On Sunday morning we wrapped up our Advent Conspiracy by thinking about how this Christmas season might inspire us to live beautifully. There are different directions we could have taken that in, but we looked a little at how we might live lives that make space for and appreciate beauty, which we understood to be those things that bring us joy, or perhaps “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable”. The Psalms in particular are full of praise for the beauty of creation, but I have to confess that it is not always foremost in my mind.
I think that sometimes we miss beauty because we see so much ugliness. As I said on Remembrance Sunday, we need to recognise what is wrong or we will never make it right, but we have to take care not to be so consumed by the ugliness that we miss the beauty that exists in spite of it. As Tolkien has it in The Lord of the Rings, “There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty forever beyond its reach”. It is perhaps when we seem to be most affected by the ugliness of the world that we need to be most intentional about seeking out some of its beauty, looking for the star above the shadow.
I also think that sometimes we miss beauty because we are too busy to see it. This puts me in mind of a piece of poetry by William Henry Davies, which asks “What is this life if, full of care/We have no time to stand and stare...No time to turn at Beauty’s glance, And watch her feet, how they can dance...A poor life this if, full of care, We have no time to stand and stare”. Often when I am walking with my toddler, I will be running through my to do list in my head when I will suddenly hear a cry of “there’s a bird”, and I will look up and there will indeed be a bird sitting in the tree above me, perhaps singing though I had been deaf to its tune. Eventually the little one will have to do lists of his own to occupy his mind, but I hope he never loses that sense of wonder and connection to the world about him, and I hope he teaches me to reclaim it for myself.
Because as the lines we heard earlier in the service from Elizabeth Barrett Browning reminded us, there is beauty everywhere if we have eyes to see it. “Earth's crammed with heaven/And every common bush afire with God/But only he who sees takes off his shoes/The rest sit round and pluck blackberries". Although of course beauty is in the eye of the beholder and we will all see beauty in different places, different bushes. For me, I have always loved the colours and the vastness of the sea, Allegri’s Misere Mei transports me somewhere else entirely, and I could get lost for hours in front of a Monet.
Have you ever heard a piece of music so exquisite you thought it must be angels playing? Have you ever seen a painting of such clarity or expression that you couldn’t believe it was done by human hands? Have you ever looked across moors or mountains and marvelled at the seeming impossibility of the world even existing let alone being so amazing?
I think the feeling of wonder that comes from contact with such incredible beauty ultimately comes from a sense of finding a spark of the divine in the midst of the mundane. Just as we give because we are made in the image of a generous God, and just as we live with humility because we are made in the image of a God who humbly came to share our holy mess, so we create because we are made in the image of a creative God, and so every thing of beauty that we create or find in creation bears the imprint of God.
That feeling of finding the divine in the mundane is at the heart of Christmas because it is the at the centre of the incarnation - Jesus as Emmanuel, God-with-us. “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us...pitched his tent with us...moved into the neighbourhood...made his home among us.” That is the claim on which our faith rests. Jesus’ teaching, his death, his resurrection only happened because he first came, as a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger, as a child arguing with the teachers in the temple, as a man deeply embedded in culture and in relationships. I hope I am never less amazed by that than I am now. In fact, I find that the more I reflect on the incarnation, the less I can comprehend it but the more I am moved by it.
One of the things I find most significant about the incarnation is the way in which it says to me that God hallows matter. He takes seriously our embodied experience, and more than that, he takes pleasure in it. Jesus loved to eat and drink so much that he was accused of being a glutton and a drunk, and he understood the importance of touch, especially for those who have been treated as untouchable. If Jesus could take pleasure in food and in friendship then absolutely so can we. We understand that there is so much beyond that which we can see and hear and touch and taste and smell, but we also understand that all of those things are part of the richness of the life we have been given. We give thanks for things of beauty, and we celebrate them
That sense of celebration is why I have always loved the Christmas season. I know that decorating a tree with some twinkling lights, and coming in out of the cold to wrap myself in a blanket with a mug of hot chocolate, and eating my bodyweight in cheese and mince pies, and singing terrible novelty songs about snowmen and reindeer, and dragging my family half way down the country to play silly games don’t necessarily have anything to do with remembering the arrival of God-with-us, but they do bring beauty and joy as the world outside gets colder and darker, and I love that it all falls together. Indeed there’s a rightness to it as we talk about Christ coming as a light into our darkness.
The glitter and the cosiness and the food and the silliness and the getting together are all things that I find beautiful in some way, things that bring me joy, and I love that I can celebrate the great joy of Christ’s incarnation with the small joys of my own incarnation. And besides, many of the festivals described in the Old Testament are days of feasting, because God loves these kinds of celebrations. Of course we need to make sure we don’t lose sight of what is we’re celebrating, and that we don’t get so caught up in celebrating beautifully that we forget to also live generously and humbly, but I think it is right that we celebrate with joy.
Christmas gives us plenty of opportunities to seek those small joys, but we must seek more moments of beauty throughout the year. I talked last week about the examen, which encourages us to look back and see how God is working with us and speaking to us, and which may help us to become more aware of the beauty of the divine in the mundane. Mindfulness practices may also be helpful in opening our eyes to the beauty of the world around us, and a number of writers have explored specifically Christian approaches to mindfulness, or soulfulness as one writer described it. Perhaps you might like to find some time to sit for a while or take a walk, paying more attention than you perhaps normally would, looking for the common bush afire with God and being prepared to take off your shoes in recognition of it.