Candlemas (Groundhog Day)

The day began bright and sunny, which according to tradition signals six more weeks of winter. The birds, however, did not get the message. Their singing indicated their confidence that spring has already arrived. Today’s temperature, and the forecast for the coming days, seems to say that the birds are right and the groundhog is wrong.

Most people, whether believers or unbelievers, are familiar with the Christian holidays of Christmas and Easter. Far fewer are aware of the minor festivals of the Christian calendar, such as Candlemas, which is observed every year on the second day of February.

As Christians in the Roman Empire chose to celebrate the Incarnation of Jesus (that is to say, his birthday) at the same time that Romans and Celts and Germans were celebrating various Yuletide observances, so Christians also chose to celebrate the Presentation of Jesus at the same time that Celts were observing a holiday they called Imbolc. This holiday falls halfway between the winter solstice near the end of December and the spring equinox near the end of March. In Ireland, some of the old customs of Imbolc have been blended into St. Brigid’s Day on February 1, but for most other European Christians and their descendants around the world, Candlemas has received the attention formerly given to Imbolc.

The second chapter of the Gospel according to Luke describes the birth and childhood of Jesus. The familiar account of the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, including the announcement by the angel to shepherds and their visit, comes from Luke. Luke also wrote that Jesus was circumcised on the eighth day from his birth and was presented to God on the fortieth day from his birth. Celebrating the birth of Jesus on December 25 puts the anniversary of his circumcision on January 1 and his presentation on February 2.

What is the significance of the presentation of Jesus? As at his circumcision, Jesus was fulfilling the Law for the benefit of all his people. The Law of God, given through Moses, required every firstborn son to be offered to God and purchased from God with a sacrifice. This presentation and purchase of the firstborn son reminded God’s people of the tenth plague upon Egypt, when God’s angel killed the firstborn son of every family in Egypt except for those who obeyed God, marking their houses with the blood of a lamb. The details of the plague, the Passover, and the remembrance are filled with images of Jesus and his sacrifice—the death of a firstborn son picturing the death on the cross of God’s only-begotten Son, the substitution of a lamb for some sons (and the use of the lamb’s blood to identify those who were protected) showing Jesus as the Lamb of God taking the place of sinners, and the purchase of the firstborn son in following generations showing the price Jesus paid on the cross to cover the debt of sinners. Because Jesus, on the fortieth day from his birth, was already obeying the commands of God, Christians are credited with his righteousness. We are free to approach the throne of God and even to call him our Father. Jesus took our place in this sinful world so we can take his place in God’s Kingdom.

Bonfires were lit in Europe on Imbolc night as part of the celebration of the holiday. Christian churches chose to replace the bonfires with many candles, filling the church with light to remember Jesus, the Light of the world. From that custom comes the name, Candlemas. I first encountered that name in the stories of King Arthur, for he and his knights would gather on Candlemas, as they did on Christmas and Easter, to celebrate and to await the beginning of new adventures. The king would not allow his court to eat the feast until some odd event had taken place, sending at least one knight off on a mission to rescue some victim or defeat some enemy.

Before the establishment of the National Weather Service or the invention of Doppler Radar, European Christians often trusted traditions about the holidays to make long-term forecasts of the coming weather. St. Swithin’s Day (July 15) in the British Isles was thought to set the pattern for the next forty days—either it would remain dry for forty days or it would rain for forty days, depending upon whether or not it rained that day. In Hungary the weather on St. Martin’s Day (November 11) predicted the kind of winter that was coming: “If St. Martin arrives on a white horse, it will be a mild winter—if he arrives on a brown horse, it will be a cold and snowy winter.” In other words, snow on November 11 promised a mild winter. So also, the weather on Candlemas was thought to predict the next forty days of weather: a clear and sunny Candlemas meant winter was only half over, but a cloud-filled sky on Candlemas morning meant that winter was over and spring was about to begin.

In Germany bears often took a break from hibernation around the beginning of February to check out conditions and get a bite to eat. The weather tradition for Candlemas became associated with the emergence of the bear and the question of whether it cast a shadow. German settlers in North America adapted the tradition to local wildlife, and thus began the tradition of Groundhog Day.

