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Beauty and Brokenness:

A Reflection on Beauty and the Feeding of the Five Thousand.

It was after my first year of Bible college. Interning with a church over summer we were

in the midst of our week long VBS. Some 50 kids were huddled together jostling and fidgeting

in the church basement as the associate pastor was about to lead them through an illustration of

Jesus’ Feeding of the Five Thousand. The pastor took a bun, gave it to the children and asked

that they each take a small piece before passing it on. The bun weaved its way through gangly

and pudgy fingers alike finally returning to the pastor with almost half of its original content

remaining. The pastor looked around the room and raised the hand-pecked bun over his head.

Then with the young eyes drawn upward he spoke of how far something can last for so many

people.

I have come to view this event as a reflection of a Mennonite distinctive. My experience

growing up in the Mennonite church and the little history I have had a chance to read points to a

particular lifestyle and approach to the world’s resources. Many of our churches fundraise

through the Penny Power drives. I have heard of individuals making duct tape wallets or

newspaper sandals. After something broke on a particular camping trip as a child I can

remember someone saying, “Well all you really need to fix something is some baler twine and a

pair of pliers.” Mennonites have carried a creative and resourceful wisdom that is worthy of the

book of Proverbs in its search to maximize material resources. These expressions seem to have

come, at least in part, from a long history of working the land, homesteading new areas and

creating self-sufficient communities.

Keeping all this in mind, remembering all the good that can and has come from it,

something still nags at me to rethink what I saw communicated in that church basement years

ago. Was the Feeding of Five Thousand just about the prudent use and equitable distribution of

resources in the service of the Gospel? I am not convinced. There are other places we can look

to in exploring this stream of thought and life. The Mennonite tradition has vigorously and

courageously explored what it is to give “a cup of cold water” or to encounter Jesus in the naked,

hungry or imprisoned. There are numerous examples of how this particular ethic has been put

into the service of the Gospel.

If this story is not tied directly or at least exclusively into the social demands of the

Gospel then what is it communicating to us? I would like to suggest that there is another

possible reading, a reading which affirms the earthy nature of the Mennonite tradition but

explores an area that perhaps some of us are less familiar with.

What would it mean to say that Jesus’ miracle was beautiful? Beauty is not a concept we

often use to help us understand Jesus’ ministry. At a time in history before physical science took

over as a the dominant way of understanding the world the role of the beautiful once stood

equally alongside the pursuit of the true in philosophy and theology as well as the establishment

of the good in ethics.

However sometime after the fifteenth century there emerged a view that world fully and

exclusively obeyed the then developing “laws” of science and reason and so the idea of beauty

was largely excluded in these developments and left in the hands of artists. In matters of

theological precision, scientific discovery, and political ordering beauty did not fit into the molds

and systems being developed. Beauty was too subjective for philosophy or theology and too

unpredictable for science.

Hans Urs von Balthasar calls beauty “forgetful” in its tendency to play outside of the

rules. Beauty did not sit still long enough for our modern tendency to capture, analyze, and

reproduce it in a controlled manner. Beauty did not fit well into modernity and as a result beauty

was also left outside many church walls, especially Reformation and Mennonite churches.

So why bother with beauty? Growing up I always associated the idea of beauty with

vanity or uselessness. In college I heard a friend say that his mom would only have things that

were either beautiful or useful in her home. That seemed strange to me because at that time I

could only think of valuing what was useful. Beauty was an unnecessary extra.

Beauty, however, is one of the few things that still openly affirms both the material and

spiritual reality of our world. It accepts the material and spiritual not as two distinct realms but

as one environment of possibility. We encounter beauty with our senses and because of this

beauty remains married to the material. Beauty takes its shape from the stuff of the world.

However, beauty cannot be reduced to what our senses make of a particular object. A beautiful

painting is more than the sum of its descriptions (i.e. bright colours, sharp lines, clear contrasts,

etc.). Beauty does not lie as a corpse before us waiting for dissection in order to be understood.

