As an artist, I have wrestled with the relevance of my vocation. With so much suffering in our world, is the pursuit of beauty a pointless extravagance?
Jesus confronted a similar question when a woman anointed him with expensive perfume. “Why this waste?” his disciples asked indignantly. “This perfume could have been sold at a high price and the money given to the poor.” But Jesus had another perspective: “Why are you bothering this woman? She has done a beautiful thing to me.” (Matthew 26:8-10)
A beautiful thing” has also been more prosaically translated from the Greek as “a good service” or “a good deed.” But the same Greek word is used in Luke 21:5 in reference to the “beautiful stones” adorning the temple. So because the term has this aesthetic connotation, as much as it has an ethical one, both the New International Version (NIV) and the old Revised Standard Version (RSV) chose “a beautiful thing” to describe the woman’s act.
What was it about this beautiful and lavish gesture that Jesus defended it so fiercely? I believe the answer is somehow tied to the beauty of the new heaven and new earth – pictured for us in Revelation 21, Isaiah 65, many of the Psalms, and throughout Scripture. Certain images, sounds, and phrases give hints of this coming new creation. It will be a place with richer colors, deeper harmonies, more nuanced language – all reflecting the glory of God himself.
For now, as Romans 8 tells us, we and the whole creation groan as we wait for this renewal of all things. In our waiting, we see an interesting thing: across cultures, a nearly instinctual desire to create beauty turns up. I would venture this impulse is Spirit-prompted – born of a longing for that time when all beauty will be restored at last.
So we are stirred to create beauty – and yet why can our art feel poignantly lacking, even at the highest levels of achievement? Bible scholar N.T. Wright addresses this incompleteness, saying the beauty of our present world is that “of a chalice, beautiful in itself but more hauntingly beautiful in what we know it’s meant to be filled with; or that of the violin, beautiful in itself but particularly because we know the music it’s capable of.”
How blessed we are to have the beauty of this life: intrinsically worthy, it also cries out for God himself to complete it. And the “beautiful thing” the woman did for Jesus? It mattered in its own right, while anticipating something more: the God-filled beauty of our promised future.
N.T. Wright, Surprised by Hope, (New York: HarperOne, 2008), 222.