Ironically, more Americans are aware of Groundhog Day than of Candlemas. The fame of Groundhog Day increased in 1993 with the release of the movie Groundhog Day starring Bill Murray. The movie has little connection to Christian beliefs. It is more suited to explaining the idea of samsara, found in Hindu and Buddhist beliefs. Samsara is the cycle of lifetimes in which one’s atman (roughly analogous to spirit or soul, but not exactly the same thing) keeps returning to this world until it has learned all it needs to know and is fully enlightened.

Christians do not have to worry about the trap of samsara. We have one life now, and a resurrection to eternal life on a Day known only to the Lord. Our place in that new creation is earned, not by our good deeds, but by the sinless life of Christ lived in our place, and by his sacrifice on the cross which pays for all our sins. While we do not know how many days or years remain before the Day of the Lord and the new creation, we have every day between now and then to rejoice in the Lord’s promises and to imitate his goodness.

There may be six more weeks of winter. Or perhaps spring has already arrived. Either way, a new world is coming according to the Lord’s plan and on his schedule. His people can hardly wait. J.

This is a slightly revised version of a post first published on February 2, 2016, and then reposted a year ago.

Advent thoughts–December 18

“Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you” (Isaiah 60:1—read Isaiah 60:1-7).

The contrast of light and darkness is one of the great recurring themes of the Bible. The first thing God created when he made the heavens and the earth was light, and then God separated the light from the darkness. John begins his Gospel writing about the Word, who is the light and the life of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overtaken it. Isaiah said that the people sitting in darkness have seen a great light. Both Isaiah and Simeon called Jesus a light to enlighten the nations. Now Isaiah calls upon God’s people to arise and shine, because our light has come and the glory of the Lord has risen upon us.

Jesus told his disciples that they are the lights of the world. Jesus also declared himself to be the Light of the world. He is the primary light; his disciples are secondary lights. He shines like the sun; we shine like windows through whom the sun shines. When Jesus shines through us, his light enlightens others. As we share his promises and the good news of his victory over evil, we do our job as windows, letting his light shine into the lives of others.

Without Jesus we cannot shine. His light comes first and passes through us. Along the way, his commandments reveal our flaws and our faults. When someone washes the windows on a cloudy day, the streaks and smears might not be visible. When the sunlight shines brightly on that window, every missed spot and every speck of dirt can be seen.

We might not want Jesus to shine on us and show our sins. But the light of Jesus does something that sunlight never does to windows: his light removes the dirt and makes us pure and holy. When his light shines through us, we become clean; and because of that cleansing, the light is all the more able to shine through us to enlighten others.

Isaiah pursues that theme as he describes the nations coming to the light of Israel. Isaiah even mentions the nations bringing gifts of gold and frankincense. The wise men who followed a star to find Jesus in Bethlehem were the first of the nations to seek the light in Israel. Centurions in the Roman army also sought help from Jesus during his years of ministry, and one came into the Church early in its history through Peter’s ministry. An Ethiopian official was told about Jesus and was baptized by the deacon Philip. Paul preached to Jews and to the nations, to whomever would listen, and over the course of three hundred years the Roman Empire became a Christian nation. Now the Gospel continues to be spread throughout the world. As missionaries teach about Jesus, people hear and believe and are saved: God’s kingdom comes, and God’s will is done. Thanks be to God! J.

Advent thoughts: December 17

“It is too light a thing that you [Jesus] should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to bring back the preserved of Israel; I will make you as a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth” (Isaiah 49:6—read Isaiah 49:1-7).

Abraham was told that, from his family, living in the Promised Land, a blessing would arise for the entire world. Isaiah also reported that the Messiah would come, not only to rescue Israel, but to redeem the entire world. Jesus raised the ire of his neighbors in Nazareth, not by preaching that he is the Messiah—they were fine with that message—but by promising to save the entire world.

Not only from his birth, but from eternity Jesus was destined to be the ransom and the redemption of sinners. His glory is to bring the people of the world into the kingdom of God. Mary and Joseph were both told that his name was to be Jesus—Y’shua, which means “the Lord saves.” The angel who announced his birth to shepherds identified him by three other names: “A Savior who is Christ the Lord.”