Rather, beauty is alive and active in its encounter with us. Beauty moves us. We receive from

beauty. Beauty gives of itself.

This is where it is important to be clear. Beauty gives differently than most objects. This

gift is more than the warmth of burnt wood or the nourishment of prepared food. These material

gifts offer themselves only once and have run their course. Beauty reminds us that there are not

only renewable resources but that there are also renewing resources. The gift of beauty pours

itself out abundantly and will not be used up by purely practical uses.

When we sing a song we do not use up that song’s resources often the song only

increases in its giving to us. So while beauty is made up in the material world it also points us

beyond to the equally true spiritual dimensions of reality.

Perhaps this all seems a little abstract or at least a far way from the text that we started

with. However, the matter of beauty is quite easy to understand. We should not think in

categories like beauty and the beast. Beauty is often much more and even much different than

things we consider “pretty”. Rather, one way to think of beauty is to think of beauty as the beast

or more specifically of the bull.

There are many ways that a bull may be experienced or encountered. First, someone can

wear the leather or eat the meat of a bull. In this case, the life of the bull has ended. All two

thousand pounds of him is divided, processed and consumed. The feel of the leather and the

taste of the meat may still evoke an appreciation of the animal and what it has to offer.

However, this is only what the material of the bull itself can offer. The bull offers this once and

its role is over.

Second, someone can attend a rodeo or visit a farm. Here the power and rawness of the

bull can be witnessed in its dramatic form and movement. The bull's dense energy presents itself

as almost visible outside its skin. The onlooker can, undoubtedly, appreciate and even be moved

by the beauty of such a display. However, the onlooker remains on one side of the fence with

the bull on the other. Whatever the onlooker may experience in this encounter he or she remains

in control of their relationship to the bull. The onlooker may turn their back with no fear of

further consequences.

Finally, the onlooker may climb over the fence and stand inside the ring with bull. The

person sees nothing new in the creature, but perceives its presence in an entirely different

manner. Something happened in the crossing of the fence. A new relationship has been created.

The presence of the bull now fills the senses in a way that the prior relationship could not. The

presence of the bull pours itself out into the experience of the onlooker. Beauty has engaged,

even overwhelmed the onlooker. This is why encounters with beauty can often border on the

terrifying and God’s holiness is so much than notion of “pretty” could capture.

The movement from the purely material to the beautiful is from the dead piece of meat to

a live encounter with the bull. Beauty increases to the extent that we are brought into a dynamic

and appropriate relationship with the possibilities of God’s world. Food to eat is good and a

great gift from God, but we cannot live on bread alone. And now we can return to Jesus’

Feeding of the Five Thousand.

In multiplying the loaves and fishes Jesus asked the crowd to look beyond the fence that

marked the boundary of God’s presence. This is referring to the limits that we place on God’s

relationship to our lives. Jesus asked us to see and know the untamed holiness that roams all

around us. This presence tears through our restrictions and offers itself abundantly to all those

who will step over the fence in faith. This is not however a magic trick to be reproduced. The

reason Jesus is so upset with the people the following day, as recorded in John’s Gospel, is that

they came back to him and asked simply that he produce more bread. It was the same thing with

healing. Jesus did not come to miraculously heal on command. The people were asking for a

dead piece of meat instead of a new encounter with the living God.

So in response Jesus confronts them with the reality that if they will not feed on his flesh

and blood they will not be nourished for eternal life. If they will not step over the fence into the

realm of the living God they cannot expect to receive life.

Jesus is trying to tell them that there is part of being human that cannot be addressed with

only food and medicine. This reality is something that art and beauty can still point to. The

world will not be fed with dead flesh but with a resurrected body.

Jesus says, For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink (John 6:55).

In Jesus we see beauty in its fullest form. In dying to himself Jesus lived in communion

with God on the other side of the fence. This fullest expression of God is no abstract idea or

theory or law. The truth of God in the world is incarnate, in bodily form. Any expression of

Christ in our world will also need to be incarnate; that is, it must take on a material or bodily

expression. There should be competition in choosing between a material or social Gospel on one

hand and a spiritual Gospel on the other. A spiritual Gospel is and must always be in some way

a material Gospel.

