almost untranslatable wabi-sabi, a key concept in Japanese aesthetics, especially Zen aesthetics, and of chado, the related tea ceremony. It involves beauty of a special kind, unconventional and sometimes, though not necessarily including what might seem almost ugly or at least a little rough because it can include imperfection. Yet it can be elegant – the tea ceremony and raked sand and stone Zen garden obviously are. Overall and typically however what is wabi-sabi is modest, unpretentious, muted, evocative, rustic or rooted in nature, intuitive, intimate and inward, unstated or understated. It is often accidental, muted, more shadowy than light, perhaps incomplete, faded or asymmetrical, more interested in the detail than the grand plan.
Wabi-sabi is almost the complete opposite of the West’s typically measured, idealized and idealizing, rationalized, finished, explicit and “solar” Apollonian beauty which aims to shine like the midday sun rather than lighten with the beginning and ending of things as of early dawn or evening twilight. Within the West something like desire for wabi-sabi is expressed in Robert Herrick’s famous poem, Delight in Disorder which begins “A sweet disorder in the dress…” and after enumerating examples like a loose shoe lace finishes, “Do more bewitch me than when art/ Is too precise in every part”. Yet, if we examined the “precise” figures and proportions of the Apollonian up close we would find that they too were imperfect. The perfect circle is never perfectly circular nor the perfect square square. It is only a matter of degree and perspective. The perfect circle is a Platonic idea.
THE BEAUTY UNDESIRED
In the Colton Burpo article, I suggested that Isaiah’s prophesied Messiah who “has no beauty that we should desire him” (Is 52:3) means most essentially that he won’t manifest the style and appearance of the hoped-for conquering hero, himself perhaps a Hebrew militaristic version of the radiant, Greek Apollonian male ideal. While I still believe that is the main and original idea (especially as no Messiah could be ugly since even just a priest was required to be without blemish and note that anyway modern translation like the NRSV’s may substitute majesty for beauty), wabi-sabi can still enlarge upon and illuminate the original prophetic claim. It can extend it into something more positive and spiritual than just a declaration rejecting a type of historical or cultural bias in a people’s expectations.
Wabi-Sabi involves a beauty that reveals itself essentially to the trained, teachable and alert mind, these being essentially humble. The tea ceremony is not the Last Supper or Holy Communion, but practitioners of the ritual must prepare themselves and even (like entrants to Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity) bend beneath a low door to enter. They must also dress and act simply, because in the ceremony all become equal. Only given the right mood, attitudes and gestures will the beauty of the ceremony reach into awareness and become an epiphany of existence.
SEEING AND SEEING THROUGH
Surely something of this attached and attaches to the Jesus of the incarnation. His appearance is elusive. He does not immediately impress in the Apollonian fashion and he does not aim to. Speaking of perception generally, the Jesus of the parables, citing Isaiah, warns the people will look without seeing, will hear without listening (Matt 13:14).
The Catholic church currently has a well meaning but often contradictory Pope who has surprised many by proposing that atheists can be saved although it’s a biblical dictum that no one can please God unless they have faith (Heb 11:6) ). If one accepts that statement then in line with its claim I would suggest one might always need to have a degree of faith for the eyes to be sufficiently opened to perceive just what the beauty of Jesus was and is. I suggest that (again a bit like the tea ceremony principle!) the beauty would be integral, something that would satisfy and express at more than one level…
The biblical tradition is much opposed to the idol and by association somewhat the image too, often the psychological cum spiritual servant and equivalent of the idol. The idol/image can paralyse and confine the mind especially if it seems very ideal because then appreciation becomes essentially intellectual. There is no identification with it because we are not and cannot hope to be like it. Even in just everyday life men especially can pursue the perfect woman in terms of appearance though she may not in any sense be a soul mate or even someone who could gratify authentic erotic desires. She is desired as a possible possession, the token of an ideal to be seized or won. However, as said, true beauty is and needs to be integral, satisfying and fulfilling at more than one level – the psalmist even suggests we “taste” and see that the Lord is good (Ps 34:8). As the poet Ben Johnson suggests in “Still to be Neat” and in agreement with the mentioned Herrick on the charms of simplicity and occasional disorder:
Such sweet neglect more taketh me
Than all the adulteries of art:
They strike my eyes, but not my heart (Italics mine)
And of course in religion and for its devotion the heart must be struck. The eyes easily deceive and mislead.
