On Why the Ugliness of the Cross is So Beautiful

A few years ago now, the great Italian writer, Umberto Eco, published a book entitled, “On Ugliness.” It’s a remarkably disturbing book – as you might imagine – a book that both attracts and repels the reader all at the same time. From the opening picture of the severed head of the snake-haired Greek goddess, Medusa, to the closing image of “The Thing” taken from the 1982 horror movie by the same name, Eco explores the dark, the grotesque, and even monstrous in the visual culture of art.

Though it may sound like it, Eco didn’t write the book to simply rub our noses in the gross. Instead, he was striving to show the ever-changing conceptions of “ugly” over timeimages
and across cultures, and even more to provide greater understanding for how we come to determine and then label something as either beautiful or ugly.

At one point near the end of the book, Eco acknowledges that we don’t all respond to every “ugly” thing in the same way. John Milton’s elaborate description of Satan in Paradise Lost is most certainly ugly but in a way that repels us. While images of starving children— skeletal frames, distended bellies—are also in very real sense “ugly,” but in a way that draws us toward them in love and compassion. We might say there is a particularly mysterious interplay of disgust, repulsion, empathy, and attraction that rises up within us when the ugly comes to us in the form of human tragedy.

It’s this same mysterious interplay that helps make sense of Good Friday. For in a special and even cosmic way, ugly and beauty come together in the words, “Christ and him crucified.” For in order to save us, Jesus took on our sinful ugly.

  • Coming as a “…a man with no form or majesty that we should look on him, or beauty that we should desire him…” (Isaiah 53:2)
  • Living as a man of sorrows, experiencing the pain of rejection, “…a man from whom men hid their faces, who despised and esteemed him not…” (Isaiah 53:3)
  • Dying as a man marred beyond recognition “…being wounded for our transgressions and crushed for our iniquities.” (Isaiah 53:5)

And yet for the believer this ugliness strikes us as a sublime beauty. For we know that this ugliness is not His by nature—it is His by love for us. Christ took up the ugly deformity of our sin on the cross in order to make us into the beauty of His righteousness. And so within the the the ugly truth of our sin and the gory details of the crucifixion is lodged the most beautiful thing imaginable. God’s love.

This is Good Friday. Thanks be to God.

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