Isaiah describes Christ as God’s secret weapon, a sharp sword hidden in his hand, a polished arrow concealed in his quiver. Many people did not recognize him even when they stood near him and spoke with him. The Pharisees and Sadducees rejected Jesus because he did not fit into their religion. The Pharisees thought they could save themselves by obedience to God’s Law. The Sadducees thought that they earned salvation by performing sacrifices in the Temple. Neither group could see that the perfect obedience of Jesus replaces our flawed and broken obedience. Neither group could see that the sacrifice of Jesus completes the work of which the Temple sacrifices were only a picture.

Yet others did recognize Jesus. Simeon recognized Jesus forty days after he was born in Bethlehem. He held Mary’s infant son and called him “a light to enlighten the nations and the glory of God’s people Israel.” Simeon knew the promise of Isaiah that the Messiah would be a light to the nations. To other people in the Temple Jesus might have seemed to be just another baby, but the Holy Spirit gave Simeon eyes to see the salvation promised through Jesus.

Even today people are confused about Jesus. Some call him one of the prophets and say that he is nothing more than a prophet. Others say he was a good man who told us to love one another and say that he is nothing more than a good man. A few dare to claim that Jesus never even existed. But Jesus is real. He is more than a prophet (but not less) and more than a good man (but not less). He is the Son of God, Lord of the universe, having been given all power and authority. He is the Head of the Church, caring for his people in this world and promising eternal life in a better world. He is the Light of the world, showing us the way to be right with God, not by our works, but through his righteousness and his sacrifice.

All this was planned from the beginning of creation. Before he said, “Let there be light,” God knew about the sins that would be committed. He knew about the sorrow and suffering and death that those sins would cause. He knew about the price he would have to pay to redeem sinners. God loves the people he created, and he decided that we are worth the price of redemption. We belong to him because he made us and because he paid to redeem us. We are safe in his hands forever. Thanks be to God! J.

Advent thoughts: December 13

“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shined… For to us a child is born, to us a son is given….” (Isaiah 9:2, 6—read Isaiah 9:1-7).

We all began in darkness. We all started as enemies of God, blind to his truth, unable to comprehend the things God was saying to us. Our nature was to be selfish, to demand what we wanted when we wanted it, to be unconcerned about the inconvenience we caused anyone else. We were at the center of the world. We were our own gods, and we demanded that everyone worship us and serve us.

It is one thing to teach people to be polite, to say “please” and “thank you,” to have good manners both in public and at home. But good manners do not dispel the darkness. They may hide our selfishness from others, but they do not cause our selfishness to disappear. Only the light can dispel the darkness. Only the light can clear away sin and cause people to be truly loving, true servants to God and to their neighbors.

That light has come. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome the light. Whenever light and darkness battle, light wins. It is the nature of light to shine and to remove darkness. It is the nature of darkness to be beaten whenever it confronts the light.

For to us a child is born, to us a son is given. He is not born only to Mary and Joseph; he is not given only to the two of them. He is born to all of us. The angel told the shepherds, “A Savior has been born to you.” As Mary represents all the believers of Old Testament Israel and the New Testament Church in declaring herself to be the handmaiden of the Lord, so she is in the place of all believers when she gives birth to her first-born Son. For the timeless Son of God was born once in time to redeem people from every time, beginning with Adam and Eve and continuing to the last child conceived before Christ appears in glory to make everything new.

When Handel wrote music for these words of Isaiah, he put a musical pause between Wonderful and Counselor. They belong together as one name: Jesus is the Wonderful Counselor who tells us the truth we need to know because he is the Truth. He deserves our wonder, our awe, our amazement at who he is and at what he has done for us. Because he has redeemed us, we now receive his counsel to guide our lives and to grant us eternal life.

He is also the Mighty God. The child lying in the manger is running the universe at the very same time. All things are possible for him, but he only does the things that are right, that match his Law, that benefit the people around him. When Jesus began to work miracles, he only worked them for other people in need. He fed thousands in the wilderness; but when he was hungry, he did not feed himself. He healed others, but he allowed himself to be arrested and beaten and killed. He stopped storms, but he did not stop the crowd from arresting him or the Roman solders from mocking him.

He is the Everlasting Father. In the timelessness of God, relations are changeable, so the Bride of Christ can also give birth to him. We are all children of God through the work of Jesus, making Christ our Father as well as our Brother. Because he is the Son of God, God calls us sons—we are adopted into his family through Christ’s work. Because we are children of the Church, Christ’s Bride, Jesus is our Father just as his Father has become our Father.

