Hans Holbein’s Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb shows the results of Christ’s suffering with startling realism. It depicts an emaciated and lacerated cadaver in the early stages of putrefaction. His eyes are slightly open and his skeletal hand is reaching out, giving the body a disturbing semblance of life and making it seem as if Christ is still suffering. The body is shown without the onlookers typical in similar artistic renditions, thus intensifying the isolation of death. We are the only ones who have been placed in disconcerting intimacy with the dead body of Our Lord.
Holbein radically departs from the tradition of showing the suffering Christ with at least some physical beauty. He does not shy from showing his suffering and death with all of its ugliness and horror. With unflinching realism, he puts us up close and personal with the agony of Christ so as to shock us out of indifference or complacency regarding what Our Savior did for us.
Making Sense of Ugliness
In “Charged with Grandeur”: the Universe and You, I wrote about the amazing beauty of God’s Creation. The world is indeed charged with God’s grandeur, but we are all well aware that ugliness exists in our world as well, and plenty of it, unfortunately. How do we make sense of it, especially when we are forced to bear it ourselves?
The answer is found in the suffering Face of him who was “crushed for our sins.”
Our postmodern world tells us that beauty is just an illusion; it tells us that reality is fundamentally ugly and cruel. We can either hide from the ugliness and absurdity of life, or we can defiantly rebel against it, asserting our freedom even as we accept the very meaninglessness of doing so. It tells us to stop seeking hope and truth, because there is none.
Is beauty really just an illusion? Our answer as Christians is a resounding “No!” Thanks to the suffering of Jesus Christ, the ugliness of suffering has been made subject to the deeper beauty of love.
The Face of Beauty
No one puts is better than Pope Benedict:
“Precisely in the Face [of Christ] that is so disfigured there appears the genuine, the ultimate beauty: the beauty of love that goes ‘to the very end’ and thus proves to be mightier than falsehood and violence.” This is “the Love that can risk setting aside his external beauty in order to proclaim, in this very way, the truth of beauty.”
It’s true that we live in a world that is replete with ugliness, but it is also true that precisely because of this ugliness, an even greater beauty is present, a beauty that would not exist if it were not for the ugliness that it conquers.
All of us have to deal with ugliness in one form or another. It may be the ugliness of physical or mental suffering in our own lives or in the lives of loved ones. It may be the ugliness of injustice or human spite. It may be the ugliness of greed or lust or sloth. It may be the ugliness of addiction. Whatever the form that it takes, we need to keep it very clear in our minds that it will not have the final say, nor does it have the power to eclipse beauty in your life.
Your Final Beauty
Taking the Twelve aside again, Jesus began to tell them what was going to happen to him. “Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the Gentiles who will mock him, spit upon him, scourge him, and put him to death, but after three days he will rise. – Mark 10:32-34
Jesus went to Jerusalem knowing that he would have to face a lot of
ugliness, but he also knew what awaited him at the end of it all: the beauty of his Resurrection. Thanks to his love until “the very end,” he carried out the most beautiful act of human history: his Passion.
When life presents you with ugliness, remember that God is allowing it only so that a greater beauty may come about. Every time you suffer out of love for him and for others, you make yourself more and more the beautiful person whom God made you to be.