There is no grounds with heretical and culturally blinkered Gnostics to maintain that Jesus was necessarily ugly and stunted or even to think of him as what the French in their own a nod towards wabi-sabi values would call un beau laid (a beautiful ugly person). As already indicated, the assumption is not even strictly possible in terms of traditional Jewish culture and values, nor could it fit any more Christian theological notions of Jesus as “A Second Adam” free from the effects of anything like original sin. Jesus would have to have been attractive and even ideal in some fashion but just not in any merely standard and obvious way. Humanly any beauty would be somehow elusive and inclusive as indeed might even be the heavenly kind too – I think of one alleged afterlife experience of Christ in which the person describes Jesus’ face and person always slightly changing as he gazed at it.
Certainly at the level of teaching, but doubtless too in some respects as regards his appearance, with Jesus one is always invited and required to see more and beyond. One needs to reach into a spiritual world beyond the material and everyday rather as an aim of wabi-sabi is to reach into “the Invisible” (even if for disciples of Christ the Invisible is not a revelation of a world that evolves from nothing only to transform back into nothing as per strict Buddhist philosophy).
A SOMETHING OR NOTHING AND THE ANGEL OF THE LORD
Wabi-sabi is relevant to and has coincidental affinities with Christianity in terms of its revelatory style rather than core philosophy because for Christianity there is creation of something that will return to something. What is mysteriously revealed in Christ – hidden in plain sight wabi-sabi style but often missed by almost everyone from liberal Christians questioning incarnation to Hindus teaching Jesus as one of numerous “avatars” to Muslims proclaiming a non-composite Oneness that denies God can have any “Son” – is “The Angel of the Lord”.
This figure is the “form” or visible manifestation of deity and for early Christians the pre-incarnational Christ. This person appears to humans as a human even while it is declared at Sinai that no one may see God (the Creator) and live (Ex 33:20). Thus a judge of Israel, Gideon, encounters this person, first as a man in the field then suddenly panics because he realizes he has somehow encountered God and so fears to die. (Jdg 6:22). The slower father of Samson is at first just puzzled by sight of an angelic man whose name he eventually asks only to be told it is too wonderful to be said, (again a bit like the wabi-sabi revelation that can’t quite be stated, the YHWH name revealed to Moses was not to be pronounced or taken in vain by Jews).
It follows that the eyes of Jesus’ disciples need to be opened to see who and what Jesus is – and to initiated disciples he and it can of course even be perfectly “solar” as at the Transfiguration. A solar, regally messianic Jesus exists – as such he is “the Lion of the tribe of Judah: (the lion is always symbolically solar) and the figure of apocalypse itself. But within time and towards his era, to this age which is the age of grace, the age of Pisces which Christ’s birth introduces and which is now drawing to a close as belief declines (perhaps in line with Jesus’ question/forecast of Luk 18:8), Jesus is more hidden and simply evocative of many things. He is so like the symbolic ruler of Pisces, Neptune.
It is crucial, expected and a proof of correctness of any major issue in astrology that everything must agree and be mutually enlightening. Thus, if we presume to say that Jesus is the very essence of Neptune, hidden ruler of the era as astrologers maintain, then it is appropriate that the eminently “Neptunian”, inclusive aesthetic of wabi-sabi be complemented and echoed in the asteroid that musteriously rises at the birth.
Most western representation of Jesus, even including through the early icons, is more or less Apollonian at very least in being fixed rather than elusive and evolving. This corresponds to the fixity of some early creedal statement and Apollonian models in earlier pagan and imperial art rather than the element of fluidity in biblical narrative which carries such information as that Jesus “increased” in wisdom and favour with God and man. (Luk 2:53).
