Etty Hillesum, a young Jewish woman who lived through the appalling days of Nazi occupation in Amsterdam, until her death in a concentration camp at the age of 29, has gifted us a remarkable diary of her intense spiritual journey. She struggled to live a meaningful life, when all around her the very idea of ‘meaning’ had been captured by the forces of evil. She lived every day with the terrible fear of being arrested by the Nazi occupiers. Nevertheless, in a truly extraordinary way, she reached into the depths of her inner self, and her inner world, in search of the Divine. A significant element in her spiritual life was her discovery of the intense beauty of flowers, a focus for her senses that reached deep into her inner being. She brought flowers into her room at every opportunity; yellow and purple crocuses in a tin, red and white tulips that bent gracefully towards one another, sprays of flowering cherry, rose-red sweet peas, magnolia blooms, Japanese lilies, yellow tea roses, and many more. She delighted in buying flowers for herself and others. For Etty, her love of flowers became a deep immersion in the possibility of finding beauty in the darkest of times and the most dangerous of places. It was surely more than a distraction, more than an emotional and psychological escape, essentially nothing less than an expression of her own internal spiritual ‘flowering’, as one commentator has said.
As the season of Lent unfolds we inevitably are orientated towards the dark place of Jesus’ final journey in his earthly ministry and the dreadful spectre of the crucifixion. Can we really find ‘beauty’ here? Are there any flowers to be gathered in such a place? A glance at the Oxford Dictionary reminds us of the many ways we use the term ‘beauty’. Usage of the word demands a range of definitions, demanding excursion into the realms of philosophy, poetry, psychology, art, theology and many other fields. I suppose the underlying sense is that of a person, an image, an encounter, a landscape, even a sporting moment, emotionally capturing our attention and somehow changing us internally, at least for the moment, and sometimes for the long-term. Lives have been, and are, transformed by an encounter with the beautiful.
But what of the cross ? There is surely nothing uglier than a crucifixion? But sometimes true beauty lies in the meaning, not the surface appearance. How else can we measure the depths of a couple’s deepening love for one another? As time advances the deepest quality of the shared love lies predominantly in the meaning of the relationship, rather than just the romantic attraction. Ultimately, in God’s creative order, we are bonded by the underlying meaning of our relationships. And it is in the meaning of The Cross that an extraordinary beauty lies. The first disciples of Jesus had to initially cope with only knowing half of the story . The terrible spectre of the crucifixion, as far as they could perceive, carried a piercing finality – the great adventure was over. The Jesus they had obediently followed, the Jesus they truly believed would inaugurate the establishment of a new personal, political, social, religious and spiritual order, was now lashed and nailed to a cruel Roman cross, a terrible and intended public spectre of failure and ignominy. They were yet to see the end of the story, the empty tomb, the Risen Lord appearing in so many ways. And above all, they were yet to experience the companionship and power of the living Christ and the Holy Spirit in their transformed lives, the eternal reality of the Resurrection and God’s infinite love. It was a reality that they were soon to experience.
For us today, as we journey through Lent, and into Holy Week, we can see the whole story at a single glance. We already know in advance the end of the story! It is a beautiful continuum, an extravagant flow of Divine love, redemption, salvation and empowerment. For convenience of reflection we tend to focus on the discrete elements of the whole story as we make our journey through Lent, but the dazzling beauty of the cross lies in its embedding within the whole story of Divine love’s self-outpouring, and self-sacrifice. In other words, there is a beauty in the Cross, but it lies in its meaning within the Divine movement and purpose. The artist Vincent Van Gogh is reputed to have remarked “colour isn’t everything in a painting, but it is what brings life to it“. The seasons of Lent and Easter are our pathway into the ‘painting’ of Divine love and it is the dazzling colourful brilliance of the resurrection that illuminates the whole story and brings beauty to the darkness of the cross.
This Lent and Easter season, may I see deeply into the meaning of The Cross and Resurrection.
May I take the time to look into the depths and not just upon the reflective surface.
May your Spirit challenge me to respond to the complete story of the Gospel. May I see again the beauty of Divine love, and commit my life to Christ and servanthood.