— By JOHN PAUL CARTER
The famous Russian novelist Dostoyevsky (1821-1881) once said, “Beauty will save the world.” The recent death of Van Cliburn reminded me of the truth in his words.
In 1958, at the height of the Cold War, when a young musician from Texas entered the Tchaikovsky piano competition in Moscow, the world certainly needed saving. Because of the highly charged political atmosphere, no one gave the American any chance of winning. But when the last note was played, Van Cliburn not only won the competition but also the hearts of both Russians and Americans.
Although Van Cliburn’s victory didn’t end the Cold War, the beauty of his music and his character forever changed the relationship between the people of both nations. Over the next 55 years the renowned pianist captivated audiences around the world with his music, helped other promising pianists to develop their talent, and was a caring friend, known for his kindness and humility.
In a 2006 interview, Cliburn, a devoted Christian, expressed his belief that “Great music is the breath of God.” At his funeral service, his pastor imagined Van Cliburn, being embraced by God in heaven, and God saying, “Beautiful. Beautiful. Beautiful.”
The only time Jesus uses the word “beautiful” is in a remarkable story that appears in all four gospels. As Jesus was making his way toward Jerusalem and the cross, he was invited to be a dinner guest at Simon’s house in Bethany. During the meal, a woman crashed the party, broke an expensive jar of perfume, and anointed Jesus’ head and feet with its contents. Some of the other guests were openly critical of her emotion-laden actions and of Jesus for allowing such extravagance and intimacy.
When Jesus saw their reaction, he immediately came to her defense: “Let her alone. … She has done a beautiful thing for me. … She has done what she could.” (Mark 14)
Then he added that her reckless act of love would never be forgotten. As the poet Keats would reflect later: “A thing of beauty is a joy forever.”
What could have motivated this woman to lavish such a costly gift on Jesus? Beyond her gratitude and obvious love for him, we’re left to wonder. But surely the beauty of Jesus character – his kindness, humility, and devotion to his Father’s will – must have inspired her actions.
In a judgmental, male-dominated world, Jesus had a keen eye for the splendor of God’s image in everyone he encountered. To see with Jesus’ eyes the beauty in every person, including ourselves, is to walk in saving light.
In the ancient Scottish dialect, “bonnie” is the word for beauty. An old Scottish pastor used to say: “It would do the church more good than anything else if Christians would do a bonnie thing.”
We may never match the beauty of Van Cliburn’s music, but we can do “a bonnie thing” for Jesus each day.
Lord, in the words of that old gospel song, let the beauty of Jesus be seen in me. Amen.