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

The Quiet Light of Christmas

The Christmas tree stands quietly in the corner, its little lights pushing back the darkness, a silent memorial to a not-quite-silent night. The father was afraid, the mother in great pain, and the baby probably howled as babies do. They made sounds of distress and confusion, though we sing of comfort and joy.

This is the shock of Christmas, which remains a comfort and a scandal 2,000 years later.

It is shocking because, according to the story, this baby had a choice – to lay himself in Joseph’s hard hands, to plant himself the smallest seed in Mary’s womb, to burst frail and naked into a cold dark world.

Might God come gently? Allow himself to be overlooked and rejected because he so loves the world? Many hope not, for a loving God is still God, and no God is wanted here. They are done with Jesus as almighty Rome was done with Jesus. But Rome is long gone, and Jesus remains.

The light of Christmas is still pushing back the darkness, even here in America, where darkness grows. Even to us, a child is born, and to us, a son is given, calling across the ages that God is with us in our distress and confusion, that he came gently to offer us comfort and joy.

Perhaps we will welcome the Christ-child this year, amazed by the love and humility of God. Perhaps we will turn away. But this much is certain. When America has returned to dust as Rome returned to dust, Jesus will remain.

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.

Ragged

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.