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Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Of Saints and Halos

There was a time when Christians thought that Christ must have been a blonde-haired, blue-eyed, tall and handsome man, easily distinguishable at first glance. His physical appearance must have radiated divinity. There's a strange connection between blonde-haired (blue-eyed) and what Western culture believes is heavenly. In fact, Pope Gregory the Great saw the Angles (as in Anglo-Saxon) with their blond hair for the first time and declared, "non Angli, sed angeli" - "They're not Angles but angels."

In Western art we have tried to distinguish the holy by physical appearance or by some special marker. We make angels blonde and give Jesus blue eyes and a handsome face. Mary is made beautiful and rosy-cheeked (not to mention usually Caucasian). 

At a recent dinner with my roommate and his parents I brought up an article I had just read. In it, researchers  tried to determine what Christ would have realistically looked like. They took skulls from 1st century Galilee and compiled average measurements of the features. They then layered skin and muscle (digitally) over the skulls to create a face. Needless to say, the result does not match up with the long-haired, beautiful Jesus we've been given. Another disappointment? The average height of Galilean men at the time was only 5'1". Not very impressive.

At this dinner the table was split on Jesus' appearance. Some thought he was remarkable in appearance. Maybe not blond haired (which really would have been miraculous in 1st century Palestine) but at least imposing in some sense, a commanding presence. The other half thought that Jesus probably wasn't anything special at first glance. This seems to be the more common opinion today and has as evidence Scripture, for example Jesus' fellow Nazarenes thinking of him as only the "carpenter's son," just another guy. 

Why would a 5 foot, uni-browed, "ugly", or unremarkable Jesus offend our senses? It's probably because we want our own version of an idealized leader in the person of Jesus. As much as the gospels have taught us about Israel's messianic expectations, we're just as susceptible now. We desire and expect a tall and handsome Saul, not a lowly David. Why else would we proclaim that Jesus wants a bold, political, militaristic, and shoved-in-your-face "prayer at secular high school graduations"-type of faith? Why else would we create the doctrine of a "just war", something the pacifistic Christ never wanted?

In art, we paint our ideal. And we come up with other ways to convey uniqueness and holiness, and in Christianity we give these figures halos.

Now, halos aren't unique to Christianity and Christian art nor even to the West. Many cultures use and have used halos (or their equivalent) for millennia. But what is a halo really conveying? Why is it there?

Of course it represents holiness but it's a visual symbol and can we really visually see holiness? Could you have looked at Jesus or Mary or any of the saints throughout the ages and seen by their countenance their holiness? I don't think so. And I think it's precisely because we can't look at someone and naturally tell if they are selfish or unselfish, mature, enlightened, or anything else that halos are used in art.

What halos are really depicting is something palpable about a person but I think it's an energy. It's appropriate that halos are "light" because a brightness of energy fits with holy people.

I recently spent an evening with three Franciscan friars (kind of like monks) at a friary in Chicago. These men opened their home and invited me in. I joined them for evening prayers, for their time of sharing about their day with one another, for dinner, for a stroll through their garden. As I was talking with them at dinner I distinctly thought, "I am in the presence of truly holy men."

They were completely void of what I call "games". They had so little ego and they could speak so honestly with one another about their pains and joys and journeys that you would think there was some secret to life that they'd found, even among Christians. "Enlightened" would not be an inappropriate word. "Holy" is probably a better one.

Their titles and vows didn't even really impress me. It was who they are that was so remarkable. And it was almost a palpable lightness, not visible but detectable.

Jesus was unremarkable physically, and certainly many like the Pharisees didn't see past his exterior. But we have more than enough evidence of his completely disarming presence. His words, his actions, his body language all radiated his complete understanding of Reality, his total communion with the Father. This is the only explanation for why twelve random men would leave their entire lives and follow a stranger. When they met him, they saw something radiating from him. Can we say as Christians that Christ's presence has the same effect on us today? When we meet Christ in the gospel, in the Eucharist, in each other, what do we see?

Christianity has one goal for its adherents: Christians should become saints. The goal of your life is to become a saint yet very few Christians radiate this. Those friars might have been the only ones I've met or at least that I've noticed. 
Religion only does its job when it is transforming its adherents into saints.  Why are so many Christians worried about being informed by religion and so few concerned with being transformed by it? Do our churches even recognize the difference anymore? (Opinions welcome in the comments below.)


  1. I agree that Jesus probably wasn't particularly attractive, and there is prophetic evidence of it in Isaiah 53.

    I think I almost prefer "enlightened" to "holy" because while "holy" is a special word that is reserved only for the ineffably sacred, "enlightened" has linguistic structure that actually conveys its meaning in English—that is, something that embodies lightness, or is surrounded or ensconced by light itself.

    Of course there are problems with "enlightened" too because it also has a more specific definition that has to do with the acquisition of knowledge.

    I think it's also worth considering that sometimes we can't rely on the je ne sais quoi of "holiness" to tell us when we are in the presence of it. There are cases in scripture of people being visited by angels and not recognizing them as such (Genesis 18) or even Christ himself (Luke 24). I think these stories perhaps teach that we must treat everyone as if they are holy, not reserving it only for times when it seems obvious.

  2. I really like that connotation of treating everyone as holy. Great point! It reminds me of something C.S. Lewis said (and I paraphrase): next to the Eucharist, your fellow man is the holiest object presented to your senses.

    1. And THAT reminds me of something Marilynne Robinson said: "With all respect to heaven, the scene of miracle is here, among us."

      That's to say, I believe in the holiness of the every day. But I agree with you that we're living far below the miracle of the transformation made possible through Christ and His Gospel. A verse from the Book of Mormon might be apropos here: "And now behold, I ask of you, my brethren of the church, have ye spiritually been born of God? Have ye received his image in your countenances? Have ye experienced this mighty change in your hearts?" (Alma 5:14) The idea of receiving His image in our countenances is what you're getting at, I think. And I agree that it can certainly be a very palpable light that radiates from people freely receiving (and freely giving) His love.

    2. That *was* quite apropos. Thank you!