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St Johns Southgate

05 Feb 2020

The pain of true beauty

One morning, late last year, I was driving in the car with my nine-year-old daughter, Eliza, and my six-year-old boy, Theodore, when a familiar piece of music started playing on the radio.

It was Ave Maria. As soon as it started, I found myself, involuntarily, taking one hand off the steering wheel, putting it to my chest, and letting out an, “Ooowf!” When I made that gesture and sort of grunted that noise, Eliza, mildly alarmed, asked, “Dad! Are you okay?” To which I replied, “Yeah, yeah, I’m fine … It’s just, well … Have you ever heard or seen something that’s so beautiful that it just breaks your heart?” To which, both Eliza and Theodore, in a hushed and solemn sounding unison, replied, “Yeah …”

There are things that have such beauty that they can bring us a special kind of joy – a joy that is so potent that it is heartbreaking in a way. Maybe you’ve looked up – and I mean, up and up – at on old-growth tree in Tasmania; or been transfixed before an evocative watercolour or oil painting; or, like me, you’ve heard an ethereal piece of music, and its beauty has fired some kind of joy-cylinder inside of you, but at the same time the experience of it almost hurts.

This phenomenon seems to be an inversion of the stared-into abyss staring back. It’s more like being drawn to something so warm and bright that it burns and blinds. And yet, the wounding and scarring is somehow tender and welcome.

Speaking of Ave Maria, we’ve just come through the glorious Christmas season, in which, of course, Mary plays a starring role. And as the nativity narrative draws to a close in the scriptures, we hear one last crucial snippet describing Mary’s experience. We’re told that when the angels and the shepherds had gone on their way – the fanfare being done with – that Mary “treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.” For me, this remains one of the simplest but richest verses of all the scriptures. It writes a whole novel in a single sentence. It paints a picture of one of those chest-grasping and breath-gasping moments. It tells of a woman, a new mother, who is overwhelmed by something profoundly beautiful, and is joyful, but at the same time is ponderous of what it all might mean. What cost, what price, what heartbreak might she have to pay for this love – this love given through her for a world that God so loved?

True beauty may come at a price, but in the Christian tradition we believe that Jesus paid it, in full, for us. And so, any pinch of pain we might feel when confronting beauty could almost be said to be vicarious. Because through the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus, we can trust that pain is perishable, while love lasts forever.

May you, in 2020, have some chest-grasping, breath-gasping experiences of heartbreakingly joyful beauty. And may you see, even in the blindingly bright painful parts, a vision of eternal hope •

 

Tom Hoffmann

Pastor - St Johns Southgate

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