“Now we see only a reflection, as in a mirror, but then we will see face to face” (1 Corinthians 13:12).
I’m not a big fan of the winter months. I’m already dreading the coming of ice and snow to the Northeast. I’m aware that cold winter weather, like the warm sunshine of summer, is fleeting in the grand scheme of things. Nevertheless, as I dig out the heavy coats and boots for yet another round of bitter temperatures and slippery sidewalks, I’m feeling kind of “blue” these days.
That got me thinking about the color “blue.” It’s the least common color in nature, very rare in plants and animals. Some things we see as blue aren’t really blue at all. The ocean only looks blue because the water absorbs the longer red wavelengths of the spectrum, leaving the shorter blue ones visible. If you scoop up a bucketful of ocean water, it will be clear. In the animal kingdom, the blue jay appears to have beautiful blue feathers, but the pigment is actually brown. We just see them as blue because of the light filtered through the feathers’ surface.
While there is general agreement in the modern world about things that look blue, it wasn’t always this way. Most people in the ancient world had no word for that color at all. Egypt was the exception, probably because it was the only civilization that had a way to produce blue pigment. In the 19th century, philologist Lazarus Geiger studied many ancient cultures, including Hebrew, Icelandic, Greek and Roman. He noticed that, while sacred texts and other writings talked about certain colors (red was the earliest to be given a name, after black and white), there was no mention of blue. In the epic poem The Odyssey, for example, Homer refers to the ocean as “the wine-dark sea.” The word translated as “blue” in Scripture, likely refers to another color entirely, perhaps a shade of green.
Why does it matter? Beyond giving me a deeper appreciation of science and nature, the development of understanding the color “blue” reminds me that we are all, constantly, learning and evolving. Think of things and concepts we now take for granted as “knowns” that were utterly alien in previous centuries. Before Newton, Galileo and Einstein, most people had no idea of the shape of earth, the laws of gravity, the existence of solar systems and galaxies. Nowadays, ask any third-grader.
“Now we see only a reflection, as in a mirror, but then we will see face to face”
We may be miles ahead of the technology available in our grandparents’ day, but the rate of change accelerates more rapidly all the time. Even as recently as my children’s youth, the notion that a small hand-held device would become not only a way to make calls but also to take photos, send mail, listen to music and access the world’s information would have sounded absurd. Yet here we are, with a smartphone in almost everyone’s pocket.
And lest we congratulate ourselves too much for our current, vast store of knowledge, I can predict, in the years to come, that our 21st-century understanding will seem laughably simple and incomplete. Our comprehension of life will continue to grow, with no end in sight.
When reading the Bible, it’s helpful to put Scripture passages in historical context. The writers inhabited the ancient world. They didn’t understand “blue” or a great many other concepts we know so well today. But we can still study Scripture, written so many centuries ago, and find great wisdom. Jesus’ words, after all, are timeless, and speak to us with the same clarity and truth as they did when addressed to Christ’s disciples.
I’ve made my peace with the awareness that I’m always going to be a step behind in my understanding, no matter how hard I try to keep up. This holds true not only for scientific information but also for my ability to completely “get” other people’s feelings and actions. Some people remain largely a mystery to me, even my nearest and dearest. But I know that I am called to keep trying, to keep learning, to keep growing anyway. It is the work of my lifetime, of all our lifetimes.
Will we ever reach the point when the totality of life comes together for us? I believe we will, but not while we’re alive. In his first letter to the people of Corinth, Paul offers a beautiful image of heaven’s perfect vision, that they—and we—will someday share. We will at last arrive at that place where all is known and understood completely.
I hold on to that thought when the world seems much too sad and complex. When my spirit is worn out from the effort to make sense of it all. I am comforted by my belief that there will come a time when everything will be crystal clear—God’s perfect time.
Meanwhile, I will enjoy discovering and delighting in little nuggets of wisdom I pick up along the way. And I’ll not to worry so much about the many discoveries and insights that continue to elude me.
And even in the heart of winter, I will rejoice in the sight of a gorgeous, bright blue sky.