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What is the Most Beautiful Thing in the Universe?

What is the most beautiful thing in the Universe?  The only other thing I ever wanted to do in life besides what I have done with my life is to be a firefighter.  In fact, if I had two lives, I would have been a New York City Firefighter in one of them.  In the South Bronx.  During the “War Years” of the 1970’s, the busiest period for fires anytime and anywhere on the globe.  So, after thirty plus years of being a volunteer firefighter, one of my favorite podcasts to watch—it’s videotaped on YouTube—is two retired NYC firefighters who, for two plus hours, interview other firefighters, most of whom are retired, most from New York.  Many of them worked in or shortly after the War Years.  When I watch, I am glued to the TV.  Those two plus hours just fly by. 

One of the recent podcasts featured a retired NYC firefighter named Tim Brown.  Tim grew up in Connecticut, only a few towns over from mine.  In his teenage years, he discovered firefighting was in his blood.  From then on, the only thing he wanted to do was be a firefighter.  And in the busiest department he could find, New York.  He fulfilled this dream in the 1980’s when things were still very busy and, fortuitously for him, he was assigned to a busy engine in the South Bronx.  Eventually, he worked his way to Rescue 3 in the Bronx, one of the most elite companies in the FDNY.  During the first hour of the program he regaled the audience with story after story of what it was like back then.

I actually met Tim Brown in the mid-90’s.  A good friend of mine was a good friend of Tim’s.  A group of us would often bring our scanners to the South Bronx and Brooklyn to watch the FDNY in action—since they are the busiest and best fire department in the world, it was a great way to learn tactics we could bring back to our department. 

One day, we caught a fire in the South Bronx that Rescue 3 was first due to—it was right around the corner from their firehouse.  After the fire, my friend saw Tim coming out of the building and said hello.  Tim proceeded to invite all of us back to their firehouse.  While there, Rescue 3 got a call to a building collapse in Brooklyn—at the time, they were the Collapse rescue for the entire city.  Tim told us to hop on the rig and we rode all the way from the Bronx to Flatbush Brooklyn.  It was a huge thrill.

What struck me most about meeting Tim Brown that day was how into “the job” he was.  He loved everything about it.  That was coming through loud and clear during that first hour of the podcast.

During the second hour, however, everything changed.  That episode became something that moved me, and I’ll bet everyone else who was watching, like few other things ever have. 

Tim began to explain how, through a confluence of circumstances in the late-90’s, he, along with a group of other elite firefighters, was tapped to join the newly formed New York City Office of Emergency Management (OEM).  Although he was still a firefighter, he would no longer be responding with Rescue 3 to fires. 

So, on 9-11 he responded to the Trade Center with OEM and was assigned to the command post in the lobby of one of the Towers.  When Rescue 3 arrived at the command post, Tim knew all the firefighters working that day.  As many might recall, like a lot of other fire companies that day, they were riding heavy because the first plane hit at the change of tour and both the night and day tours jumped on the rig.

During that brief encounter in the lobby, one of Tim’s closest and dearest friends told him, “Tim, this is really bad.”  As Tim explains, it was a very understated way of saying: “I don’t think we’re going to get out of this alive.”  But as Tim emphasized, his friend didn’t hesitate to turn and begin the ascent up those stairs to try and save people.  That was the last time he would ever see any of them. 

Those firefighters knew full well that they likely wouldn’t make it out alive.  But there were people trapped above.  And they were determined to do all they could to try and save them.  Even if it meant giving up their own lives.  Which they did. 

With raw transparency, Tim shared how dark those years after 9-11 were for him, just as they were for many on the job.  In a moment I found particularly poignant, he explained that after that day he felt he could no longer call himself a New York City Firefighter.  Instead, that day had marked him in such a profound way that he felt compelled to tell people he was a 9-11 New York City Firefighter. 

Eventually he retired.  And eventually he came through those dark years.  One of the critical things that brought him out of them is what he does now.  He travels throughout the country mainly to speak to new recruits to emergency service agencies—fire departments, police departments, FBI agents, etc.  As he puts it, he gets to honor his friends by telling their stories.  To honor the awe-inspiring beauty of the sacrifice they made that day, a sacrifice that was perfectly consistent with their character, a sacrifice they were prepared to make everyday they went to work as a New York City firefighter. 

While he was going through all this, I was a blubbering mess.  I don’t usually cry, but I couldn’t help being stirred to the core of my being.  I wasn’t just overwhelmed by recalling the sadness of all that happened that day and its aftereffects.  I was completely undone by tears of admiration.  Of awe.  Of respect. 

As he continued to talk and I continued to cry, Tim remarked: “I remember once reading about this in a book: ‘There is no greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.’”  He was being facetious, of course.  As it became clear, he was referring to the Bible, quoting Jesus’ words in John 15:13.  As he wrapped things up, he said that this is what he wanted to honor most about his friends.  That they had done the most noble thing a human being can do.  They had shown the greatest love one can show.  They had performed the most beautiful act of love possible.

Indeed, there is nothing more beautiful, more awe-inspiring than someone giving their life for another, laying their life down to save someone else.  Such love moves and inspires and awes us like nothing else.

I can think of only one thing more awe-inspiring, more beautiful.  And that is if God made this sacrifice for us.  That, beyond doubt, would be the most beautiful act of love possible.  A breathtaking sacrifice of infinite proportion.     

In a post 9-11 world, in the wake witnessing religious fanaticism erupt in unspeakable violence, I am painfully aware that many people want nothing to do with Christianity.  On balance at least, many see Christianity as an ugly thing.  They see it as dangerous.  Oppressive.  Bigoted.  Personally, I am painfully familiar with all the ugly things about Christianity, its many flaws and shortcomings.  I struggle with them myself.  I struggle to reconcile them with all the goodness, truth, and beauty I do find in Christianity. 

But I struggle with them even more at a social level.  I struggle with the fact that all this ugliness people see in Christianity keeps them from ever considering whether it could be true in the first place.  All this ugliness makes then not want it to be true. 

And if, on balance, Christianity is this ugly, there is good reason to dismiss it as untrue.  As philosophers throughout the ages have pointed out, there is an intimate relationship between the Good, the True, and the Beautiful.  Philosophically, something so ugly is unlikely to be ultimately True.

But I think those who see Christianity as more ugly than not have it all wrong.  Because at center of Christianity stands a Cross.  The Cross is its central symbol.  It embodies and defines what Christianity is all about.  Just look at the way it dominates churches, adorns homes, is the preeminent symbol believers choose to wear to express their faith identity.  No other symbol is as closely associated with Christianity.  Nothing else comes close.    

Whatever ugliness there is in Christianity—and God knows there is way too much—the Cross is the heart of Christianity. 

And what it represents, what it proclaims, what it shouts from the rooftops is the stunning conviction that God Himself died to save us.  That God became human and did for all of us exactly what those firefighters did on 9-11.  But on a Cosmic scale.  At infinite sacrifice to Himself. 

The Cross points to that monumental, mind-blowing, eternity-transforming moment where God Himself showed us that no greater love.  Nothing else in the Universe could be as sublime, as awe inspiring, as beautiful as this.   

Deep down, this is what Christianity is really all about, a God who made the ultimate sacrifice for us. 

And this, this is the most beautiful thing in the Universe.          

About Me

E.J. Sweeney is a true skeptic. He needs to see to believe. Hard Evidence. Compelling Proof. Solid Logic. This is what he believes in. In college, he encountered questions that the superficial faith he was raised on couldn’t handle. So he began a quest for Truth, a quest for the answers to life’s ultimate questions.

EJ Sweeney

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