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

Waiting

He tries to keep up but stumbles, grabs a passing elbow to catch himself. The woman who belongs to the elbow jerks her head toward him, annoyed, shakes him off, and walks on.

Wobbly and panting, he raises a wrinkled hand to his face, then shuffles aside toward a bench. The crowd flows around him like a river around a rock.

He has been here for a long time now, in the way, good for nothing. Waiting.

Some days, he feels confident and sits near the gate, watching. Other days, he feels like a stupid old man, in the way and good for nothing, maybe just waiting to die.

But however he feels, he knows what he was told. He knows. And so, every day, he comes.

A centurion rides by, slowly, sneering down at the crowd, sword gleaming.

Watching him, the old man nods and admits to himself that it’s an odd story. So, a new king is coming to deliver us? Not if Rome hears about it. And this new king will be hated, pierced, and forsaken? This is what I am waiting for?

Well, that’s one side of the story – the side that mocks him on bad days. But there is another side.

He grew up reading with his father and when the old scrolls told of the coming Messiah, his heart burned in his chest. Unto this stubborn, trampled, seemingly God-forsaken nation, a son would be given: Immanuel – “God with us”.

And it has already happened, God’s spirit told him. “You will meet him before you die.”

“Lord knows,” the old man groans, “that can’t be long now.” His legs are still quivering and his head spinning, but he watches the gate, waiting for the Messiah to walk through.

“The government will be on his shoulders,” the scroll said, so they must be broad shoulders. “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God…” So, he will be a man of amazing power, perhaps tall and regal like Saul, or young and energetic like David. Or maybe wise and dignified like Moses. I don’t know how I will recognize him but, somehow, this man will reflect the magnificence of our God.

Suddenly, there is a stirring in Simeon’s spirit and the old burning in his chest, as if God were shouting at him to LOOK! But he has been looking and there is nothing to see. A couple of gangly teenagers laughing, one proud merchant in a bright robe, a poor couple in tattered clothes…

He did not understand, but something drew him from his seat. The poor man looked up as Simeon approached, and gave him a curious, respectful nod. The man’s wife, a mere girl, clutched a baby to her chest.

And, suddenly, Simeon did understand. Our Immanuel. Our God With Us. Not come to show the magnificence of your power, but the magnificence of your love. Your love for us, who are weak and tattered.

Tears streaming down his face, Simeon kneels before the child, trembling, until Joseph takes his hand to help him up. The girl watches, eyes wide, but places the child in his gnarled hands.

Burning with a joy he has never felt before, Simeon stares at the baby and the baby stares at him. “Now, Lord, you can let me die in peace for my old eyes have seen your salvation; Israel’s glory and the light of all mankind.”


This story is a dramatization of events recorded in Luke 2. (https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Luke+2%3A22-38)

Therefore, the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son and will call him Immanuel.
-Isaiah 7

The people walking in darkness
have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of deep darkness,
a light has dawned…

For to us a child is born, to us a son is given,
and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called Wonderful Counselor,
Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
-Isaiah 9

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.

Thoughts about October 7

You couldn’t bear to watch, and it would be dangerous to try. Some things are better left unseen. To know them might be the end of you.

And so, we do not watch. We avoid pictures of the raped, murdered, burned, and beheaded because no sane person can bear to see such things.

This is the nature of cruelty. It transcends debate. It sickens and stains the witness. It screams what we can hardly bear to remember: That evil is real. That evil is among us.

The rancid stench of evil cannot be disguised, and so it is hidden by those who have developed a taste for it and evaded by those who have not. Cruelty creates a strange partnership between the sane, who cannot bear to see, and the cruel, who do not want to be seen. Those who would expose heinous evil have two enemies and no allies. No one wants it known.

The cover-up of evil is also evil, and that evil is among us. We stand aside as Americans tear down photos of hostage Jews and blame the victims for their own mutilation.

This feels like a kick in the gut because our guts, though less discerning than our minds, are less easily fooled. America, which did much to end the holocaust, now does much to excuse it.

This did not happen suddenly. For years, we stood aside as abortion supporters tore down photos of severed children, falsified their suffering, and blamed them for their own mutilation. America, which claimed all men are created equal, now assumes we are created with no value at all.

It’s the pictures that prove it – our disgust at the cruelty of evil, our readiness to let others hide what we cannot bear to see. But we have seen, and we know, and to let these cruelties stand would be the end of us.

Blaming the Walls

There was a collision downtown the other night, a stylish new model smashing through walls that have stood for centuries. And curiously, many who witnessed the event are blaming the walls.

But it’s been that way in our little town. Change is in the air. The buildings look much as they did 100 years ago, a seeming tribute to the art and integrity of generations who came before, but it is no tribute. We live in their houses and do business in their shops, but the people who built this town would not be welcome here.

The collision made this clear all over again. There was a school board meeting downtown, a tense conversation, a new idea smashing into an old wall. Of course, it’s hard to root for a wall, and almost no one did. The new idea, that pornography has a place in school libraries, easily won the day.

It’s been that way in our little town, and it’s not just sex. The same drugs that police fought to keep off our streets are now the biggest business on our streets, with more than a dozen licensed dealers and billboards advertising our product across the state. Just another old wall, toppling into dust.

It’s hard to root for a wall, especially an ancient wall built by strange people, even if those strange people were our grandparents. We honor them, of course, but there must have been some mistake, some flaw that prevented them from seeing what we see. So, we cheerfully knock down their walls, proving we know more than they did.

Or, possibly, that we know less.

The danger of our situation is demonstrated by our impulsive answers to big questions. No one can tell you why marijuana is suddenly good for you. No one can tell you why pornography is suddenly good for children. No one can tell you why there is suddenly no difference between a girl and a boy. No one can tell you, and it’s dangerous to ask.

These are not new questions, only new answers. Very different answers than those given by the strong and intelligent people who came before us, people who won desperate wars and endured crushing hardships and built the towns we inhabit. What makes us so sure that our answers are better than theirs?

We smash through the walls they built to protect their children and culture. We belittle their faith in a kind and reasonable Creator, suddenly convinced that intricate and elegant worlds arise by luck.

We assume that we have learned something new about the world, but we have only forgotten something old. And now we must learn it all over again, as our children pay the price.