December 21, 2023

To Participate in the Beauty of the Cradle

In one of my favorite editions of the Bible there are beautiful illustrations depicting magnificent biblical scenes reproduced from the original wood engravings of Gustave Doré (1832-1883). I find many of them aid in appreciating the majesty of God’s Word-revelation, including his expressive recreation of the birth of Jesus surrounded by the shepherds on that holy night when angelic voices offered humanity a choral work like no other.

The nativity accounts of Matthew and Luke both contain an elusive and enigmatic beauty in portraying the incomparable events of that ‘fullness of times.’  Matthew tells us of magi bearing luxuriant gifts from the East who saw the shimmering star of the great King rising, calling them from their observatories and contemplations to participate in the truth of the paradox that the divine and the human were colliding in the man Jesus Christ.  As if by contrast, Luke tells us of poor local shepherds whose herds would likely have provided animals for sacrifice at the temple, suddenly arrested in the crispness of the night by the glory of the Lord and the terrible beauty of an angelic host bringing evensong from the third heaven. They too are invited to participate in the day filled with eternity and promised that they will find the absolute, the paradox, wrapped in swaddling bands and lying in a manger. These exquisite images persist as a fading memory in our present cultural moment in which we wallow in the self-disgust of a debased society. And yet, despite all the efforts against it reflected in secularism’s disenchantment of life, brutalist buildings and moribund art – gripped by a cult of ugliness and utility whilst enamoured with the crude and vulgar – Christmas refuses to be painted over or demolished. The lights, the sounds, the decorations, feasts, songs and spires still draw many whose culture denies any use for the incarnation.

I worshipped recently in my local parish church situated in a small village and perched on a hillside like a lonely sparrow on a rooftop; people have worshipped Christ on this site since the time of the Saxons. Yet it was very difficult to find a seat. Extra chairs were hurriedly being put out as the last candles were being lit and bell ringers made final preparations to chime out the first two carols at the back of the nave. This ancient sanctuary was not only crowded, it was also beautiful to look at. Small children unaccustomed to seeing ancient church architecture were gazing up and around as other little ones read passages for our nine lessons and carols to the delight of the older people packed into pews like gifts in a Christmas stocking.

This scene would have been repeated many times in the shadow of great spires across weary old England, though but for a few shepherds on the fringe of human society, the humble birth of Christ was barely noticed by the world that first Christmas night, taking place as it did among livestock whose mucky old feeding trough was used as a makeshift crib.  Yet somehow in the dust of Bethlehem, this tear in time is the embodiment of the beautiful in both its ordinary and extraordinary aspects; the ordinariness of the birth of a child in an impoverished setting and extraordinariness of hymns from heaven enlightened by the brightness of a unique star combining for a moment of beauty in which we sense the presence of the divine.

Our longing for beauty as a vital aspect of meaning in human life accounts for why the beautiful paradox retains a hold on so many hard hearts. As the ancient Hebrew poet foretold, truth springs, as it were, out of the earth, mercy and truth meet together; righteousness and peace have kissed (Ps. 85:10 ff).  Here is mysterious beauty in everyday human form – the face of a babe in the arms of his mother. As Rembrandt’s Simeon in the Temple (1669) amply proves, the human face is a truly beautiful thing that awakens a depth of feeling, and this infant visage reminds us in a way that no other face has or can of our moral and spiritual need.  The Christ child is the enchanting “paradox, which history can never digest or convert into a common syllogism. In His humiliation He is the same as in His exaltation.”[1]  In the furtive beauty of Christ’s birth is true consolation in our sullied culture that, taking vengeance on its maker, incessantly paints God’s world as ugly and unlovable.  Here in the quiet simplicity of the cradle a divine beauty redeems life, amplifying our joys and consoling us in our many sorrows.  From the manger the beauty of peace smiles up at us in the presence of our sadness and suffering.

Time and eternity cannot be reconciled by human reasoning any more than of ourselves we can bridge the gulf between the human and divine. But now, the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.  Now our eyes have seen your salvation. It only remains to participate, to follow the appointed sign of swaddling clothes. Then we might take hold by faith of the infant Jesus and discover that he is God with us.

[1] Soren Kierkegaard, Training in Christianity, trans. Walter Lowrie (New York: Vintage Books, 2004), 25

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