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Is the Cross Beautiful?

            One of the challenges of a Christian aesthetic or theology of beauty is the cross of Christ.  Hymns, paintings and sculptures have its beauty as their subject.  Crosses are some of the most beautiful jewelry in the world, but how can such a brutal event as the crucifixion of Jesus be seen as beautiful? 

            It is a legitimate question.  The Scriptures themselves do not describe the Christ of the cross as beautiful.  Isaiah 53:2 states, “… he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no appearance that we should desire him.”[1]  Isaiah 52:14 is even more graphic.  “Just as there were many who were astonished at him—so marred was his appearance, beyond human semblance, and his form beyond that of human mortals—”

            Philosophers and theologians of beauty often disagree, but a strong consensus exists on two points.  The primary vehicle of the senses for experiencing beauty is sight, and beauty is that which attracts us, appeals to us, pleases us, something we desire.  Yet, Isaiah, arguably the mostly aesthetically gifted biblical author, has written a strikingly anti-aesthetic description of the servant of the Lord.  He no longer appears even human.  Those who see him are astonished, not attracted.  They do not desire him.  They reject him.

            Nor do biblical psalms of praise portray God in such a manner.  “Honor and majesty are before him; strength and beauty are in his sanctuary” (Psalm 96:6).  The same Hebrew word is translated “majesty” both in this Psalm and Isaiah 53:2.  It is frequently used to describe a king’s appearance as radiating glory and splendor.  Psalm 104:1 uses the two Hebrew words of Psalm 96, when it proclaims that God is clothed with honor and majesty.  In fact, all four of these words (“honor,” “majesty,” “strength,” and “beauty”) are commonly associated with clothing.  The Lord is a great king, decked in “holy splendor” (Ps 96:9).  He is to be praised, revered and worshipped.  The creation is glad, rejoices and sings at his appearance.

            The Christian faith, which identifies Jesus the Son of God with Isaiah’s suffering servant, thus seems to run counter to the Bible’s own portrayal of God’s beauty.  How can this be explained?  Isaiah’s use of the last word (“beauty”) in Psalm 96:6 is instructive.  It is one of his favorites.  Of its 49 occurrences in the Old Testament 17 are in Isaiah.  No other book has more than 6.  The prophet uses the word to describe fine clothes (3:18) and the beauty of flowers (28:1, 4), but the context is regularly one of judgment.  This beauty is the pride of kings and nations in which they boast (10:12; 13:9).  They will be stripped of their trappings of beauty and left naked and ashamed (3:24; 20:5).  Indeed, their pride in their appearance partakes of the folly of idolatry in which the carpenter creates a wooden idol of human beauty (44:13).

            God’s judgment on the pride and idolatry of human beauty enables us to understand why the suffering servant of the Lord, foreshadowing the crucified Christ, has no appearance that we should desire him.  Paul writes of God’s work in Christ, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21).  Christ overcame sin by being made sin.  He overcame death by dying.  “He has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases. … By his bruises we are healed” (Isaiah 53:4, 5).  By his marring and disfigurement he has overcome the sinful vanity of human pretentions to beauty in rebellion against God. 

            Through the horrid ugliness of the cross the way to beauty is reopened.  Isaiah promises this very thing, again using the same word translated “beauty” in Psalm 96:6.  God’s people will be “a crown of beauty in the hand of the Lord” (62:3).  “The sun shall no longer be your light by day, nor for brightness shall the moon give light to you by night; but the Lord will be your everlasting light, and your God will be your glory (beauty)” (60:19).  John twice alludes to this last passage in his vision of the heavenly city (Revelation 21:23; 22:5) in which beauty, as well as righteousness and truth, will find their fulfillment.

            In the light of this hope, already inaugurated in the resurrection of our Lord, the cross is beautiful, but only in this light.  The eyes of faith see the truth of the event and rightly name Crucifixion Friday, Good Friday.  He is risen.

[1] The NRSV is used throughout.

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