The poet Mary Oliver was once asked, “What is the purpose of beauty?”
It is kind of a big question, isn’t it? And a little strange. As if beauty needs any purpose beyond its own essence. And yet, the fact that we know beauty, that we experience it so deeply, that we are drawn to it—to the beauty of that great mountain that sits to the southeast of us—that mountain that so many peoples have gone up to throughout the ages. And those foothills to the east that shimmer with fresh snow under the low clouds and above the Bellevue skyline—so close and so clear you think you could reach out and touch them. And those ever-present Olympics that so often make me catch my breath when I’m driving down the hill on Sunset and suddenly there they are, almost as if they are suspended in mid-air above the Puget Sound.
Beauty isn’t just found in the natural world, though, is it? We know beauty in a child or grandchild that has come to us as a gift—when we hold her close and rock her to sleep, when we watch as the wheels of curiosity and understanding churn in him right before our eyes in the act of play, when those arms extend toward us in an act of pure, unmitigated joy.
Sometimes we know beauty in the perfection of an equation or the “just right” words that transport us to a place we had longed to reach. We know beauty in the mass of individual voices that together become a choir and out of thin air create an otherworldly sound that soothes us, enlivens us, overcomes us as the sound moves through us and we become one with it.
Mary Oliver’s response to the question is, for me, another thing of beauty. What is the purpose of beauty? “We need beauty,” she said, “because it makes us ache to be worthy of it.”[i]
We need beauty because it makes us ache to be worthy of it. This is a profoundly hopeful statement, I think, because Oliver understands—believes even—in the power of beauty to call out our better angels, to incarnate our better selves, to instill in us a vision and the courage we need so that a better future becomes possible. Fear is not an absolute. Selfishness and disregard are not inevitable. Even as history shows it is in no way certain, peace and the justice it requires remains a possibility if there is beauty in the world.
That’s what I see in Joseph this time around the Matthew story—an act of beauty. Here is Mary, promised to him, but pregnant by someone else. Within the law of the day, and in his privilege, Joseph had every right to dismiss her and the son she carries to a life of invisible poverty or even worse. But a response of quiet imagination inspired by something as weightless as a dream leads him instead to an act of beauty as he claims her as his own, as he embraces a future with them in it that he cannot control, a future that will surely bring more trouble.
We need beauty because it makes us ache to be worthy of it.
I’ve often wondered about this idea that shows up in verse 21 of today’s story in Matthew: “he will save his people from their sins.” I wonder if we know what this means.
I think I’m a little clearer on it these days, this time around—at least in some ways. Our actions and our choices have consequences. When we let power have its way it leads to outcomes that are really no good for anyone, but especially for those the Christ child would later call the least.
This is something of what King Ahaz seems to be mulling over as he’s down by the waterworks. Ahaz has just heard that Judah’s former brothers—the 10 northern tribes of Israel that had torn away from the south in a civil war—had now made an alliance with the Kingdom of Syria against the house of David. That explains why the king is where he is. He is expecting an attack; he wants to know how long the water supply will last.
So the question at play is really one of security. The prophet Isaiah claims that faith in God and decisions made around that faith will save—even in a political crisis. So he challenges the king to put this promise to the test: “Ask for a sign.” And here’s one of the things I love about these stories, the closer you read them, the more you discover how much they understand about the way things work.
Ahaz appears to take the high road—he hides behind a prooftext of scripture to defend his decision not to rely on God: “do not put God to the test.” But the storyteller is able to locate truth in the barrage of words: The king is not interested in submitting his policies to the claims of faith because he likes his way; he likes his autonomy. He prefers to calculate his chances and make his moves with God bracketed out of the equation.
And in the spirit of “be careful what you wish for” he gets his wish. The prophet gives the king a sign of what is to come, a sign that shows up in Matthew: a young woman will have a child whose name will be Immanuel, “God is with us.”
Here’s what it means. Within two years—about the time it takes for a child to learn the difference between good and evil—that alliance Ahaz is so concerned about up north will be no more. That’s the good news. But what the reading leaves out is the next verse which refers to an even greater threat. With the disappearance of this small alliance between Syria and the northern tribes, a much greater threat will come from the brutal, ruthless superpower to the north. You may remember the readings earlier this fall that confirm the devastation as Israel is destroyed and the people are scattered in exile.
Ahaz has a failure of imagination. He is unable to give himself to the idea that there is a power at work outside himself, a power that gathers the entire drama of public life and human experience, filled as it is with fear and anxiety and violence, and reorganizes it around a way of peace. Ahaz’s sin is that he is unable to imagine a power beyond himself to save.
This message, in this season, in this time is a good one for us too.
Beauty reminds us that there is power beyond us to save. Beauty, and the ache it creates in us to be worthy of it, understands that we are not the creators but the recipients of an unimaginably generous gift that is not ours alone, that is not ours at all. Paul reminds us of this in Romans, in another great historical surprise that was so unexpected as even Gentiles are “called to belong to Jesus Christ” and “called to be saints.” We are one family, in other words. We belong to one hope. One faith. One baptism. What a beautiful thing!
And yet, even as this beauty is not ours, inexplicably we are a part of it. It is in us, calling us to be our best selves, reminding us that whether in quiet acts of courage or loud shouts of justice, we can, we must, change the world—one choice at a time.
So believe that God is with us, beloved of God. Believe that the God who created the mountains and the rivers, the valleys and the seas is creating newness in our history too. Believe that the God who calls to you in dreams and visions and in the beauty that makes you ache to be worthy of it will be faithful. So be worthy of it. Give yourself to the promise. Listen to that voice that calls you to courage, to kindness, to generosity, and to love.
[i] See Parker J. Palmer’s December 11, 2016 Facebook post: https://www.facebook.com/parkerjpalmer/photos/a.448150067077.237898.86750497077/10154118572312078/?type=3&theater.
[ii] See qz.com. “Trump’s 17 cabinet-level picks have more money than a third of American households combined.” December 15, 2016. Accessed December 16, 2016 at http://qz.com/862412/trumps-16-cabinet-level-picks-have-more-money-than-a-third-of-american-households-combined/?ex_cid=SigDig.