The following article, the third in a series on the subject of beauty (see here and here for the previous posts), is a guest post by Laura Cerbus. Originally from Western Pennsylvania, Laura lives and teaches in Melbourne, Australia, where she is becoming acquainted with the beauty and grief of cross-cultural life. Along with her husband and three children, she worships and serves in a local church revitalization. She writes at lauracerbus.com.
One of the most dangerous things about beauty is the assumption that we know where to look for it.
We are not completely blind, of course: because of our creation in God’s image, which is not wholly destroyed by the Fall, all people have some God-given grasp of what beauty is. All of us, Christian and non-Christian, are rightfully drawn to beautiful works of art, music, and literature. We recognise the beauty of the Great Ocean Road, Niagara Falls, and the Alps.
And yet, sin does blind us. As Paul tells us in 2 Corinthians, “The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel that displays the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” (2 Cor 4:4). As the true image of the Father, Jesus reveals God’s beauty as much as he reveals anything else about God. As one theologian puts it, “Jesus’ beauty...was the arresting beauty of truth, purity, servanthood, passion, power, mercy, and love...Jesus was a tapestry of all that is glorious in God intertwined with humanity’s capability to reflect the image of God.”
However, before the Spirit’s work of regeneration, humans are blind to the glory of Jesus. As one who “had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him” (Is 53:2), Jesus confounds natural assumptions about who and what beauty is. His low, humble birth and upbringing is acknowledged in one response to his early ministry: “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” (Jn 1:46).
Those that disdain his humility also recoil at the ugliness of his cross, seeing in it only weakness and foolishness (1 Cor 1:23). Shockingly, the cross is the place where God’s beauty is revealed most clearly. It’s there where God demonstrates just how far the plenitude of divine love is willing and able to go for the sake of the beloved. Yet, apart from the Spirit, we do not naturally look at the life and death of Jesus and recognize beauty.
Even after we are recreated in Jesus through the Spirit, the distortions of sin do not disappear overnight. The process of sanctification is slow. We need to have our vision retrained so that they recognise and appreciate what is truly beautiful.
How might this happen? By the same one who “had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him” (Is 53:2). This paradox—of being retrained to see beauty by one who is specifically described as lacking beauty, is not simply resolved by pitting physical beauty against spiritual beauty, as if physical beauty doesn’t matter. The Scriptures’ descriptions of Eden, the Tabernacle, the Temple, the lover and beloved in the Song of Songs, and the New Jerusalem, clearly indicate otherwise.
Instead, Jesus’ lack of physical beauty points to our need for new eyes, ones that will not be captivated by the physical at the expense of the spiritual. We need eyes that will see the possibility for physical ugliness to be taken up and transformed into glory.
What the cross makes clear is that until Jesus returns, the neat divisions we are prone to make between beauty and ugliness don’t hold up. To be very clear, there is a distinction between beauty and ugliness. But Jesus, the unlovely one who died a horrific death, upends our assumptions about where beauty can be found. He shows us that, as theologian Natalie Carnes puts it, “finding what is beautiful requires attending to what is ugly.” Noting the bodies of the afflicted, she says that in them we find both beauty—people made in the image of God—and ugliness—people dehumanized and decaying as they move towards death. All of us, to some degree or another, demonstrate this mix of beauty and ugliness, and to try to avoid and cast off the ugly ignores the reality of life in a fallen world.
Our natural inclination is to disinfect our lives from physical ugliness: ugly people (with their ugly manners and ugly smells), ugly cities, and ugly landscapes. But to do so distances us from the suffering of the world. We pretend that we can cling to our own salvation at the expense of our neighbour’s.
At the heart of saving faith, however, is the acknowledgement that we are the ugly ones that Jesus came to save. Sin and the corruption of death makes humanity universally ugly. Our natural beauty as image bearers is shared with all of humanity; our redeemed beauty was accomplished for the sake of the world (Gen 18:18).
So then, in imitation of God who so loved the world, we find beauty when we move towards poverty and brokenness in humility. We find beauty when we see the image of God reflected in the people we encounter, obscured as it may be through affliction and sin.
We need to be careful here. The beauty of the cross does not mean that the suffering that we experience is beautiful. Unlike Jesus’s wounds, our wounds have not yet been taken up into God’s glory, transformed and made beautiful as testaments to his grace. Sin and its effects are ugly, and we should not dismiss their ugliness and harm with easy assurances of their future redemption.
Still, we do have reason to hope. We look forward to the day when we will stand with Jesus, the Lamb who looks as if it had been slain (Rev 5:6). Glorified with him, our wounded bodies will testify to his defeat of sin and death. May our eyes be transformed even now, so that we might see beauty as revealed by our sacrificial Lamb.
 Natalie Carnes, Beauty: An Engagement with Gregory of Nyssa.