An important manuscript long thought lost was rediscovered hiding in a Pennsylvania seminary on a forgotten archival shelf. The recovered manuscript was a working score for a piano version of Ludwig van Beethoven’s “Grosse Fuge,” which means “grand fugue.” Apparently, grand is an understatement. The work is known as a monument of classical music and described by historians as a “symphonic poem” or a “leviathan”—an achievement on the scale of the finale of his Ninth Symphony. The work is one of the last pieces Beethoven composed, during the period when he was completely deaf. The markings throughout the manuscript are in the composer’s own hand.
In fact, such markings are a particular trademark of Beethoven, who was known for his near obsessive editing. Unlike Mozart, who typically produced large scores in nearly finished form, Beethoven’s mind was so full of ideas that it was never made up. Never satisfied, he honed his ideas brutally.
A look at the recovered score portrays exactly that. Groups of measures throughout the 80-page manuscript are furiously canceled out with cross-marks. Remnants of red sealing wax, used to adhere long corrections to an already scuffed up page, remain like scars. There are smudges where he rubbed away ink while it was still wet and abrasions where he erased notes with a needle. Dated changes and omissions are scattered throughout the score, many of these markings dating to the final months before his death in 1827.
I think there is something encouraging about the labored work of an artist chasing after genius. Beethoven wrestled notes onto the page. For him, composing music was a messy, physical process. Ink was splattered, wax burned, erasers wore holes in the paper. What started as a clean page became a muddled, textured mess of a masterpiece ever being finished.
Maybe it is the artist in me that understands work that never quite feels finished, but I am jarred by the finality of certain sentences on the ancient lips of those who evoke the mystery of faith: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.”(1) The Greek wording here actually carries with it the force of an expletive. Translators use the word “behold” to convey the finality that Paul speaks with force, but something is most certainly lost. Set in motion by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the effect of these events on human lives is nothing short of the abrupt creative work of God at the very beginning, when God speaks chaos and darkness into order. If this were a statement given as a contemporary text it would have come in all caps to denote shouting: Therefore, if anyone is in Christ: NEW CREATION! Paul is emphatic in a way that cannot be escaped. Christ has done something irreversible. He has set in motion something new. To use Christ’s own words from the cross: It is finished. By the Spirit, the Christian is swept up into this finality. Before she has even tried to live well, before he has even labored as a disciple, the marred and muddied scenes of hearts that cry out to Christ have been abruptly and finally made new. The Father has handed us the masterpiece of his Son and told us that when God looks at us God sees this perfection.
Though I stand amazed at this mysterious, nearly violent grace, it is also easy for me to stumble at the thought of it. I imagine God handing me a clean paper and asking me to hold it in a world full of ink and dirt and choices. And I immediately wish I would have been more careful. I picture the white page given to me and think of all of the smudges and eraser marks that I’ve added to it, some of them from lessons learned the hard way, others merely from bumping into life as I walked along. The newness Paul asks us to behold is something that takes work beholding.
But more than this startling application to the individual, because of the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, creation itself is being made new. Though creation groans with contamination and disease, though we presently hear the raucous cries of a world fearfully aware of its need for healing and newness, even here, in this present darkness we have the promise of a God at work in the dark. The darkness of Holy Saturday was the firstfruit (literally, promise to come) of the light of Easter. Over all of creation, even in the midst of a pandemic, God speaks the abrupt, creative promise of one who has set in motion the restoration of all things.
Life is far more disheveled than we would like it to be. People get angry and depressed and sick. We struggle with remaining hopeful in the dark, seeing through bouts of self-deception and despair, believing both the deceptive insecurities and the inflated depositions we hold of ourselves and others. Life doesn’t turn out how we planned, and the roads we choose wind in ways we could have never anticipated. Even so, Paul seems to say, the Christian’s vital truth is that God is kind and faithful through the mess and the darkness because Christ himself has come into the very midst of it.
Someone has called Beethoven’s masterpieces works of “three-dimensional” art. There is a texture and a character to his manuscripts that display an artist who went beyond merely writing the notes, but stretched himself, and the page and ink and substances themselves, to make a symphony. All the more mellifluous is the work of Christ. Life in Christ, life in community, is fleshed out of us. But it is first his own flesh. Our scuffs and blotches are wrought with the work of human one who descends into the mess of life to shape us. Like a composer willing to labor over his pages, the potter’s hands have not been afraid to get dirty. Our lives, our very communities, which may seem glued with corrections and shaped with notations, are finally marked with the signs of the master whose work in making NEW CREATION is quite beautifully decisive.
Jill Carattini is managing editor of A Slice of Infinity at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.
(1) 2 Corinthians 5:17.