Through participation in life Jesus’ wisdom is increased and I think it would be true to say, though many would disagree, we can perceive some enlargement in Jesus’ realization of his person and mission as his work continues. Thus in the apparently early Sermon on the Mount Jesus’ programme seems largely to be perfectly living out the life of the Jew in a Jewish society still under the Law whereas later realization of purpose and destiny seems more absolute, mystical and universal. And whether that impression owes more to Jesus or to those recording his words, there are undoubtedly some gaps, puzzles and apparent contradictions in the gospels with which commentary has been wrestling ever since. Wabi-sabi style the reader is not permitted the luxury of the completely finished work (with Mark’s gospel absolutely not!) but must instead work and live with the material to grasp some of its elements. The gospels have their real and distinctive literary style yet they are also rough edged or etched like a chado cup. Sometimes the problems of reading can be resolved by scholarship and background awareness of historical factors, but not infrequently resolution may come with something like a Zen flash of insight. Regardless, any tensions inherent in the understanding of the gospels, Jesus and incarnation are not usually sensed or expressed through western religious art of the standard kind.
The test and drama of Jesus’ life was that the divine nature and characteristics are present but condensed. They needed to be claimed, realized, taken with faith so that Jesus struggles like an ordinary mortal unaware, (unless by vision and faith), that his being cannot fail in ordinary human ways when faced with ultimate challenges of his fate. (I endeavoured to stress this point in my poem The Hidden Deity, http://wp.me/p2v96G-wZ).The human Jesus, though theoretically and in the long term his Second Adam nature could always be renewed, is still temporarily subject to exhaustion, stress, hunger, frustration, temptation. The divine is neighbour to the human in Jesus, there is a rather wabi-sabi blending of effects, including that of time.
Wabi-sabi is about a beauty subject to time and gesture rather than one that aims at a timeless transcendence. Jesus is “perfected through suffering” (Heb 2:10) because as long as he is within time he (on the human side) is in some sense incomplete, developing and growing into the potential he has. To that extent Jesus might be called “imperfect” or unfinished; certainly he is in a position where he can become “sin for us”, something which outside of time in eternity he could not strictly be. Once out of earth time he is seen fully for what he is more divinely as in the visions of Revelation which conclude the biblical record.
AN ALTERNATIVE AESTHETICS
Can we draw any comparisons at all with anyone known who has wabi sabi near the ascendant? Assuming a correct birth time, one instance would be the poet Walt Whitman of the once notorious Song of Myself. In this his rough (but almost deliberately assumed) persona is offered to the world like an incarnation of something – in his case the new democratic American or even the new gay male. The essential point amid the obvious difference with Jesus is that there is the same distinct sense of “This is my body”, the self in some fashion offered, very exposed to and for everybody and yet still a mystery.
The matter is beyond present scope, but with Whitman in mind I imagine (thinking of Camille Paglia’s Sexual Personae and her provocative but meaningful statements regarding gays and the formation of the West’s crucial Apollonian aesthetic which almost dominates in Christianity) that wabi-sabi might be a clue for analysis of aspects of gay aesthetics and desire. These don’t as often imagined all readily correspond to the Apollonian. They can be also be more shadowy and even murky (as in, say, the erotics of leather, bear or grunge cultures, the glamorizing of industrial settings or docklands as sites of desire. These zones belong more to the elements of earth and water than the fire and air through which much spiritual imagery customarily tends to translate). Anyway, if the Apollonian is considerably gay perhaps we might say that wabi-sabi at the secular level was closer to the concept of queer.
A SIMPLE AND UNAFFECTED BEAUTY
Reverting to specifically images of Jesus as I discussed them in the mentioned Colton Burpo feature with its “identikit” work on Jesus’ figure, practically I think the wabi-sabi finding could encourage one to place a bit more emphasis and focus upon the exampled Virgoan images as they contributed to the exercise. One needs for Jesus an appearance not ultra-special but just generally pleasant, healthy, open and attractive in an almost country boy way, not notably dramatic, alluring or shining forth like his ancestor Solomon – noticeably Jesus prefers the lily of the valley to the glories of Solomon! I illustrated this earthy, almost plant-like attractiveness through the late Virgo screen actor Paul Walker and a Walker-like portrait of Jesus from artist Richard Hook.
Quite what we might want from (western) painters is still hard to say. All religious art, not to mention the image of Jesus, is having a hard time. Modernism hasn’t helped and probably never will. It is itself becoming repetitive and tired. Probably we need a new romanticism in art with elements of Caspar David Friedrich, Turner and Blake to convey a different, more fluid, growing essence of life and hence in Jesus too as “Lord of Life”. Perhaps it is an oriental or a new form of East-West art which is needed; the one certainty is that new inspiration and some change is required.