When God created the world, he filled it with splendor and beauty. The sky above flashes a myriad of colors, and the world below is covered with majestic mountains, lush valleys, winding rivers, hidden lakes, and fields filled abundant wildlife. All of which highlight the wise creativity of our God.
The beauty of our planet is so pervasive, that many give their lives for the preservation of the environment or the thrill of filming the most exotic locales. Yet, God’s beauty is not just seen in creation. The pages of history, while smeared with darkness and death, display a redemptive beauty that in the end will swallow death. Aside from the death-defeating resurrection itself, nowhere is the jaw-dropping beauty of God’s sovereign story-telling more evident than in the incarnation of Jesus Christ.
Thus, as we think about aesthetics and the beauty of God in creation, history, and redemption, we must behold Christ’s humble beginnings.
The Incarnation Illumines the Darkness
The birth narrative of Jesus Christ is a story of God’s light come into darkness (Isa 9:1-2; Matt 4:15-16). To appreciate the fullness of its radiant splendor, it is important to remember how dark the times were before Christ’s arrival. Thus, as we consider the beauty of the incarnation, we will highlight the darkness surrounding Christ’s birth and the way that Christ’s light transformed darkness to light, and how each instance gives a beautiful hope to believers in Christ.
First, when the Word of God came into the world, God’s voice had not been heard for four centuries. As is recorded in second temple Judaism’s literature, the prophetic word of God was silent. The light that Israel had been accustomed to had become darkness. Thus, the beauty of God’s word incarnate is seen not only in God breaking his silence, but in sending his message in a whole new way.
The incarnation provides the full and final revelation of God (Heb 11:1-3). But the beauty of God’s speech is not just found in his speaking; it is in what he says. In the Old Testament, the day of salvation was future, but with Christ’s coming, the day of salvation is now (2 Cor 6:2). No longer was the deliverance to come; the deliverer had arrived. In this way, the beauty of God’s word made flesh is in this: We live in an era of remarkable revelation, salvation, and closeness. In the Old Testament, the Word of God was locked up in the holy of holies and taught by Levitical priests, but now the law of God is written on our hearts (Jer 31:34; Col 3:16) and the Spirit of Christ himself leads us into all truth. The incarnation, therefore, made the beauty of God more personal, more visible, and more powerful.
Second, until the incarnation, the people of God were under the oppressive rule of Rome. Luke 2 records the census taken up by Caesar Augustus and Joseph’s hard journey to Bethlehem. Such a coerced journey was a painful reminder that the God’s people lived in bondage to another nation.
However, Christ’s birth brought the Davidic king who would rule from sea to sea. Accordingly, the beauty of this newborn Davidic king is found in this: It frees believers from political despair. While, in the first century and twenty-first, God’s people groan because of sinful leaders, Christ’s birth promises a new kingdom with a new king whose light will dawn “like the morning light, like the sun shining forth on a cloudless morning, like rain that makes grass to sprout from the earth” (2 Sam 23:4). Though, in our fallen world, a beautiful government is nearly an oxymoron, Christ’s kingdom will be just that.
Third, when Christ was born, the nation of Israel was fracturing. Four groups in Israel fought to lead the people. Through various means, the Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, and Zealots each tried to establish God’s kingdom on earth. However, their man-made attempts all failed, and the result was division and unrest. If a people dwelling in peace and harmony is a beautiful prospect; then the division of the nation is the epitome of ugliness.
Enter Christ. In contrast to the false messiahs of first-century Palestine, Jesus came to gather a people to himself. Instead of using violence to achieve his ends, he sacrificed his life in order to become the chief cornerstone of this new temple. More beautiful than Herod’s monument, Jesus’ promise in Matthew 16:18 guaranteed that he would bring unity to a people divided by sin. His high priestly prayer echoes the same sentiment. In Christ, we get a foretaste of the beautiful unity described in Psalm 133: “Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brother dwell in unity” (v. 1).
Fourth, the birth of Jesus came through a virgin. Today, we celebrate Mary as a beautiful example of devotion and faith. But it was not so then. Matthew 1 records that Joseph, who was a righteous man, sought to divorce her quietly. Why? Because the birth of her first son was a vicious scandal. Jesus would grow up ridiculed as the son of an unchaste women (John 8:41).
