Never in my life have I owned or regularly driven a new car. Among the other implications this condition may have for me, there is the fact that I am normally surrounded, when I drive at night, by cars with fabulously bright halogen headlights – or whatever else is now producing that bright, blue-tinted, Star Trek light that is beamed into my rearview mirror.
Of course, I do drive a car with that little switch on the bottom of the mirror, called, I am told by my Owner’s Manual, the “Day/Night” switch, which, the manual assures me, is there to “make driving more comfortable. And indeed, it is vastly more comfortable to drive at night with the switch flipped (is it up or down?) so that the glare of those magnificent headlights you probably have on your car does not blind me. With the switch flipped, as you know, the road behind me appears as a 10” by 2” rectangle of darkness, salted with white dots of light. It may be more comfortable driving, but it is a limited perspective.
It is precisely this limited view that Saint Paul is describing when he writes in his most famous passage “for now we see in a mirror dimly,” or in the older version, “in a glass darkly.” You all know this phrase – you have heard it read at weddings. And there may be some value to assessing whether or not it matters if now we see only in a glass darkly.
Because if we do, we see only what is behind us, what is chasing us, or what is falling away from us, and even then we see it only dimly, its contours and shape obscured. What we do not see, Saint Paul implies is the road ahead of us.
We are infatuated with the road behind us, receding into the darkness. And we tend to lead our lives this way – with our eyes glued to the rearview mirror, in its “Night” position, fixated on what’s behind us, what’s already past. We do not see our lives, as he says, “face to face.” We do not see fully. And so, we do not live life as God intends us to live. And we have hardly a clue of the beauty and glory that lies ahead of us.
In his letter, which Paul thought he was writing to the Christians in Corinth, but we know he was really writing to us, Paul is suggesting what he calls, “ a still more excellent way” of seeing the world, and therefore living life. Paul writes of what he knows. For he had been an expert on the laws of Jewish faith, and he was a man of unswerving and unerring faith. He knew the laws of Moses, lived by them, and he encouraged (shall we say) others to live by them too. OK, let’s say he encouraged Jews to do so by force.
At no time in his life that we know of did Paul’s faith ever waver or fail. Many of us know what it is like to live with uncertain or undeveloped or uninformed faith, but this was not Paul’s story. Even his conversion from following the laws of Moses to following Jesus was not the result of a crisis of faith. It was the result of a crisis of vision. He was struck blind for several days, something like a fish’s scales obscuring his eyes, until they fell from his eyes and he found a new vision. The view, when the scales fell from Paul’s eyes, was a different view of the world than he had ever seen. And that view would not only change his life, it would change the world.
He saw that life was not made better, perfect, or holy by following the 613 commandments of Jewish law, the task he had devoted his life to. He even saw that faith – which he had in bucketsful – was not all you needed to live a good life. He saw that only one thing made the difference between looking at life through the rearview mirror with the Night switch on, and seeing the life that lies ahead of us in all its vibrant light and color. And that one thing is love.
And so Paul wrote his famous love song, his ode, within his first letter to the Corinthians. “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude.” Does it sound to you as though perhaps Paul is describing an earlier version of himself: impatient, unkind, envious, boastful, arrogant, and rude?
Love “does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing but rejoices in the truth. [Love] bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.”
Love is the vision of the road that stretches out before us when we stop seeing life through the rearview mirror, with the Night switch on; when we stop seeing life through a glass darkly.
And what Paul says, is that most of us have been trying to drive while looking only through the rearview mirror in the dark, with the Night switch on. Have you ever tried to navigate your car this way? Has it ever seemed to you that you were trying to navigate your life this way?
None of us here, that I know of, is constrained by an effort to live by the 613 commandments of the laws of Moses, but many of us, most of us, are living lives defined by a much narrower set of constrictions: the need to pay the bills, the need to get through the work day (just get through it); the struggle to find some joy in your time with your spouse; the difficulty in sleeping without pills (or even with them); the sense that you are missing out on life, that you gave up options because of choices you made long ago; the frustration that your children have not turned out the way you hoped they would. All these are visions of life through a glass darkly: little spots of white zooming one way or another in a small rectangle of darkness. No wonder faith seems like a struggle under the circumstances; it’s all we have to go on while trying move forward and seeing only the world behind us through a glass darkly.
But there is a road ahead of us. And that road beckons us with love. It calls us to be patient, kind, and humble. The road of love invites us to yield to others, making way for them because, after all, there is room enough. The road ahead is way-marked by good choices: choosing the right over the wrong, the truth over falsehood. The road has challenges, to be sure, but there are no warnings that it cannot bear heavy loads: the road of love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
St. Paul did not write his love song to be read at weddings, and it is not a reflection on marital bliss. It is meant to provide a different view, to jolt us into looking straight ahead and seeing what God has prepared for us. And the thing is, that there is not some great test to be passed, there are no rules that must be followed, there are no hoops to be jumped through. There is just this call to look and see. There is the encouragement to rub our eyes vigorously if the scales have not fallen from them on their own. There is the recognition to be made that we have been driving while looking through a glass darkly and seeing mostly only what is behind us. There is this possibility of love, which is greater even than faith or hope, since both faith and hope are built on it.
It may be true that the road behind you has been dark. It may be the case that it has seemed the best you could do is avoid a collision, keep the darting spots of light in the rearview mirror at bay, stay in your own lane, and maybe even slow down to prevent disaster. But from the radio comes an old song that sounds familiar. You have heard it before, but has it ever spoken to you?
Love is patient;
love is kind;
love is not envious or boastful
or arrogant or rude.
It does not insist on its own way;
it is not irritable or resentful;
it does not rejoice in wrongdoing,
but rejoices in the truth.
It bears all things,
believes all things,
hopes all things,
endures all things.
Love never ends.
As the song plays, can you feel the tension in your neck relax, as you tear your eyes from the rearview mirror, and you begin to realize that you have been driving all night, but now the dawn has come, and the sun is rising, and a golden light shines on the road that leads ahead of you and stretches on and on, anywhere you can imagine or dream, and beyond that, too.
And there is no speed limit, no rules of the road even, because they are not necessary, no danger of being caught, because you are doing nothing wrong. There is only this beautiful, smooth road before you, and an inexplicably gentle, cool breeze. There is only love. It is a view we had only dreamed about, but never seen before. But it is real, and it is a more excellent way than any other on earth. Thanks be to God.
Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
31 January 2010
Saint Mark’s, Philadelphia