Friday, May 24, 2024

The Hidden Work of Art

60th Wedding Anniversary of Charles & Suzanne

Readings: Ecclesiasticus 26: 1-4, 13-16; Colossians 3: 12-17; John 15: 9-17

Picture: By Brandon Smith on Unsplash

Charles & Suzanne, my dear friends, what does beauty look like? If someone were to ask us to imagine something beautiful right now, what would come to mind? … In the novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, the story is told of an exceptionally handsome young man, who vainly gets his own portrait painted, and then expresses a willingness to sell his own soul, if only he can keep looking young and beautiful forever. Somehow, his wish is granted. Even though Dorian lives a selfish, immoral, pleasure-seeking life, he never ages. His physical appearance remains exactly the same, year after year. What does change, however, is his portrait, which he never shows to anyone. Though, outwardly Dorian remains as beautiful as ever, the more bad things he does, the uglier the hidden picture of him becomes… Although this story is, of course, only a work of fiction, it does contain some truth, doesn’t it? It prompts us to ponder what true beauty looks like. And isn’t this also what our scripture readings invite us to do today? To ponder what true beauty looks like?

I hope Suzanne doesn’t mind me sharing this. But I must confess to being more than a little amused, when I read her email to me, containing the readings for this jubilee Mass. In it she informed me that it was Charles who had chosen the first reading, and that, in response, she had reminded him that, contrary to what we find in the reading, she is not a silent wife. And yet, in the first reading, what is perhaps more striking than the wife’s silence, is her beauty: Like the sun rising over the mountains of the Lord is the beauty of a good wife in a well-kept house…

I hope I’m not embarrassing him too much by making this observation but, by choosing this reading, isn’t Charles telling us that his spouse – who, as we know, is an artist – is as beautiful as a brilliant sunrise? And aren’t these words all the more striking, when we remember that they’re chosen not for a wedding, but for a diamond jubilee? At a wedding, the couple typically has no first-hand experience of married life. Together, they’re both looking only ahead. So any mention of a beautiful life together must be no more than an aspiration, a hope, something to aim towards, and to pray for. On the other hand, after 60 years of marriage, these same words are no longer only aspirational. They’re also an affirmation, a reason to rejoice, and to give thanks. Thanks to one’s partner, and thanks to God.

The same can be said about the other readings as well. While the first reading helps us imagine beauty by drawing our attention to a work of nature – the sunrise – the second reading points to something made by human hands. It uses the image of a stylishly cut suit of clothes to help us imagine what the lovely virtues of Christian living look like. Virtues that, presumably, Charles and Suzanne have cultivated and experienced, in their 60 years together as husband and wife. Virtues like sincere compassion… kindness and humility, gentleness and patience and, above all, love.

Not so much the romantic kind of love, which may wax and wane like the phases of the moon, important though that may be. But more the love that Jesus professes in the gospel. The love that he tells his disciples to treat as a place in which to live. As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you. Remain in my love. The love of constant commitment, which prompts a person even to go so far as to lay down one’s life for one’s friend. Which can be done not only by dying a physical death, but also by persevering in sharing a meaningful life of mutual self-sacrifice, for the sake of the other. Isn’t this what the readings tell us true beauty looks like? Isn’t this the reason why we are gathered to celebrate and give thanks?

All of which may point to another grain of truth we find in the fictional story of Dorian Gray. Could it be that, just as Dorian's mysterious portrait served as a hidden record of all the ugliness he brought into his own life, so too is a lasting record kept – deep within our hearts, and enfolded in God’s embrace – of all the beauty we cultivate in our lives. Beauty that often remains hidden to the naked eye, yet endures and deepens with the passing of the years. As St Paul reminds us in his second letter to the Corinthians, (e)ven though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day…. because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal (4:16, 18, NRSV).

Sisters and brothers, as we join Suzanne and Charles today, to joyously celebrate and give thanks for their years of fruitful married life, how might we also help one another cultivate, in our own lives, the beauty that endures unto eternity?

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