The incarnation afflicted Christ and his whole family. If you remember what Simeon said to Mary, “Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, . . . a sword will pierce through your own soul also” (Luke 2:34). Therefore, the faith that Mary confessed (Luke 1:46-56) is a beautiful picture of the self-sacrificing trust of the redeemed. Though it would cost her dearly, Mary’s trust in God offered her a privileged position to know and love her Lord.
Fifth, the census was a considerable imposition. Living in Nazareth, Mary and Joseph lived about 100 miles from Bethlehem. For us, that distance can be traversed in ninety climate-controlled minutes, but for this pregnant couple the journey was promised pain and perhaps the safety of a mother who was ready to give birth.
The beauty of this travel is that God himself was working behind the scenes to bring Jesus and his parents to the city that would fulfill messianic prophecy (Mic 5:2). Christ’s birth is paradigmatic for Christians. As Herod sought to bolster his kingdom, God was using his census to found his kingdom. Accordingly, Christians should must learn that behind ugliness of life, stands a God who is making all things beautiful. What the world means for evil, God intends for good (Gen 50:20). Such a hopeful anticipation of God’s later, greater restoration, gives us reason to believe that while we suffer today, we will one day experience unbounded beauty when God makes all things new.
Sixth, the poverty of Mary and Joseph concealed the glory of their royal son. Luke 2:7 records that there was no place in the inn. This may be because it was filled up with travelers coming for the census; or it may be that Joseph, a carpenter by trade, did not have the means to pay for—or to pay extra—to secure a room. 2 Corinthians 8:9 states, “that though [Jesus] was rich, yet for your sake he became poor.” As with those who do not have funds to pay the electric bill, Jesus came not into a palace of light; he was born in a darkened stable and grew up in the ‘backwoods’ town of Nazareth.
In the incarnation, the king of glory volunteered to live his life in poverty and dependence on the gifts of others (Luke 8:3). Such humble service not only models the kind of life Jesus wants his saints to live; Jesus defines the kind of glorious living that is truly beautiful. Beauty is not found in external garments or well-appointed homes. Beauty is found in expending all that we are for the sake of others (Phil 2:5-11).
Seventh, through the hostile forces of Herod, Satan tried to kill Jesus. Just after Jesus’ birth, Matthew 2 records how Herod sought the life of Jesus. Disguising his motives, he recruits the wise men to find Jesus, and when they fail to return to Jerusalem, he orders the execution of the children in and around Bethlehem.
What could possibly be beautiful about the death of newborns? The answer is nothing, in itself. However, when we zoom out to see the whole plan of God, as Matthew does (2:16-18), we see how God is working to fulfill Scripture (Jer 31:15). And more than that, the circumstances that surround Jesus death show us how the tragedies of life are not senseless. Rather, they are part of the beautiful tapestry of redemptive history that God is weaving together. On this side of heaven, we may only see darkness, ugliness, and despair, but in full view of Christ’s incarnation, we can know that no tear will be missed (Ps 56:8) and that on the last day, all the darkness that sweeps over us today will forever be swallowed up by light (Rev 21:23-24).
Beauty in the End
What we see in the birth of Christ is but one remarkable stage in God’s beautiful plan of history. Though the cast of characters who were in involved in Christ’s earliest life surely did not see (immediately) the beauty of Christ’s birth, with the light of Scripture, we can see how beautifil Christ’s incarnation truly is.
More personally, we can believe that even in our darkest hours, the Lord is present—his word still speaks, his Spirit still comforts, and his promises still stand. When all of life seems black and ugly, the incarnation awakens us from our stupor shouting—“Immanuel!” “God is here!” “Take heart, behind his frowning providence is a smiling face.” “Look to the babe born in Bethlehem, and trust once more”
Indeed, the whole life of Jesus displays the stunning display of God’s meticulous providence orchestrating events, often in ways that would be unimaginable to us if we were writing the narrative. He turns the pages of Jesus’ life in such a way as to inflict his own Son with the greatest pains, but always for the good of the redeemed.
In this way, the black and white, darkness and light relief sculpture of Christ’s incarnation, should teach us to look at events in our own lives with fresh faith—believing that God, the storyteller of storytellers, is able to redeem our lives, if they are united to Christ. As John the Baptist had, to learn, so must we: “Blessed is he who does not take offense at me.”
One of the greatest ways to counter “offense” in our hearts is to behold the incarnation with all of its plot twists and turns, and to trust that the same God who orchestrated his Son’s birth, is doing the same thing in the lives of those united to Christ. This is not a tragic thing. This is a beautiful thing, when it is seen in the light of Christ.
Soli Deo Gloria, dss