Transfiguration of the Lord
We had our annual parish picnic on the first Friday of July, and it was followed—as we hold on the first Friday of every month—by “Hearts on Fire”: a holy hour of Eucharistic adoration with praise and worship music. A couple from the parish brought with them their two young grandsons—I’m going to guess about 7- and 9-years-old. The boys ate heartily and ran around with the other kids, playing games in the yard between the raindrops.
I was then quite pleasantly surprised to then see these grandparents bringing the boys in for the holy hour. Now, I would have guessed (and the grandparents may have hoped) that, with full stomachs at the end of an active evening, the boys would have sat still for about 10 minutes and then, in the half-lit church, fallen fast asleep. But that was not at all the case. Instead, those boys remained wide-awake through the entire hour, and they took it all in: staring at the gleaming gold of the monstrance and the flickering of the candles; following every move of the servers and the flowing robes of the priest; smelling the incense and watching its smoke gently rise; listening to the voices, keyboard, and guitar that made such sweet music in praise of the Lord.
When it was over, the grandmother asked the boys what they thought. The younger of the two said, “It made me want to cry.” Surprised, she asked why he had said that. His response: “Because it was so beautiful.”
The ancient philosophers identified truth, goodness, and beauty as three essential attributes of being—three timeless, transcendental properties that are part of the very nature of things and reflect their divine origin. The Christian tradition easily recognized that these correspond to the natural desires of man as God made him: with a mind that seeks after truth, and a heart that delights in goodness, and a soul that wonders at beauty. Even more, we followers of Jesus recognize God himself as the One who is Truth and Goodness and Beauty itself, making the presence of these properties in creation as the fingerprints of the Creator.
Beauty, then, is so much more than a matter of personal taste, more than “in the eye (or ear) of the beholder.” Beauty reveals the inner radiance of a thing, and attracts us to it.
Beauty is not, however, at the top of our list in this utilitarian age. We most prize things that are useful, practical, efficient, and valuable—in the sense of monetary value, that is. Beauty is none of those. In fact, when we try to put a price on beauty, it only serves to cheapen it.
One could easily say that this Sunday’s feast of the Lord’s transfiguration is a feast of beauty. Jesus takes three of his Apostles to the top of a mountain—a place to which one hikes, not because it’s convenient, but because of the view; it’s a place of great natural beauty. And there, Jesus’ own inner radiance—his divine nature—comes shining through: a vision that those who witnessed it struggle to describe in terms of light and glory. A luminous cloud envelops the scene, and the majestic voice of the Father is heard. Peter, James, and John are surrounded by previously unimaginable splendor. Overcome by the beauty of it all, it’s Peter who says, “It’s so good, Lord, that we are here!” If he’d had a Smartphone, this is when he’d have made a short video to post on YouTube, or maybe taken a selfie with a glowing Jesus behind him. Not having the technology in hand, Peter proposed to set up three tents that he might capture and preserve this most beautiful moment.
We don’t have much trouble recognizing the essential place of truth in the Christian faith. One quickly recognizes the teaching of the Jesus as amazingly reasonable, and the great wisdom behind the accumulated teaching of the Church. Likewise, the place of goodness is pretty clear. How else could one describe the deeds of this man who healed the sick, forgave the sinner, showed compassion to the outcast, and spoke on behalf of the vulnerable—and whose disciples continue to do the same—besides eminently “good”? But we must resist the temptation to reduce the faith to a body of true knowledge to be studied or to a motivation for doing good deeds.
Beauty is also essential to our Christian faith—particularly, it is essential to Christian worship. There’s a great temptation these days to streamline the liturgy or cut corners when building churches. “Can’t we use the short form? Do we have to sing all the verses? Are stained glass and marble really necessary?” But Christian worship, by its nature, is not at all practical or efficient. In fact, the hour spent at Sunday Mass is likely the most “useless” of the entire week. What do you have to show for it? (Other than the bulletin you leave in the car, of course!) It produces nothing. In the eyes of the world, it is a waste of time—but its very wastefulness is what makes it a sacrifice of praise.
And that’s precisely where beauty fits in. It, too, is useless…but also of the highest value. And that’s why the sacred vessels on our altars don’t look like the dishes on our kitchen tables. That’s why the music at Mass doesn’t sound like the music you hear in your car or on your iPod. That’s why the words spoken here don’t sound like the words spoken on the street. That’s why liturgical vestments don’t look like the clothes we wear everyday. The articles and actions of the Mass should be marked by an uncommon beauty. Now, beauty doesn’t require that things be fancy or expensive; often, the most beautiful things are also rather simple. But beauty does require a certain nobility and order. Beauty is fitting to everything we do and everything we use for worship because—like truth, like goodness—it is one of the radiant fingerprints of God.
This is true not only of worship, but in the beauty we encounter in nature and the arts. In the sounds of music, whether in a great symphony hall or down at the country fair; in the bright hues of a sunset, or the brushstrokes of a painting; in the graceful lines of a classic car, or the familiar lines of your beloved’s face—all real beauty is a ray from the face of Jesus Christ that can and should provoke wonder in us.
The great Russian novelist Dostoyevsky once wrote, “Man can live without science, he can live without bread, but without beauty he could no longer live….” Elsewhere, he took it even further by writing, “Beauty will save the world.”
So be on the lookout for beauty, and work to spread it around, aware that it’s a glimmer here and now of the beautiful face we hope to behold for all eternity. Allow beauty to stir your soul—and maybe even bring a tear to your eye.