The Clue of Beauty

A girl begins to sing, and she sings very well. The other judges are pleased, but one sinks into her chair, hides her face in her hands, and weeps.

A busy mall in December. The roaring crowd of shoppers abruptly stops and looks around, silenced by a lonely voice singing a half-forgotten Christmas song.

In a movie theatre with my young son, something inside me leaps as the rings of Saturn crawl across the window of our spaceship.

It feels like a clue, the way beauty can capture us, the way it sometimes tears a hole in the dense fabric of the day, allowing something deep and heartbreaking to shine through.

We might stare in wonder, or close our eyes for a moment, retreating to a secret place. It feels like memory, like a familiar voice we had somehow forgotten or the scent of a home we somehow lost. It calls to something deep inside us, and something in us longs to answer.

And then it is gone. The tear is mended, and we return to ourselves, immersed in the events of the day.

Such experiences are easy to dismiss. We call them emotion, or art, or nostalgia. We pin them like dead butterflies and file them away. But they leave us tender, either wary of whatever waits outside, calling to half-forgotten parts of us, or maybe wishing we knew how to answer.

And that is the question. What to do with the clue?

If our culture is right, we humans are biological accidents with no soul, no reason to love, and no reason to feel awe or joy in the presence of beauty. Beauty means nothing because life means nothing.

But what if our hearts are right after all? What if we long for more because there is more? What if the beauty that captivates us is more solid and enduring than our everyday routine? What if something outside is calling to the most important part of us, and there is a way for us to answer?

And that’s the point of Christmas.

We find great beauty in this world, but it is a world of goodbyes. Good things come, but also evil, and in the end we die.

In this angry and hopeless world, if we happen to think of God, we often think of him as distant and vague, but Christmas brings us back to reality. To a tired man and woman, far from home, making do in a cold stable. To a newborn baby, wrinkled and freshly scrubbed, looking into his mother’s face. Not God up there, but God right here. God so small. God with us.

The Christ-child came as beauty always comes, as a gift and a word. A gift that offers joy and demands nothing. A word that tells of the giver and his goodwill toward us.

When we are moved by beauty, we are moved toward home. Toward the Creator of beauty who is always giving and always calling to the deepest part of us. Toward the Christ-child who gave us his very self, living and dying in a way that is still tearing holes in the darkness.

——

Talent show: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZT-rdjv8wgQ

Mall choir: https://www.facebook.com/CarmanLicciardello/videos/533740169977550

He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart, yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end.

-Ecclesiastes 3

But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”

-Luke 2

First Snow

And so, the summer sighs and turns away,

its once green leaves alight in bright farewell.

One final fire before their dull decay.

One final wave before they curled and fell.

The time has come for frost, for geese in flight;

their lonely shouts and silent, throbbing wings.

Dark, crooked branches etch the brooding night.

A quiet withering of summer things.

Meadows sway and bow and fade to white;

A silvering of every blade and flower.

Edged by the piercing gleam of warmthless light,

a frozen kiss to mark their final hour.

Pond’s trilling chorus stills, to silence yields.

Forsaken gardens and forgotten vines.

Night winds moaning over empty fields;

Each stem, a hollowed bone of gentler times.

All melt into the sober, aching earth.

All fall before the stony rule of snow.

The end we saw afar even from birth

must come and every mortal thing must go.

Not a Broken Place

I bumble from the dark house into a dim field that is waking to his approach. A million things wait here, just as they waited yesterday, and each will have its own sunrise, its warming from frost and dew, its banquet of light.

He is every year the same, but every minute different, so perfect and constant in his ways that he is all but forgotten. We live in his light and cannot imagine darkness.

We speak of many things, often with loud voices, but we don’t speak much of him. We don’t speak much of the plants and animals that somehow grow, the brain and heart and muscles that somehow move, the many unsolved mysteries of which our life consists.

I read the news at night and then bumble into this field every morning to remember how the world is run without us, to see small and beautiful things that are wise in their own way, grateful, and even glad.

It would be different if this were a broken place, if our screaming righted some wrong in the world, but we seem hardly to notice what is right in the world – to be grateful or even glad.

This is not a broken place. It is a place dense with miracles we can no longer see, as full of beauty as we are full of blindness. And if we are blind to the wonders that surround us – if we don’t begin at least with some curiosity and gratitude for this strangely elegant world – our plans can hardly be described as vision.

And so, I propose a test for those who scream. Let those who would change the world begin with appreciation for the world that gave them life. Let those who would change a woman first demonstrate proper awe of the miracle known as Woman. Let those who would mutilate a man prove they understand the responsibility of Man.

Let those who would erode our gratitude for this world first show they are even capable of gratitude. Let those who would revise our morals prove they are capable of morality.

The attacks on our culture come not from above but below. Our growing disrespect for Man and Woman and life itself do not arise from something new we have discovered, but from something old we have forgotten.

The world is full of small and beautiful things that are wise in their own way, grateful and even glad. In this, even the grass is wiser than us.

——–

Let the heavens rejoice, let the earth be glad;

let the sea resound, and all that is in it.