He is the Prince of Peace. His entry into this world meant war with the devil and with the sinful world and with sin in general, but Jesus won that war. We started out in darkness as enemies of God, but through redemption God has made peace with us. That peace is Shalom—not merely an absence of conflict, but the presence of goodness: a place for everything and everything in its place. Peace is not boring: it is harmony like a symphony orchestra; it is a blend of colors like a painting or like a flower garden.

All this Jesus has done for us. He is all these things to us. Because of what he has done, Jesus has claimed us for his kingdom, and we belong to him forever. Thanks be to God! J.

Polar bears and peacock feathers

For years I have been puzzled when people say that polar bears are not really white; they only look white. They also say that the dots on peacock feathers are not really blue; they only look blue. If polar bears are not white, what color are they really? They look white to me. If those dots on peacock feathers are not blue, what color are they really? They look blue to me.

Philosophical questions about colors and other qualities go back at least as far as Plato and Aristotle. These and other philosophers have tried to examine what an object is other than its qualities and what a quality is apart from the objects that have it. Can you define whiteness apart from indicating something that looks white, whether it is a field covered in snow or a polar bear? Can blueness exist apart from a quality of things that look blue? If something changes in color, how much has it changed? Has it merely exchanged one quality for another, or is it now a different object?

I know that the people who say that a polar bear looks white but is not really white were not engaged in that kind of philosophic discussion.

Among his many accomplishments, Isaac Newton revolutionized science’s understanding of light and vision. By demonstrating that a glass prism or a lot of raindrops could break a beam of white light into a rainbow, Newton showed that color and light are closely related. As understanding of light and vision grew from that observation, scientists realize that objects absorb some wavelengths of light while reflecting other wavelengths. We see the colors that are reflected without the colors that are absorbed. White objects are reflecting all the wavelengths of visible light; black objects are absorbing all the wavelengths of visible light.

But that still doesn’t explain how a polar bear could look white without being white.

I recently read an article about light and vision that finally explained what that means. Many of the colors we see in objects are caused by pigments, which are chemicals on the surface of that object which absorb some light waves and reflect us. Chlorophyll is a pigment in many plants that absorbs some wavelengths of light (using that energy to feed the plant) while reflecting green light. Anyone who has worked with paints understands how to blend different colors of paint to achieve the desired color. The mixture of paints absorbs some wavelengths of light while reflecting those wavelengths that the painter wants observers to see.

Polar bear fur does not contain any white pigment. It is the shape of that fur, especially when it is wet, that reflects white light. Peacock feathers do not contain any blue pigment. The shape of the surface of the feather reflects blue light while absorbing other wavelengths of light, causing the dots on the feathers to look blue.

If only people would have said it that way. Polar bears look white and are white even though their fur contains no white pigment. The dots on peacock feathers look blue and are blue even though their feathers contain no blue pigment. Yes, it requires a few more words to communicate the idea, but the communication is much easier to understand.

Interesting sidelight number one: A young man I know well likes to say that purple is not really a color. In one sense he is right. There is no purple wavelength of light. Look closely at a rainbow and you will see that the inner portion of the color is a deep royal blue, not purple at all. On the other hand, he is wrong. Blend a paint that reflects red light waves with a paint that reflects blue light waves, and you will have purple paint. Whatever you cover with that paint will be purple…or at least the color purple will be one of its qualities.

Interesting sidelight number two: Earlier this year a woman took a picture with her phone of a dress that was blue and black. She sent the picture to her daughter, who looked at the picture and thought that the dress was white and gold. You could blame the camera, but here it gets interesting. When the photograph went viral on the internet, people could look at the same photograph on the same screen under the same conditions, and some people saw a white and gold dress while others saw a blue and black dress. A few people could even alternate the colors they saw in the dress. For centuries, people have wondered whether we all see things the same way. When you and I look at something that we agree is red, are we seeing it the same way? The answer, we now know, is no. The dress photograph of 2015 has had its brief internet fame, but I predict that the photograph will appear in psychology textbooks and philosophy textbooks for years to come.