We often understand this intuitively. We know that gathering around for a meal is more

than just putting fuel in our bodies. And we also know that fellowship is often more than just

sitting around an empty table. We know that something more is created when we open our lives

around a table sharing in God’s gift of creation. This basic intuition, however, may be lost as we

get caught up in the rhythms and demands of daily life. For this reason the Feeding of the Five

Thousand, and the question of beauty, must be thoughtfully integrated into lives.

The Feeding of Five Thousand is certainly an act of trust. But how does this trust express

itself? Jesus looks to heaven, gives thanks and breaks the bread. The first two acts reflect a type

of posture and perspective. In looking to heaven Jesus acknowledges that reality is more than

just “the earth”. We live in the midst of heaven and the earth. Second, Jesus gives thanks. This

is perhaps our only response when we understand that the created world is dripping with the

possibilities of God’s Spirit.

This is the day that the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it.

This is not a matter of putting on a fake smile because of something you are supposed to

believe. This giving thanks is like finding your hands almost involuntarily turning outwards in

worship because you feel the blessing of God moving so freely that it cannot but rest on your

open palm. This giving thanks is the moment of peace in deep despair when you feel something

that is still unborn but kicking in the womb of hope. This giving thanks is a posture of living and

a way of seeing the world. It is Jesus third movement, the act of breaking, that is the hard part.

There is a type of brokenness in all beauty. There is an act of beauty and brokenness in

giving what appears to be insufficient in the belief that there is the possibility of abundance. The

artist works in faith that something greater will emerge than the simple sum of their paint or

words. We cannot assume that our life will simply be abundant we must look to the heavens,

give thanks and then break and share our life in faith. No one life and body is sufficient for the

needs of the world and yet one life was more than sufficient, it was abundant. In Jesus the

fullness of God’s Spirit was manifest in a life that looked to heaven, gave thanks and was

broken.

This is why artists can often be a little melancholy or even fixated on death. Death is the

ultimate crossing over the fence to encounter the living reality of God. In considering and

reflecting at times on death artists wonder what this crossing over can look like in the midst of

life. The Russian novelist Boris Pasternak says that art “always meditates on death and thus

always creates life.” This is dying to self that Jesus calls us to. This is not a fixation on despair

or the morbid but a vision of hope and resurrection. This is the movement of transformation.

I was told the story that years ago as my family gathered around the deathbed of my

grandfather my aunt suddenly looked up and said, “The angels have come, do you feel them?”

My grandfather’s broken body created a new space and a new experience of reality. With death

human nature and the reality around us is opened and “the fence is crossed” in a manner which

little other circumstances can initiate.

This breaking of bread is the giving of our life in the faith that it is not only sufficient but

overwhelmingly abundant in God’s Kingdom. Beauty then navigates its course through these

cracks in broken bread and bodies.

It is Leonard Cohen who modernizes the Gospel proverb unless a grain of wheat falls to

ground and dies when he writes,

there is a crack inside of everything, that’s how the light gets in.

This message calls us to look not only to the renewable resources of the material world.

We are indeed called in life to conserve appropriately as I learned when we passed that bun

around in the church basement years ago. However we are to seek also the renewing resources;

to see the cracks in our brokenness and cross over the fence and encounter the living reality of

God in a new way. We can never forget that there is new birth for all who break bread in God’s

Kingdom. This is the other side of dying to self. This is being raised in Christ. Mennonites

were right to sink their hands deep in earth which yields bread for the body, but may we as a

church also and always remember to look to heaven, give thanks and break this bread as Christ

did in his body and feed the world unto eternal life. This morning allow your brokenness to be

present with you and listen, there may yet be music in the cracks and the wounds and the chance

to offer something beautiful for God.

Amen.