For now we see through a glass, darkly (1 Corinthians 13: 12)
This intriguing phrase requires a little thought and imagination. It presents an image which can seem ambiguous: in what sense are you looking through glass? St. Paul is of course referring to a looking glass. Modern translations tend to make that clear by using the word mirror, but it is not really necessary if a little thought is applied to the reading of the passage. What may not be clear is why St. Paul chose the image. Obviously it suits his purpose, but looking glasses were actually made in Corinth so it would be an image with which his first readers and hearers would have been familiar. The reader is asked to imagine what it is like to look in a mirror and not to be able to see a reflection clearly. The Greek word he uses and which is translated here as darkly means literally a riddle or a dark saying.
Confusion sets in when the reader begins to think about the subject of the saying. St. Paul is referring not to what he sees of himself – his own reflection – but what he sees of God. This passage is about coming to a clear knowledge of God: a knowledge which is as clear as God’s knowledge is of him or of any of us. At the moment God cannot be seen clearly, but in the end he will be and he will be seen to be love. His nature is love and he has chosen to reveal himself as love.
We might take a moment to consider man’s search for God and his longing for the divine presence. This may take the form of intellectual curiosity: why are things as they are; where have all things come from? It may be a search rooted in the need to belong, to fit in somewhere in a world and a cosmos which seems so vast. It may be that human beings need a purpose in life and look to the divine to provide it and to help them understand.
St. Paul knew about imperfect knowledge. He was a highly intelligent and well-educated Jew well versed in the Hebrew scriptures, but through the revelation of Christ on the Damascus road and subsequently by the Spirit, he had come to realise that his understanding was imperfect and incomplete not least because he had an under-developed understanding of God’s love and how that love in Christ changed everything. On the Damascus road, St. Paul realised his inadequacy and brokenness, not just intellectually, but spiritually. This was the point at which he realised the completeness of God’s knowledge of him and his own shadowy understanding of God. At this point he is stopped in his tracks and his Christian journey begins. He alludes later in 1 Corinthians 13 to his former life using the phrase ‘childish things’, but we also see here (and similarly in Romans 5-8 and elsewhere) how far he has come. This is St. Paul grown up.
‘God is love’ is an insight rooted in Judaism and then developed by both St. Paul and St. John based on the revelation of God in Jesus.
Beloved, let us love one another: for love is of God; and every one that loveth is born of God, and knoweth God. He that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is love. In this was manifested the love of God toward us, because that God sent his only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through him. (1 John 4: 7-9)
Love defines the relationship which we have with God and it also defines God himself. It provides the all-important base of the triangle which consists of the three abiding virtues: faith, hope and love. Love is the motivation for all God’s works and for human works which are wrought in him.
The image may yet be imperfect, but looking into the Corinthian mirror we begin to see an image of our perfect consummation and bliss. George Herbert expresses it well in his poem ‘Love (III)’.
‘Love bade me welcome: yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-ey’d Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,
If I lack’d anything.’
Here is the end of all our searching, the clarity we have longed for and the joy of our souls. God is love.
Father Andrew Burton SSC
14th February 2021
Image by Andrea Don on Pixabay