J. (reposted from April 2015–one of my first posts)

On cars and science

I had several ideas for posts to write this evening: I was going to write about the haircut I had this morning. I was also going to write about the fact that, after hounding me for months to donate blood, the Red Cross refused this afternoon to take my blood. I also had some Christmas memories and observations to share. All those will have to wait. I have something else to say.

This began as a conversation on a post by InsanityBytes (which you can read here). IB referenced Genesis 1:3—“God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light.” John responded that photons did not exist for the first four hundred million years of the history of the universe. John went on to say that the universe is 13.82 billion years old, the Earth is 4.54 billion years old, suggesting that God and his Word have nothing to do with the existence of the universe, the Earth, or light.

I suggested that we could visit the highway and determine the speed of the passing cars; knowing their speed and their direction, we can use a map to find where each car was one hour ago and where it will be one hour from now. The problem with that assumption is, of course, that cars have drivers who make decisions about the motion of the cars. Knowing how fast it is going this minute does not tell me whether that car was sixty miles away an hour ago or was sitting in a nearby parking lot until a few minutes ago.

Science can measure mass and energy in the present and can make predictions about the past and the future, but only with the assumption that the universe is a closed system. If any supernatural being can enter the universe and change things, then science has a problem. Years of observation have determined that on very few occasions do things happen that could not have been predicted by science. Some call these miracles and take them as proof of an intelligent being who is beyond science; others are determined to say that miracles never happen. They insist that every recorded miracle is faulty information, recorded by unscientific people who were tricked by others or by their own imaginations. This leads to circular reasoning, which first defines miracles as impossible and then uses that definition to discredit every record of a miracle.

So let us study cars scientifically. I have seen cars in a parking lot. They are physical objects, hollow metal boxes with some moving parts that I did not take time to study thoroughly. I did not notice any drivers in the parked cars I observed. Now we know that a moving object tends to remain in motion and an object at rest tends to remain at rest, unless outside forces are at work on that object. Therefore, if no drivers were required to keep those cars in the parking lot at rest, I assume that no drivers are required to keep moving cars on the highway in motion. In fact, given my observation of moving cars on the highway, I find it highly unlikely that any intelligent being is in control of the motion of those cars.

Now John (or someone like him) can present me with literature about cars, literature that demonstrates the existence of drivers, but I am free to laugh away his literature as the deluded imaginings of unscientific writers. (Of course they are unscientific—they believe in drivers!)  John can tell me that he has met drivers and has spoken with them—that he has even ridden with them in cars. I cannot test the experiences of John to know whether he has really met a driver or only thinks that it happened. John can try to explain certain irregularities in the behavior of some of those moving cars that reveal the presence of an intelligent driver, but John may be disregarding physical laws and forces that require the cars to move in the way we both observe. John may even try to point out drivers to me as the cars move past us on the highway, but my radar gun only detects moving cars. It cannot tell me anything about drivers inside those cars, and therefore I am free not to believe in them.

I am not at any great risk if I refuse to believe that cars are operated by drivers. I will be sure to keep my distance from any moving cars, all the more so since I don’t expect them to be operated by intelligent beings. People like John are at a greater risk if they refuse to believe that a God created the universe. The God who made all things has the right to tell his creatures how to behave. He has the right to punish those who break his commandments. Ironically, John judges God as wicked and malevolent because the Creator does not follow John’s rules regarding creation and miracles. I suggested to John that God might call John the same things if John does not follow God’s rules. J.

On light, windows, and living backward

Jesus says, “I am the Light of the world” (John 8:12). He also says to his followers, “You are the light of the world” (Matthew 5:14). I consider Christians to be windows through which the true Light shines. The Bible also is called “a lamp to my feet and a light for my path” (Psalm 119:105); but—as I heard in several sermons when I was a child—“Today you may be the only Bible that some people read.”

Some windows exist only as decorations, but most windows exist to allow light to shine into a room. For this reason, people try to keep windows clean. A window coated with dirt and grime cannot do its job. The dirt must be removed so light can shine through the window.

The brighter the light shines, though, the more visible the dirt on the windows becomes. Clean the windows on a cloudy day and they may seem completely clean. Look at the same windows on a bright sunny day and you will see every streak and every spot that you missed. Literal windows do not care if they have spots and streaks, but figurative windows like us are embarrassed by every mark that shows that we are not perfectly clean.

