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The Ugly as Beautiful: Aesthetics of the Cruciformed

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What does it mean to be beautiful?

Typically, beauty is conceived as hostile to flaw. Like water and oil, flaw and beauty don’t mix. The fewer the flaws, the greater the beauty. Imperfection(s), in this sense, seem to get in the way of beauty. Aesthetic sensibilities would be counterintuitive if lack of proportion and broken symmetry were part of the equation of beauty, for how can beauty be associated with “ugliness”? Perhaps this is why the Gospel of God is so counterintuitive to the mind that has not been bathed in cruciformity. For the Gospel, in its infinite manifold glory, delineates an aesthetic that subverts our understanding of beauty. Aesthetics is reshaped, redefined in the Gospel precisely because it is in the Gospel we see the culmination of all that is beautiful – God – gloriously expressed in brokenness, twistedness, and disjointedness. The presence of God among humanity is weak flesh; the glory of God is a torn, disfigured body pierced through and marred on a roman cross.(i) This presence and glory of God is the beauty of God, a God for us.

Right now there is a living, embodied person, a human being like you and I, who is before God the Father. And this person has scars. Think about it, a scarred and “flawed” human being is in the very presence of Perfection. Does this person feel shame and embarrassment in the presence of Beauty? No, this person is beautiful before God for he is God’s Son. He is free to be scarred and deformed before God. He is free because he is loved.(ii) And the scars he bears are wounds of love. Such wounds don’t fade away in perfect glory; these scars are not subsumed and dissolved in a sea of matchless perfection. These “flaws” are the sign of glory, the method of love, the free choice of selfless charity.

To follow him, this Jesus the Nazarene, is to learn how to be freed from an aesthetic that is derived from “worldly perfection” in an imperfect world. Discipleship in this context means learning how to see through a cruciformed lens. It means readjusting our vision in such a way as to perceive God’s beauty in the presence of what the worldly aesthetic (iii) would consider antithetical to beauty. Following Jesus liberates us to see the whole world as beautiful, not just those parts that are splendidly symmetric and proportionally correct, while at the same time recognizing genuine ugliness in injustice and cruelty. This is possible because following Christ is following the God who was the marginalized human who was not privileged, who was part of a community that was subjugated and occupied by alien powers, who was mocked and scorned, and finally rejected and murdered outside the city walls, relegated to the periphery of social life and death.

God in Christ frees us to be us. For instance, self esteem can be granted by a God whose grace communicates God’s countenance in an acne covered face of Jesus in his adolescent years. This “self esteem” is only possible insofar as the Christian remembers that self worth participates in Christ, since the Christian self is in Christ. Now those who feel less than because of their “lack” of beauty can regain a place in the economy of creaturehood as a whole and worthwhile being: God shares in that lack, baptizing it by God’s infinite union with that lack (the Hypostatic Union) and transforming it into beauty. God reveals to the ugly their beauty by virtue of God’s participation in the genuine texture of human experience, which includes the experience of flaw and lack. God’s embrace of the unattractive converts unattractiveness into beauty. Such a transformation is not due to the reorientation of the unattractive so as to possess the elements of beauty (i.e. Transmutation), but simply because God’s embrace (fundamentally achieved in the Incarnation) is the redefinition of beauty. This is deep beauty. (iv)

So, who is truly beautiful today? Who among us possess deep beauty? The answer is straightforward: Everyone. Every human being is genuinely beautiful in light of the enfleshment of God, regardless of whether or not they possess the necessary traits for a worldly aesthetic. However, it is only by answering the call of God to enter into the waters of baptism and partake of the Table as a disciple are we given the liberty to enter into the truth of our own beauty existentially. In other words, the Christian is given the sustaining grace to “put on Christ,” that is, to be deeply beautiful. And as the Christian grows in grace (sanctification) she will enter more and more deeply into this existential, concrete fact: She is beautiful, free to be herself in Christ.

This is why it is important to “not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” The worldly aesthetic (“pattern of this world”) confronts the Christian on every side, continually bombarding her with images and expectations (i.e. “You must look like this;” “You must be like this;” “Shouldn’t you do this?” etc.), tempting her to forget her true nature in Christ. The worldly aesthetic comes as a promise of fullness and happiness, proclaiming to the tempted that she is less and needs more, lower and must be exulted, ugly and must be made beautiful, scorned and must be admired. The worldly aesthetic is the demonic lie, and thus is an empty promise that only binds and imprisons.

The Kingdom of Heaven and the Kingdom of this World

The aesthetics determined by the kingdom of this world fails to discern the depth of beauty and movement of the King of Heaven, the Divine Logos. The Incarnation of the Logos is the manifestation of the fatal threat to the aesthetic establishment of this fallen world: “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.” Aesthetic perfection draws infinitely close to its antithesis; God becomes humanity, while remaining God. How could such a thing occur? How could absolute Beauty unite to Himself ugly, frail, sinful, dejected humanity to such a degree that now this Logos, this Word is a particular human being, Jesus of Nazareth?

