The porcelain is smooth under my fingers, glaze thick over her frozen features. In cupped hands I hold Mary, serene and beautiful with hands forever crossed over her heart. I turn the figure over, run my hands over the flowing robe. Place her kneeling beside the babe, the Son, nestled in a manger.
This, here on the mantle…perhaps this is where it starts? I see the eyes of my children gaze on this scene, so peaceful and beautiful. And I wonder, maybe this is where we go wrong.
Because the features here are so perfect, so calm, so beautiful. Because the hands folded, they are white and smooth and soft. There is no crease of worry on Joseph’s brow, no sign of fatigue in Mary’s eyes. The child, he is pale and smooth and everything is clean, so quiet, perfectly beautiful.
Is this our idea of beauty? And do we paint it over truth, call it real, strive for it? Is this false idea of the beautiful an idol we set up, long for, worship?
Because I know this life, the same one we share, the one Mary, Joseph and Jesus lived, too. And it is beautiful, it really is…but it does not look like this, the frozen, painted serenity and perfection of my porcelain manger scene.
No, Mary’s eyes were tired, shot through with the weary work of bringing the Son into this world. She was poor, her robe was worn and stained with travel and travail. And Joseph, the worry and struggle of these last days must have shown on his face, the shock of these unplanned and unnerving months come to a climax here, in the last place he could have foreseen; a dirty shelter full of animals. The hands crossed over hearts must have been worn, chapped, rough. I picture Jesus…this tiny baby come to save the world. And he is ruddy, wrinkled, his brow lined like a little old man’s. He is, on the outside, every newborn baby ever born; this weak flesh, these tiny hands, his eyes unable to focus. Streaked with blood, bruised and swollen. New life, as beautiful and as ugly as it ever was and always will be.
And there is the beauty, that God himself chose to grace this ugly, beaten, worn-out world and chose to come into it as one of us, in the same painful and messy way. That there, in the ugly-beautiful of the simple everyday, into a world of weakness and pain and fear and doubt, into the deepest shadows of the ordinary lay God himself. A beautiful light in a weary, dark land.
The false beauty of the porcelain nativity scene, it damages the real beauty of the Truth: That this story, it was written for you and for me. For each of us, in our simple, everyday beauty. For us, with our cracked hands covering our broken hearts, with the dirty dishes piled high in the sink and the bills past due and the ache of brokenness pulsing through our veins. It is this that He will make perfection, this that He loved enough to come here for, to die for.
The image that sits, perfectly crafted, on my mantle is a lie. A trap. It paints over the true beauty, which is deeper and more real than any created by human hands. The earthly beauty we strive for pales when compared to God’s honest, piercing, heartbreaking beautiful. The false, gilded sense of beauty we hold as an idol only serves to separate us from the one who gave up the perfect beauty of Heaven itself to come here, come into the ugly-beautiful and live as one of us, God-made-flesh, perfection surrounded by a simple, ordinary earthen jar.
Lord, help me put away the idol of false, unattainable beauty and embrace the ugly-beautiful of my everyday. Help me rejoice in it, in the beauty of what is, now.