How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news, who proclaim peace, who bring good tidings, who proclaim salvation…”
Vincent van Gogh once said, if we love nature, we will find beauty everywhere. Here at Volmoed and in the Overberg we are surrounded by natural beauty, but that does not mean we see beauty everywhere. For that we need our eyes opened, for there are many, Jesus said, “who look and look, but do not see.” Consider, then, something else van Gogh said after he had visited a city rubbish dump: “what beauty!” Van Gogh could see what the rest of us cannot or maybe will not see. Beauty, according to some ancient Greek philosophers, “is in the eye of the beholder”. Where some people see ugliness, others see beauty. Even if my auntie Doris thought I was an ugly child, my mother thought I was beautiful, and in the end that is what mattered.
I well remember the first time I entered a shack in a poor township. Outside everything was awful and not to be romanticized in the slightest. But inside everything was clean, there were pictures on the rough walls, and flowers on the table. The ugliness outside, the abject poverty and accumulated rubbish, was the result of gross injustice that nothing could excuse back then and or condoned today. But I was fortunate to be invited inside, and that was a different universe. Love had turned a shack into a home of simple beauty in stark contrast to the squalor and poverty all around. Beauty, you see, and I mean “see”, is not tawdry opulence but an expression of love. We have too much wealthy ugliness in the Overstrand in the face of so much poverty, and that needs to change when the pandemic ends.
More generally, we can see so much ugliness in the Corona virus pandemic itself. Corrupt officials steel food parcels meant for the poor, politicians use the opportunity to score points, powerful nations grab medical supplies for themselves rather than share them with others, and health workers die because they lack protective gear. There is nothing beautiful about Covid-19. But amid all the ugliness associated with the pandemic there is much beauty if we have eyes with which to see. The beauty of nurses, doctors, and essential service personnel working long hours in dangerous circumstances; the beauty of the many people across our country and in our own community who are taking food parcels to poor and those in isolated communities or caring for abandoned animals. The same is globally true. It is the beauty of unselfish courage and redemptive love.
I remember visiting an old Catholic church near Bellagio in Italy with a friend. She was not a Christian and had seldom been inside a church building. As we walked into the sanctuary, I remarked on its beauty, but she shuddered with repulsion. I asked her why, and her answer took me by surprise. She could not look at “that man suffering on the cross up in the front” and so she turned her back and left the building. For her, the cross was grotesque. And, of course, it was and is grotesque, graphically depicting one of the ugliest and most brutal forms of execution. In foretelling the good news of the coming Messiah, Isaiah knew that there would be “nothing in his appearance that we should desire him”, but he would rather be someone “from whom others hide their faces.” (Is. 53:2-3) Yet time and again painters have discerned and depicted that horrendous event in a way that expresses the beauty of God’s love for the world. With the eyes of faith they see the beauty of redemptive love just as the see the beauty of creative love in the nature that surrounds us. Artists help us all to see better, as do the artists who pursue their craft on Volmoed. They might even help us see the beauty of feet as did the prophet Isaiah: “How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news, who proclaim peace, who bring good tidings, who proclaim salvation…” Such feet may be hardened and calloused from walking on rough paths, they may be unwashed, but they are beautiful because they go the extra mile to bring help, hope and consolation to those in need.
In a sermon preached on-line last Sunday, Robert Steiner, the minister of the Rondebosch United Church in Cape Town, reflected on a painting by the 17th century French artist Nicolas Poussin depicting Peter and John healing a blind beggar at the “Beautiful Gate” outside the Temple in Jerusalem. What makes that gate beautiful, says Robert, is not its architecture, size, or history, but the way it becomes a gateway to new life and possibility. In Jesus’s day not everyone was allowed to pass through that gate into the Temple, and there were many that did but did not see the begging people sitting near the gate as lovable let alone beautiful.. But the painting depicts one moment when the gate lives up to its name. It is when Peter and John bend down towards the beggar lying before them and enable him to start life again. They have no silver or gold to give him; all they can give the man is the good news that God loves him and wants to make him whole. How beautiful their feet must have appeared to the beggar! They were not well-shod feet hastening past; they were dirty and dusty, hardened by much walking on the hills of Galilee. But they were beautiful feet because they brought the good news of Jesus that that the beggar was lovable and beautiful as a human being created in God’s image. So he grasped Peter’s outstretched hand and “jumping up” as Acts tells us. “he began to walk,” entered the Temple “leaping and praising God.” His dignity as a human being had been restored, he had been raised to new life. In that instance the gate became truly beautiful.
The remarkable generosity of many people during the Corona virus pandemic is truly beautiful, but the beauty does not lie in the money that is given much as that is desperately needed whether in large or small amounts. What is beautiful is the concern, solidarity and humanity that lies behind the generosity; what is beautiful is the fact that people reach out to others in need; what is beautiful is the love that is expressed through self-giving often at considerable risk. How beautiful are the feet of those who bring the good news of God’s healing and saving love to those in need, especially during this pandemic. That is something to celebrate, to jump up with the risen beggar and praise God.
John de Gruchy
Volmoed 30 April 2020