One response to that embarrassment is to hide from the light. If the light does not shine so brightly, the streaks and spots will not be visible. The problem with that approach, though, is that a window cannot do its job apart from the light. The only other response is to let the light shine through the window, but to pay attention to the light and not to the spots and streaks and stains. Jesus, the Light of the world, is a light that actually cleanses windows by shining on them and through them. Those who look at themselves or at each other can still find the spots and streaks; but those who bask in the Light know that he is cleansing and purifying his windows.

For this reason, I often say that Christians are people who live backward. In T.H. White’s novel The Once and Future King, and in the musical Camelot which is based on that novel, Merlin is said to live backward. In the musical, Arthur says that Merlin “remembered things that hadn’t happened better than things that have.” People who live life forward are convinced that the past shapes the present, but in the present we can shape the future. We cannot correct the mistakes we already made, but we can create a better or worse future for ourselves by the choices we make today.

Not so for Christians! Our past sins are erased by the purifying work of Jesus, the Light of the world. Those sins no longer trouble us in the present or in the future, because Jesus has removed them from our lives. At the same time, our future is guaranteed. When Christ appears in glory to raise the dead, to announce his judgment, and to make everything new, he will welcome us into his Kingdom, the inheritance he earned to give to us. We do not need to doubt our place in the new creation: it is guaranteed to us, not because of anything we do for Jesus, but because of what Jesus has done for us.

For this reason, we live lives of confidence today. With past sins erased and future glory guaranteed, we do not need to fear the present. This good news is not license to sin. This good news is power to resist temptation and evil. The Light of the world shines on us and through us. Rather than adding streaks and stains, we use his energy to be windows, so his light can be seen wherever we are. To Jesus, not to us, be the glory. J.

The Feast of the Transfiguration

Can you imagine seeing someone you know well suddenly begin to glow like a fluorescent light bulb? Jesus once provided this experience to Peter, James, and John, the inner circle within his twelve apostles. Matthew, Mark, and Luke all record the time that Jesus took the three of them up on a high hillside in Galilee to pray. Suddenly his face was shining like the sun and his clothes were brilliant white, more white than any bleach could make them. With Jesus were Moses and Elijah, heroes of the Old Testament, discussing the “departure” of Jesus that he was about to fulfill in Jerusalem.

Today Peter would have taken a selfie with Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. He didn’t have the opportunity to take a picture, but he still tried to cling to the experience. He suggested putting up three tents so Jesus, Moses, and Elijah could stay on the hill. Presumably, Peter expected other people to climb the hill to visit with the three holy men. Instead, a cloud surrounded the hill, and God’s voice was heard saying, “This is my Son, my Chosen One—Listen to him!”

Liturgical Christians have chosen to close the season of Epiphany by remembering this event. During Epiphany, Christians have remembered the ways in which Jesus revealed his identity through his teaching and his miracles. Glowing with light might be the most impressive way Jesus had to demonstrate his true nature as the Son of God. Christians today want, like Peter, to hold on to the special times when Jesus seems close to them and peace and joy appear to be within reach. Sometimes congregations try to meet this desire with uplifting hymns and praise songs and a “worship experience” that dazzles the eyes and the ears and the brain. Jesus is not near only when his people are dazzled and uplifted. Sometimes his presence is felt most clearly during the dark night of the soul. Mountaintop experiences last a short time, but the reminder to “listen to him!” continues ringing long after the light has faded away.

For liturgical Christians, the Feast of the Transfiguration is somewhat of a holy Mardi Gras, a last blaze of glory before the somber time of Lent arrives. The secular Mardi Gras of the world seems designed only to give people a reason to repent and to regret their sins in coming days. Holy people do not use the excuse of a coming fast to “sin boldly.” They remain focused on Jesus during feasts and during fasts; they draw upon the power of his forgiveness to “go and sin no more.” All God’s people sin every day and need forgiveness every day. Even Moses and Elijah fell short of the glory of God. God’s forgiveness is real every day, and his love and mercy are worth celebrating every day.

