Ugliness in Our Attics

We humans seem to be better at spotting evil in others than in ourselves. Evil isn’t always dramatic like stabbing or a robbing someone. In fact sometimes the most dangerous evil is banal, or boring, because we don’t even notice when we’re guilty of it. Telling a white lie or gossiping are examples. When it comes to looking in the mirror for these things, we tend to miss the demonic while looking for the divine.

I just saw the movie “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” an adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s tale of a man who makes a demonic bargain to have a painting of himself bear the ugliness of all his future evil acts. This way, he could hide the ugliness of his evolving evils in the attic while his own face remained a mask of innocence. The problem with this arrangement was, not only did he fool others, he started fooling himself. He didn’t recognize the effects of his sins, great or small, until he was forced to confront them in that vibrant technicolor canvas he hid in the attic for decades. His shock and denial led him to plunge a dagger into the ugly thing—which actually ended his own ugly existence.

Just as his portrait bore Dorian Gray’s sins, so did Jesus bear ours during his passion and death. Nobody in the angry crowds who cursed Jesus noticed the evil they were transferring from their shoulders to his own, but it was evident in every stripe cut into his back, every thorn driven into his head and every nail hammered into his hands and feet. Even before his passion, most of Jesus’ critics couldn’t recognize the prophet in their midst, as this Sunday’s reading from Mark implies (Mk 6:1-6). These Dorian Grays had as much contempt for Jesus as they did for themselves. After all, how could someone wise and divine come from their own population?

“Is he not the carpenter, the son of Mary, and the brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon?,” his countrymen asked themselves. “And are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him. Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honor except in his native place and among his own kin and in his own house.”

This gospel reading concludes that Jesus was not able to perform the kinds of miracles for which he would later be revered, thanks to their lack of faith. It seems their lack of faith in Jesus was linked as much to their lack of faith in themselves. They knew what their hidden self-portraits looked like.

It also seems God the Father had greater faith in humanity during Ezekiel’s time, as reflected in our first reading (Ez 2:2-5), in which he commissions this prophet to show humanity the ugliness of their ways.

“Hard of face and obstinate of heart are they to whom I am sending you,” God tells Ezekiel. “But you shall say to them: Thus says the Lord GOD! And whether they heed or resist—for they are a rebellious house—they shall know that a prophet has been among them.”

Our second reading is from a man who recognized his own evil ways before they could doom him. In fact he brought his ugly portrait out of storage for all to see and learn from. Paul carried it with him like a cross, using it as a teaching tool. The weaknesses of the flesh tortured him like a thorn, but instead of denying God’s grace, he learned to embrace it—and he shares that lesson with us through this letter to the Corinthians (2 Cor 12:7-10):

“I will rather boast most gladly of my weaknesses, in order that the power of Christ may dwell with me. Therefore, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and constraints, for the sake of Christ; for when I am weak, then I am strong.”

We must find the strength to face our weaknesses by embracing our Creator’s grace—a gift that Oscar Wilde denied his poor creation so future generations of Dorians in his readership could learn from it.

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