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.