Let the fields be jubilant, and everything in them;

let all the trees of the forest sing for joy.

Let all creation rejoice before the LORD, for he comes,

he comes to judge the earth.

He will judge the world in righteousness

and the peoples in his faithfulness.

-Psalm 96

But ask the animals, and they will teach you,

or the birds in the sky, and they will tell you;

or speak to the earth, and it will teach you,

or let the fish in the sea inform you.

Which of all these does not know

that the hand of the LORD has done this?

In his hand is the life of every creature

and the breath of all mankind.

-Job 12

Fortunate Ghosts in Forgotten Machines

It’s funny how this works. You float through the scene like a ghost. Your legs must be working because the picture keeps changing. Your hands flit in and out of view; reaching, holding, typing. You don’t stop to calculate the angles required of your joints, the proper contraction of your pupil, or the six muscles that aim your eye. It all just works. Without batteries. Without software. Almost without thought.

It’s a lucky break, to say the least. Start with a dead planet, then – bam! – it springs to life because, of course, that’s what dead planets do. A simple creature morphs into increasingly complex and elegant creatures until it ends up like you because, of course, that’s what simple creatures do.

Except they don’t. For many years, brilliant scientists in expensive laboratories have been trying to make dead things come to life. But they can’t. And they can’t make a simple creature change into a complex creature, or into a different kind of creature (or find evidence that this ever happened).

But luck, we are told, can easily do what scientists can’t. Welcome to the religion of the modern world.

Someone will object – will say that Darwin’s theory of evolution explains that. But it doesn’t. Natural selection can only select something that already exists. And if it exists — the theory claims — it was produced by a random mutation. And if it was random, that’s luck.

I’m not saying our admiration of luck is bad; just that we’re not very consistent. When we’re sick, we don’t ask for a referral to the luckiest surgeon. If we want a new car or house, we don’t look for the luckiest engineer. We don’t think luck can do complicated things.

Except, of course, really, really complicated things, like designing the human being who performs the surgery or the verdant planet upon which our house will sit and our car will drive. Somehow, luck can easily do those complicated things.

If you find a horseshoe in your garden, no one will believe it was formed by luck. They will only believe it’s luck if you find an entire horse. No one thinks luck can compose a painting, but we’re assured that it can easily compose a painter. Luck can’t design a computer – merely the mind that designed the computer.

Such is the faith required by our modern religion: To know from experience that luck builds nothing, yet to simultaneously believe that it built almost everything. To believe that art and music and beauty and kindness – that every longing of our hearts — came from nowhere and mean nothing.

Yet we are surrounded by wonders. Our amazing, automatic bodies. The incredible diversity of elegant creatures, so naturally sustained by this beautiful planet. The fact that we can think about these things and wonder what they mean.

These wonders require an explanation that luck does not provide.

———–

“The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven… he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else… so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’

-Acts 17

A Shepherd’s Story

I am the last man on earth to be telling this story – a ragged man who smells of sheep and earth and campfire. I would not tell it, except that it happened to me.

An hour ago, we were in the fields, throwing sticks on the fire and trying to stay warm. An hour ago, I don’t think I believed in angels. Well, I am warm now, and I know more about angels than most any man alive.

I was watching the stars when it burst into view, a towering monster of light with blazing eyes and a voice like a trumpet. I was terrified until I noticed the expression on his face and realized I could understand his words.

He was glad – glad with some gigantic joy, and soon there were hundreds of them – hopping about like excited children, shouting, and singing like their hearts were on fire.

I was still shaking, but the joy on their beautiful faces broke my heart. Whatever they were telling us, it was shaking them, too.

When they left, we stared into the suddenly dark and silent sky, breathed air that stirred in their wake and smelled like springtime, and the sea, and some strange incense, all mixed together.

For a minute, no one said anything. I trembled, but I was no longer afraid, maybe not even surprised. Somehow, I think I knew there was such beauty in the world – there was a place for it in your soul, just waiting. But I never expected to see it, had almost forgotten it was there.

We will find him in Bethlehem, they said – just over those hills – and so we run with our own gigantic joy; run so far that my lungs are on fire, just as my heart is on fire.

And now, still panting, I step into the dark barn, duck under the cobwebbed timber, and stop. Lamplight flickers over the drafty room. A man leans against the wall, and a woman leans against him. In front of them, a rickety feed trough, and there the child lies.

If I had not seen the angels, I would not understand what I feel right now, the sparks shooting through my arms and face as I step carefully over the straw and kneel before the manger. I would think I had lost my senses, not awakened a new one.

But somehow, my heart knows you, child. It knew there was someone like you in the world, though it did not know that it knew. To meet you is a remembering. To kneel here is a coming home. My heart burns like an angel, like a moth rushing toward light. I am only a shepherd, but I know I was made for you.

I take one more look as we turn to leave, shake my head as I step into the night. How strange that this is the story of God and that I, who smell of sheep and earth, am the one telling it.

I would not tell it, but this is where the angels sang. We are ragged people, but it was to us the Christ-child came.

—-

This story is a dramatization of events recorded in Luke 2.

Written for LIFE International, 2021.