The Beauty of Christmas in a Nation of Skeptics
Every year as Advent begins, my wife, Dottie, brings out an old Advent calendar from the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., as part of her daily devotions.
The calendar has twenty-five doors, each revealing a painting of Mary and Jesus. Included are works we often visited at the gallery. The Annunciation by Juan de Flandes, Madonna and Child by Sandro Botticelli, Adoration of the Magi by Benvenuto de Giovanni, and Rest on the Flight into Egypt by David Gerard. Even scaled down, the beauty of the art is a compelling aid to contemplating the mystery of the Incarnation.
I thought of that Advent calendar while reading Bishop Robert Barron’s article, “Evangelizing the Nones,” in the January edition of First Things. While he has more than just one suggestion, his first step is to lead with beauty before jumping into truth and goodness.
“Any claim to know objective truth or attempt to propose objective goodness tends to meet now with incredulity at best and defensiveness at worst,” Bishop Barron writes. “‘Who are you to tell me what to think or how to behave?’ But there is something less threatening, more winsome, about the beautiful.”
Not only the “Nones,” that is, those with no religious affiliation at all, but many others today believe that goodness (morality) is entirely relative. And they believe that truth — theological truth in particular — is unknowable.
The Timelessness of Beauty
Beauty is different. Yes, C.S. Lewis in The Abolition of Man describes how beauty has been relativized and subjectivized. But at the same time, beauty finds a way around our defenses and under our skins.
Bishop Barron writes,
Following Dietrich von Hildebrand, we should say that the truly beautiful is an objective value, to be distinguished from what is merely subjectively satisfying. This means that the beautiful does not merely entertain; rather, it invades, chooses, and changes the one to whom it deigns to appear. It is not absorbed into subjectivity; it rearranges and redirects subjectivity, sending it on a trajectory toward the open sea of the beautiful itself.
And, lest we forget, God is not only the source of truth and goodness. He is the source of beauty as well. The psalmist’s great hope was to “gaze upon the beauty of the Lord” (Psalm 27:4). “From Zion,” says Psalm 50:2, “perfect in beauty God shines forth.” And a day will come, wrote Isaiah (33:17) when, “Your eyes will behold the king in his beauty.”
And, lest we forget, Christians have been creating beauty through the ages. Bishop Barron notes, “Chartres Cathedral, the Sainte-Chapelle, the Sistine Chapel ceiling, the haunting icons of the East, Dante, Mozart, and the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe.” We could add the stark beauty of New England churches. The poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins and T.S. Eliot. The novels of Graham Green and Flannery O’Connor. And the great works of art like those on Dottie’s Advent calendar.
We Need a Revival of Great Art
Fond as I am of literature, I’m convinced that more than great literature, we need a revival of visual art. Our contemporaries for the most part are not readers. And if they are, they have been taught to deconstruct rather than listen to what the author has to say. Serious films get lost in the movie biz, which is about entertainment and profit, not art and meaning. The visual arts, however, are different.
A great painting, sculpture or building insists that we slow down and look, holding the artist’s image in our minds quietly. The image can then work on our minds quietly. To show his point, Bishop Barron mentions Paul Claudel. On Christmas Day 1886, Claudel came to faith looking at the north rose window of Notre Dame while listening to sung vespers. “It was not argumentation that brought Claudel to faith,” Barron writes, “but a visceral experience of the beautiful.”
The experience of the beautiful need not be confined to “great” art. Occasions abound to create beauty in our homes, offices and gardens.
Rather than being at odds with truth and goodness, beauty can aid them. Consider what Pope Benedict XVI, arguably one of the greatest theologians alive today, once said. “I have often affirmed my conviction that the true apology of Christian faith, the most convincing demonstration of its truth … are the saints and the beauty that the faith has generated.”
And one of the great Christian thinkers — St. Augustine, who wrote extensively about theology and morality — lamented in his Confessions, “Late have I loved you, Beauty so ancient and so new, late have I loved you!”
Creating Beauty Every Day
The experience of the beautiful need not be confined to “great” art. Occasions abound to create beauty in our homes, offices and gardens. Sunday-by-Sunday our worship should be beautiful in order to reflect the beauty of our God and our faith.
Christmas is perhaps the one time of year that we expect beauty. Beautiful decorations, beautiful packages, beautiful food, beautiful music, beautiful worship. It is a time that we can introduce our skeptical neighbors to the beauty — “ever ancient, ever new” — that leads to truth and goodness as well.