Because of his sins, Moses was not permitted to enter the Promised Land. Before he died, he saw it from a distance, but he could not cross the river and set foot in the land. Moses first stood in the land when he stood with Jesus at his Transfiguration. His presence with Jesus in Galilee demonstrates that Jesus was completing the work of Moses. Moses delivered the Law to God’s people, but Jesus fulfilled the Law. Moses acted as a mediator for God’s people, praying for forgiveness when they sinned, but Jesus offered himself as a sacrifice as well as a mediator. Moses led his people through the wilderness but had to stop short at the border of the Promised Land; but Jesus leads his flock through the valley of the shadow of death, bringing us safely to the other side where we will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

The joy of Transfiguration is but an echo of the joy of Easter. The greatest glory of Jesus was not to glow with light: the greatest glory of Jesus was to defeat sin and Satan and death and to offer forgiveness and life to the people he loves. If one rejoices in the blessings God has bestowed, or if one is hoping and waiting for greater blessings, each of us can be certain that the glory of our Savior has made us his forever. To him be the glory! J.

Polar bears and peacock feathers

For years I have been puzzled when people say that polar bears are not really white; they only look white. They also say that the dots on peacock feathers are not really blue; they only look blue. If polar bears are not white, what color are they really? They look white to me. If those dots on peacock feathers are not blue, what color are they really? They look blue to me.

Philosophical questions about colors and other qualities go back at least as far as Plato and Aristotle. These and other philosophers have tried to examine what an object is other than its qualities and what a quality is apart from the objects that have it. Can you define whiteness apart from indicating something that looks white, whether it is a field covered in snow or a polar bear? Can blueness exist apart from a quality of things that look blue? If something changes in color, how much has it changed? Has it merely exchanged one quality for another, or is it now a different object?

I know that the people who say that a polar bear looks white but is not really white were not engaged in that kind of philosophic discussion.

Among his many accomplishments, Isaac Newton revolutionized science’s understanding of light and vision. By demonstrating that a glass prism or a lot of raindrops could break a beam of white light into a rainbow, Newton showed that color and light are closely related. As understanding of light and vision grew from that observation, scientists realize that objects absorb some wavelengths of light while reflecting other wavelengths. We see the colors that are reflected without the colors that are absorbed. White objects are reflecting all the wavelengths of visible light; black objects are absorbing all the wavelengths of visible light.

But that still doesn’t explain how a polar bear could look white without being white.

I recently read an article about light and vision that finally explained what that means. Many of the colors we see in objects are caused by pigments, which are chemicals on the surface of that object which absorb some light waves and reflect us. Chlorophyll is a pigment in many plants that absorbs some wavelengths of light (using that energy to feed the plant) while reflecting green light. Anyone who has worked with paints understands how to blend different colors of paint to achieve the desired color. The mixture of paints absorbs some wavelengths of light while reflecting those wavelengths that the painter wants observers to see.

Polar bear fur does not contain any white pigment. It is the shape of that fur, especially when it is wet, that reflects white light. Peacock feathers do not contain any blue pigment. The shape of the surface of the feather reflects blue light while absorbing other wavelengths of light, causing the dots on the feathers to look blue.

If only people would have said it that way. Polar bears look white and are white even though their fur contains no white pigment. The dots on peacock feathers look blue and are blue even though their feathers contain no blue pigment. Yes, it requires a few more words to communicate the idea, but the communication is much easier to understand.

Interesting sidelight number one: A young man I know well likes to say that purple is not really a color. In one sense he is right. There is no purple wavelength of light. Look closely at a rainbow and you will see that the inner portion of the color is a deep royal blue, not purple at all. On the other hand, he is wrong. Blend a paint that reflects red light waves with a paint that reflects blue light waves, and you will have purple paint. Whatever you cover with that paint will be purple…or at least the color purple will be one of its qualities.

Interesting sidelight number two: Earlier this year a woman took a picture with her phone of a dress that was blue and black. She sent the picture to her daughter, who looked at the picture and thought that the dress was white and gold. You could blame the camera, but here it gets interesting. When the photograph went viral on the internet, people could look at the same photograph on the same screen under the same conditions, and some people saw a white and gold dress while others saw a blue and black dress. A few people could even alternate the colors they saw in the dress. For centuries, people have wondered whether we all see things the same way. When you and I look at something that we agree is red, are we seeing it the same way? The answer, we now know, is no. The dress photograph of 2015 has had its brief internet fame, but I predict that the photograph will appear in psychology textbooks and philosophy textbooks for years to come.

J.