The worldly aesthetic cannot fathom this precisely because it is in contradiction to its internal logic, for the fallen, worldly aesthetic seeks to render those traits that are the constituents of beauty as absolute and segregated from those qualities that fail according to aesthetic judgment. It does not make sense for Beauty to join together in absolute intimacy with ugly. On the contrary, it would seem as if beauty by definition must be separated from ugly (isn’t this logic manifest among human relations? The so called beautiful people join together in fellowship while rejecting those who lack such beauty. The so called powerful ones unite and suppress those who are weak, subjecting them to “power”). Here God is terribly ugly precisely because He is so beautiful. The Kingdom of Heaven penetrates so deeply the kingdom of this world that it utterly disrupts and dismantles the worldly aesthetic from within, redefining the boarders of aesthetics by way of expansion and inclusion.

The Kingdom of God not only expands the boarders established by the worldly aesthetic – so as to include those qualities that lack aesthetic traits as qualities that are deeply beautiful – it also passes judgment on its affirmative claims regarding those qualities that are considered attractive (i.e. symmetry, proportion, splendor, power, purity, etc.). For instance, power is no longer true to its nature (and therefore unattractive) when it is used to subjugate others, generating dehumanizing conditions. The worldly aesthetic tends to prize power for its capacity to achieve whatever goal is intended. Sometimes power is perceived as very attractive when it is used for self exultation and glory. The Incarnation, however, judge’s power as it is, calling it back to its true ontology, its true essence: power is true to its being (and thus truly attractive) when it is used toward the end of service and love, justice and holiness. The Reign and Rule of God collides with and overtakes the kingdom of this world, radically in the Incarnation, reorienting all of reality so as to bring about a healing aesthetic, a true aesthetic, established by God from the beginning. Deep beauty, the new aesthetic established by God in Christ makes “powerful” people weak, “ugly” people beautiful, “corrupted” people pure, “dirty” people clean. Behold the leveling of all things: the humble are lifted up, the proud, brought low.

Though the Incarnation is a radical break from typical aesthetic sensibilities, from beginning to end God’s revelation to humanity has always come in the form of an aesthetic that challenged the pre-aesthetic establishment of this fallen world: The promise to Abram and Sarai and not to someone already possessing an abundance of children, nor to someone who was still of child bearing age; the deliverance of weak Israel from powerful Egypt; the use of frail prophets; the birth of God in a manger; the ministry of Jesus; the death on the cross; the Lion of the Tribe of Judah as a slaughtered Lamb. From beginning to end God chooses to subvert the worldly aesthetic, establishing a liberating one. The worldly aesthetic sees the Kingdom aesthetic as unattractive. God on the cross is the God of beauty, however, for here is the reconciliation of all things. But the god on the throne of lustful power and selfishness is the god of the ugly, for here is the severance of all things.

The Cross of Rome

The juxtaposition of the two aesthetic systems – one from God and the other from the fallen worldly system – is articulated in the image of the cross in Rome. The power and splendor of Rome is an amazing expression of worldly aesthetics. Beneath it and because of it the great instrument of shame and pain perfected by Rome, the cross, is the ultimate expression of ugliness. Rome and cross stand as contradiction; the cross is radical exclusion from Roman, worldly aesthetic taste. It is as if those who are thrust unto the cross are unable to live up to the standards of Roman sophistication and culture. The glory and splendor of the empire overwhelm the pitiful souls that bear the cross; these souls, these persons are profoundly repulsive against the backdrop that is Rome. Here lies the great paradox of the cross of the man Jesus: This man who is deemed repulsive to the worldly aesthetic is the “Lord of Glory.” The charity of this man, this Lord, swallows up the ugly cross, fully baptizing it in love, and so transforms the exceedingly ugly instrument that is the Roman cross into an object of contemplation, holiness, power, and beauty.

Deep beauty is cruciformed by nature; the aesthetics of the Kingdom of God is cross shaped. The cross is the standard, the Incarnation the way, because the Resurrection secures the redemptive reality of the present and future. The Christian is called to walk in this truth, and in so doing, be free. This is the gift of God.

(i) John 1:14; 12:23; Isaiah 52:14. Isaiah’s words are particularly poignant here: “Just as there were many who were appalled at him – his appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any human being and his form marred beyond human likeness…”

(ii) Revelation 5:6, 8-14

(iii) “Worldly aesthetic(s)” here means an aesthetic sensibility that only prizes those traits that are germane to beauty/attractiveness, while simultaneously excluding those traits that subtract beauty/attractiveness. Worldly aesthetic(s) is a perversion of that which is good.

(iv) I use this phrase to speak of the new aesthetic that emerges in God’s revelation vis-à-vis the “unattractive,” “ugly,” “unexpected,” “weak,” etc. The word “deep” signifies the fact that God challenges us to look beneath the surface of what conventional and/or subjective aesthetic taste dictates.

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