The Gates of Beauty4 min read

Summertime on the Leelanau Peninsula is a great time to consider the concept of beauty. We love our beautiful Peninsula this time of the year, and for good reason! The lakes. The verdant landscape. The cherry harvest. It’s a big part of the reason so many tourists enjoy coming to the Leelanau Peninsula and the Grand Traverse area. Yes, at all times, and especially in the summer, this part of our beloved Michigan is a beautiful place to be!

One Sunday, while serving the good people of Immanuel, Leland, I found myself contemplating beauty at the most unexpected time. It was early in the Season of Pentecost, on one of the first Sundays in June. The Divine Service was about to begin, and I just announced the opening hymn to the congregation—“Open Now Thy Gates of Beauty” (Lutheran Service Book, 901). As the congregation was starting to sing the first verse, I turned to face the altar and to find my seat in the chancel area. I climbed the steps into the chancel and that’s when I saw it. As the voices in the pews rang out, “Open now thy gates of beauty; Zion, let me enter there…”, I spotted a dozen flower petals from the beautiful floral arrangement next to the altar fall lifelessly to the floor. And in that moment, while the congregation was singing “Open Now Thy Gates of Beauty,” I found myself pondering beauty.

To be sure, the floral arrangement, placed next to the altar less than twenty-four hours prior, was a very lovely arrangement that greatly enhanced the glory of the Worship Service. The ladies responsible for the altar flowers here at Immanuel always do such a great job. And they take such good care of the flowers. At the same time, the wilting petals were one more reminder that the beauty of this world is so fragile.

The brand-new car with all the bells and whistles is but a moment away from its first ding, scratch, dent, or milk spill from a toddler. The beautiful bodies and the vim, vit, and vigor that we once possessed in our twenties are no match for the inescapable aging process. Even this pleasant peninsula in “cherry country” that so many love and adore cannot avoid the high winds that tear down trees, damage fruit crops, and erode the lakeshore beauty. The beauty of this world is temporal, transient, and fleeting. It can only elicit our admiration and appreciation for a short period of time before our insatiable appetite for splendor looks to the next thing and cries, “Open now thy gates of beauty.”

And as my eyes that Sunday morning were desperately searching for something “more beautiful” than a pile of wilting flower petals, I saw the image adjacent to and exalted above the floral arrangement—the crucifix on the altar. Above the all-too-many reminders of the fleeting beauty of this world is an image that points to the eternal beauty of our Lord’s salvation given and shed for us for the forgiveness of sin. This is ‘gospel beauty,’ whose shape is the cruciform love of our Beautiful Savior, God’s chosen One, “who had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him” (Isaiah 53:2).

It is then through Christ, and not through the beauty of this world, that we finally experience God as truthful, beautiful, and good.[1] We “gaze upon the beauty of the Lord” (Psalm 27:4) through faith in our Beautiful Savior ‘clothed’ and granted in His Word of promise, in Baptism, in the Lord’s Supper, in absolution, and in preaching.[2] Jesus reveals to us true beauty and, “more importantly, frees and so beautifies sinners and discloses to us this good earth as beautiful.”[3]

And yet, our experience of the passing beauty of creation is another reminder that, because of sin and brokenness, God’s creation does not work the way it is supposed to work. And so, even as we enjoy the beauty of God’s creation now, we look forward to the restoration of all creation at Jesus’ return. Until that Last Day, we look to our Beautiful Savior and can boldly and confidently say, “Open now Thy gates of beauty; Zion, let me enter there, where my soul in joyful duty waits for Him who answers prayer. Oh, how blessed is this place, filled with solace, light, and grace!” (Lutheran Service Book, 901:1).

[1] Mark Mattes, Martin Luther’s Theology of Beauty: A Reappraisal (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2017), 100.

[2] Mattes, Martin Luther’s Theology of Beauty, 11.

[3] Mattes, Martin Luther’s Theology of Beauty, 204.

Photo © Esther Perrault

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About the Author

Rev. Dr. Joshua LaFeve serves Immanuel Lutheran Church in Leland, Mich.

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