A few years ago I had an experience of beauty I’ll never forget—in a cemetery. It was a Saturday night Explosions in the Sky concert in the iconic Hollywood Forever Cemetery.
As I lay on a blanket in the grass on a cool May night, listening to the cacophonous instrumental music of the Texas band (renowned for its soundtrack to Friday Night Lights), I remember feeling one of those gut-level brushes with eternity that beauty uniquely provides. As I watched the tall palm trees swaying in the cool wind, I imagined them as arms lifted in praise. As I lay breathing, alive, on ground where hundreds of dead lie buried, I felt the soaring guitars in songs like “Greet Death” and “The Birth and Death of the Day” as declarations of resurrection: wordless testimonies to hope for renewal, emptied graves, life after death.
When I recall this experience and describe it to people, I often tear up—overcome by an emotion I can’t fully explain. What made this moment so beautiful and indelible for me? Perhaps it’s because this experience so viscerally captured the reality that the most beautiful things in life feel like voices calling out to us from eternity—brushes with transcendence. They are foretastes and glimpses of the new creation, postcards from far away, witnesses of resurrection in a world of death.
I’ve been thinking about beauty a lot this week—Holy Week—as I reflect on the contrasts and tensions of Christ’s Passion. From Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday, it’s a journey of ups and downs, highs and lows, triumph and tragedy, weeping and jubilation, deep darkness and dawning light.
It all adds up to something unspeakably beautiful.
What Makes Something Beautiful?
What makes something beautiful? There are many answers to that question, which is why the question of beauty is often assumed to be hopelessly subjective. But one thing most people can agree on is that a key attribute of beauty is contrast. Music is beautiful if it contains both soft and loud sections, pianissimo and fortissimo.
Photographs are beautiful if there is contrast in color, light and dark. Films, novels, and plays are beautiful if they contain both heroes and villains, triumph and tragedy. A cookie is beautiful if it contains contrast in flavor (salty and sweet) and texture (crunchy and chewy).
The most beautiful things in life feel like voices calling out to us from eternity—brushes with transcendence.
Contrast is crucial to beauty: the juxtaposition, interplay, or coming together of different (often opposite) things. When daylight meets night, for example, we have sunsets or sunrises: the most beautiful and oft-photographed times of day. When salt water meets fresh, we have estuaries, some of the most vibrant natural habitats in the world. When two different things come together, their seeming contrast often feels strangely coherent, creating beauty and life.
We register contrast as beauty because this is how God set up the world. In Genesis 1 we see how God created the world through a series of pairs: light and dark, evening and morning, waters above and below, land and sea, and finally, male and female. The beautiful contrast of man and woman is God’s masterstroke, such that their one-flesh union in marriage is said to be an earthly pointer to the heavenly reality of how Jesus loves his church (Eph. 5:31–32).
That marriage is, in a mysterious way, the epitome of God-given beauty is reinforced because it bookends the Bible. God’s story begins with a wedding in Eden and ends with one in Revelation, a book full of contrasting pairs: Christ and his bride (the church), heaven and earth, and the climactic clash of good and evil.
Tension Between Good Friday and Easter Sunday
This contrast of good and evil may not seem beautiful on the surface, but it speaks to another fundamental element of beauty, closely related to contrast: tension. The most beautiful things in life contain a felt dissonance that points to a longed-for resolution.
A symphony is beautiful when it contains unresolved chords that point to an elusive aural “home” (which usually comes in the final movement). A play is beautiful when its protagonist faces setback after setback, only to reach a cathartic resolution in the end. The arc of almost every compelling story follows a familiar, tension-filled structure: paradise, paradise lost, paradise restored.
The most beautiful things in life contain a felt dissonance that points to a longed-for resolution.
The beautiful tension in art reminds us of the beautiful tension in existence: our hopeless plight met with divine rescue; our struggle with sin met with the sinless Savior who defeated death. It’s the tension of the “already, not yet” kingdom of God. We live in Holy Saturday, between the pain of Good Friday and the triumph of Easter Sunday.
We celebrate and take comfort in the first advent of Christ—that he came and conquered sin and death on our behalf. But we wait and long for his second advent, when he will come on a white horse, his eyes ablaze and a sword coming out of his mouth (Rev. 19:11–16), to once and for all bring justice and resolution to this deeply broken world.
We live in the “meantime” space where tension reigns. We suffer, but with hope. We grow, but often in a “two steps forward, one step back” sort of way. We experience the tension Paul describes in Romans 7 and Romans 8—between slavery to sin (“I do the very thing I hate,” 7:15) and Spirit-empowered freedom (“more than conquerors,” 8:37).
Insofar as beauty helps make us more aware of this tension, it helps make us wise. Beauty is a window through which we see the world and God’s glory within it; but it is also a mirror that helps us better see ourselves—our sinful plight, our need for redemption, our longing for peace.
The bloody cross and the empty tomb.
Our separation from God and our longing for reunion.
Our bones in the cemetery dirt. And the Saturday music that sings—for all those in Christ—of resurrection hope.