Antonio Stradivari was the master instrument maker of the last five hundred years. He built a number of stringed masterpieces: Harps, cellos, and guitars. But his name is most closely associated with his violins, violins that are unsurpassed in beauty and legendary sound.
A Stradivarius violin blooms beneath the musician’s ear, I am told, like few others. They have the ability to warm a small room or fill a concert hall. One classical musician has said that “Playing a Stradivarius is like driving a high-performance automobile. It responds to the slightest touch, but always has power in reserve.”
Stradivari made more than a thousand of these sport car violins over his career and several hundred of these survive. But if you want to get your hands on one of them, you better liquidate your savings account. It will cost you several fortunes.
See, the top five world record prices paid for any musical instrument are for Stradivarius violins. For example, in 2006, Christie’s auctioned a Stradivarius called “The Hammer” for a record $3.5 million. But even that cannot touch the worth of Stradivari’s most priceless violin, a work of art called “The Messiah.”
“The Messiah” was discovered in Stradivari’s workshop after his death. It changed hands a few times, and earned its name because one of its owners would talk about the beauty and perfection of this instrument, but would never let anybody see it. One of his critics responded, “Then your violin is like the Messiah: One always expects to see him, but he never appears.” The name stuck, and so has its elusive character.
The final owners of “Messiah” considered it such a precious piece, they bestowed it to a British museum where it remains today. As a condition of the bequest, however, the museum can never allow the instrument to be played. “The Messiah” may be the world’s most perfect and expensive instrument; yet, it sits inside a glass box, untouched by musicians and unheard by lovers of music.
Those who follow Jesus have a similar challenge and opportunity. The one we accept as our Messiah was born into the world to produce beautiful music. Nevertheless, this invaluable gift of God can be locked away in observational casing.
Religious disputes, angry arguments with our theological enemies, points and counter points: These are used to debate the validity of our faith at the expense of practicing that faith. Some of us behave as if exposing our faith to the real world will somehow contaminate it.
Those outside the sterile container in which we have placed it have hands dirty with questions, objections, and contradictions. Surely they will damage what has been entrusted to us. Not hardly.
Possessing and professing faith in Christ is no good unless we let him loose in our lives and in our world. This doesn’t mean we enter the world with an answer for every question, a proof text for every objection, or a black-and-white-set-in-stone conviction for every issue. It means we enter the world to love as God has first loved us.
I’m not saying that religious exploration is not a worthy exercise. What we believe matters, but only if our first and consuming conviction is practicing the love of God as revealed to us in Jesus. As one of those early followers of Jesus said, “If I understand everything and have faith that moves mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.” So we have a choice; we can use all our energy fighting, defending, and struggling to protect what we have been given, or we can give it and ourselves away in the labor of love.
A final note about Stradivarius’ “Messiah:” If someone could get their hands on this little beauty to play, it would likely sound terrible. Violins, like most stringed instruments, have to be played in order to retain their sound. The more they are played, the better they get.
In fact, the easiest way to destroy an instrument – even a masterpiece – is not by playing it, but by locking it away.