“How God Get's Things Done”
Third Sunday of Advent
God Uses Beauty
Someone emailed me this week a YouTube video. It shows a food court in a mall. Everything looks very familiar; the Arby’s; the Subway; the Famous Wok; people sitting in plastic chairs at plastic tables talking or reading newspapers or paperbacks or staring into space while pushing fast food into their mouths.
Suddenly a soprano gets up and sings into her cell phone “Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia.”
A tenor wearing a hoodie gets up and sings “Alleluia, Alleluia.”
Soon an entire choir dressed in jeans and flannel shirts and fall sweaters is singing the Hallelujah Chorus. People put down their plastic forks and newspapers to listen and watch with eyes agog and mouths open.
In the middle of the video, for reasons I don’t quite understand, tears leap into my eyes. There is something about the beauty of the music in such an ordinary setting that makes me cry.
Mark Doty has a poem about a performance of Handel’s “Messiah” by the choral society of the small village where he lived in Massachusetts. It was a very small town so everybody was nervous about the choir’s ability to pull it off.
There in the choir, Doty says, was the bearded clerk from the post office, altos from the A&P, a soprano from the T-shirt shop, and a tenor from somewhere…perhaps the liquor store.
“Who’d have thought they’d be so good?” Doty writes.
Because the town was small and everyone was suspicious about the choir’s abilities and because the sunset had been spectacular, Doty had considered skipping the performance at the last minute.
“But [he writes] the chorus, all together, equals my burning clouds and seems itself to burn.
Aren’t we enlarged [he asks] by the scale of what we are able to desire?”
We romanticize Luke’s story of the birth of Jesus. It was actually not cute. No room in the inn. Giving birth in a stable. Not romantic if you are the one giving birth.
Shepherds in the fields watching their sheep by night.
Shepherds were not actually pleasant people to be around in first century Judea. These were the poorest of poor farm workers, most had no homes and lived outside year-round with the sheep.
Then suddenly in the midst of all this there is a multitude of the heavenly host. Suddenly in the midst of drab, disadvantaged, less-than-glamorous lives, there is sudden and great beauty.
We are talking this Advent/Christmas about Divine Providence – How God gets things done in the world.
I myself do not think God is controlling. I do not think God is into control. I do not think God insists on driving the train.
I think God gives us lots of room.
I also think God is very subtle. God takes our own petty human ambitions and plans and turns them toward goods greater than the petty desires motivating us.
God puts detours and inconveniences in our paths.
And God exposes us to great beauty. God exposes us to magnificent beauty.
Every time anyone of us gets discouraged or depressed we should visit the Hubble telescope site on the internet and look at the photos of the universe there. Striking photos of nebulae and galaxies [Galaxy NGC 1512 is amazing] and of planets – Saturn and Jupiter. The universe is breathtakingly beautiful.
Or go to the Molecular Expressions website and look at an amino acid molecule under the telescope. Or a molecule of Vitamin E.
Such great beauty.
When Charles Darwin had figured out his theory of evolution based on survival of the fittest, there were elements of the natural world that his theory did not adequately explain even to him. Beauty perplexed Darwin.
“The peacock’s tail!” Darwin said. He went on: “There is something that really makes me sick.” A peacock’s tail was so beautiful and inexplicable that it made Darwin ill. How could survival of the fittest produce anything as outlandishly beautiful as a peacock’s tail?
In time, Darwin adjusted his theory. He came up with the idea of a parallel process to natural selection that he called sexual selection. Over time excessive features of a creature, like a peacock tail, or bright colors, or giant tusks, or melodious songs, or intricate dances will evolve because other creatures of the same species find it attractive and desirable, even if it isn’t practical.
David Rothenberg in a recent issue of Parabola magazine says that Darwin’s theory of sexual selection is really survival of the interesting; survival of the attractive; survival of the unforgettable; survival of the beautiful.
“Beauty is at the very heart of what has come to be in this world,” Rothenberg says.
The spiritual world, by and large, parallels the physical world. What Darwin called “sexual attraction” is a parable of our attraction to God. God is beautiful.
One of the ways that God acts in the world is to give us glimpses of beauty; in the heavens, in the depth of the molecules of the earth, in music, in the eyes of a lover, even in the taste of food. Taste and see that the Lord is beautiful, the Psalmist says.
Listening to a small town choral society sing the Messiah, Mark Doty writes:
Aren’t we enlarged
by song …
Beauty creates a desire within us to become better, to live more generous lives, to be more tender.
In the mall food court video, as the surprise choir sings the Hallelujah Chorus, there is a boy 8 or 9 or 10, sitting next to his mother. He stands up on his plastic chair to see better. In the midst of the beauty of the music, his mother reaches out to take his hand.
Tears spring to my eyes when I see the mother and child holding hands. Beauty makes us want to hold hands, which is God’s deepest dream and intention for us. To hold hands.