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Looking in the Mirror of Scripture

Sixth Week in Ordinary Time: Wednesday-Year II

When is the last time you went a day without looking in the mirror? Looking in the mirror is something that, I dare say, is something that we tend to do quite often, perhaps more often than we should. Popular sensibilities being what they are, physical appearance is important to us, and for this, a mirror is indispensable. A mirror, most basically, shows us what we look like. It is a diagnostic tool of acceptability, if you want. Can I go out looking like this? Am I comfortable with presenting myself in my current state to the world? Quite often, after a good night’s rest, the answer to that question is no, for some a more emphatic no than others.

At that point the mirror quickly becomes a tool for making the appropriate adjustments to ourselves so that, if nothing else, we aren’t horribly embarrassed to be seen by people other than our closest loved ones, who really don’t have much of a choice but to deal with whatever faces they wake up in the same house with. For some, making those adjustments entails a full blown ritual. Hair gets pulled to and fro, straightened, curled, plucked from various places, or simply shaved off. Makeup, deodorant, cologne, perfume, etc., are applied, generally speaking in whatever order they come to mind, or by whatever happens to be closest at hand as we make our numerous passes in front of the mirror amidst getting the other thousand things we need to have ready before we walk out the door (or run, as it were). And this is just in the morning. Throughout the day, the same steps will be taken when we go to the bathroom (although in abbreviated fashion), because, well, there’s a mirror there where I wash my face. Suffice it to say that we tend to spend an awful lot of our time looking in the mirror when it comes to assuring that everything with our physical appearance is in order, or at least as much as possible.

I write all of this a bit tongue in cheek, of course. Leaving aside those who may suffer from the same malady as Narcissus, there is nothing wrong with wanting to look presentable. However, on a more serious note, it is important to ask, do we devote the same amount of time and effort considering how our lives look, how our souls look? Of course, this requires a different sort of looking, for if we approach an examination of our persons in the same way we approach a daily (hourly, etc.) examination of our physical appearance, we are liable to get into trouble. As the Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca pointed out, there are many people who, in the moral life, are very keen about appearances, such that it can be very difficult to know who is really virtuous and who is just playing virtuous (see Ep. 94.60-61). Thus, if we apply a little moral makeup, a good deed here and a kind word there, to cover up that particular blemish of the soul which stubbornly won’t go away, that vice or sin, we can fool others into thinking we are more virtuous than we really are. And, unfortunately, because interpersonal interaction is one of the strongest forces of reality, we may even fool ourselves into thinking we are more virtuous than we actually are when others tell us how good we are. The danger being cautioned against is self-deception, something we are unfortunately quite adept at. Getting to the heart of the matter, Jesuit thinker, Fr. William T. Kane, puts it this way:

…we even rationalize some of our imperfections and limitations, and fool ourselves into calling our laziness serenity or detachment, our covetousness industry and prudent foresight, our intolerance zeal, our touchy pride self-respect, and so on. It is easy to do this, because the outlines of our limitations are blurred to our sight. It is not always malice, it is often only the confusion resulting from ignorance, which makes us at times boast of our vices as if they were virtues. Our pharisaism takes a multitude of forms; but under all its manifestations it is, like so many other deceits, fundamentally a self-deceit (Paradise Hunters, 46).

If we are to avoid this sort of self-deception, what we need is a more powerful mirror, a mirror that gives us more than the surface-level examination of our lives as provided by co-workers, possibly family, and, of course, ourselves. Luckily, we have been given just such a mirror. In his epistle, James likens Scripture to a mirror:

But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like (James 1:22-24).

What did those who looked into the mirror of Scripture and went away without enacting what they gazed upon see, exactly? The mirror of Scripture doesn’t function like a normal mirror. For, we do indeed, see ourselves, but on a deeper level. By looking into the mirror of Scripture, we see a couple of things. First, we see what James refers to just prior as “the implanted word that has the power to save your souls” and just after the above cited passage as, “the perfect law, the law of liberty” (James 1:25). James is referring here to the Gospel, or more to it, the One Whom the Gospels proclaim, Who is the fulfiller of the Law (Matthew 5:17), or, as St. Paul puts it, “the end of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes” (Romans 10:4). The same Word in Whom all things were created and in Whom all creatures find the fullness of life (see John 1:1-4 & 12-13 & John 10:10), is the embodiment of the Law of Love according to which God created and ordered all things at the very beginning. In short, when we look into the mirror of Scripture what we see is Jesus, the Word of God Incarnate.

At first blush the mirror of Scripture seems not to function analogically but equivocally to a physical mirror. After all, when we look into a mirror we see ourselves, not someone else. Precisely. What we see when we look into the mirror is nothing less than ourselves. We see ourselves as we were created to be at the beginning, and who by sharing in Christ’s death, Passion and Resurrection we have been re-created to be through the saving waters of baptism (Romans 6:4). This is what it means to be a member of Christ’s Body, the Church.

Unfortunately, I think that when we hear that the Church is Christ’s Body and we are members of that Body, as St. Paul teaches (e.g., Colossians 1:18), we think of it as a merely metaphorically describing the relationship we have with Christ as Christians. However, to slide into this kind of thinking is nothing less than more self-deception. A self-deception, I would add, that lets us off the hook by demanding far less of us than would be demanded if we believed that we are not simply metaphorically members of Christ’s Body, but are members of His Body. As Christians, we are not simply called to live in relationship with Christ, but to live Christ’s life. The reason why St. Paul exhorts us to imitate him as he imitates Christ (1 Corinthians 4:16 & 11:1), is that by the grace of God it is no longer he who lives, but Christ who lives in him (Galatians 2:20). If we take a moment to consider the radicality of this claim, we come right to the heart of the Christian thing. God the Father did not only send His Son into the world to set some spiritual legal matter straight. He came into the world to give us a share in his very life, to make us partakers of the Divine Nature, as we are unequivocally told in the Second Epistle of Peter (2 Peter 1:4).

That we have been created for nothing less than a share in the divine life seems so far removed from our lived experience that it takes little convincing to believe otherwise. Sensing that the same disbelief had set in to his parishioners, St. Augustine of Hippo exclaims:

Let us congratulate ourselves then and give thanks for having been made not only Christians but Christ. Do you understand, brothers and sisters, the grace of God upon us; do you grasp that? Be filled with wonder, rejoice and be glad; we have been made Christ. For, if he is the head, and we the members, then he and we are the whole man…The fullness of Christ, then, is head and members. What is that, head and members? Christ and the Church” (Homilies on the Gospel of John, 21.8).

It is for this reason that James’ reference to Scripture being a mirror was used by several Fathers of the Church, who unflinchingly and unabashedly proclaimed Christian salvation to be nothing less than deification, as the Church does to this day, though in far quieter terms, we might say (Catechism of the Catholic Church 398 & 460). Thus, in his Letter to Marcellinus on the Psalms, St. Athanasius of Alexandria writes:

it seems to me that these words become like a mirror to the person singing them, so that he might perceive himself and the emotions of his soul, and thus affected, he might recite them. For in fact he who hears the one reading receives the song that is recited as being about him, and either, when he is convicted by his conscience, being pierced, he will repent, or hearing of the hope that resides in God, and the succor available to believers—how this kind of grace exists for him—he exults and begins to give thanks to God (Letter to Marcellinus, 12, my emphasis).

We find St. Augustine expressing nearly the same thought in one of his sermons on the Psalms: “If the psalm is praying, pray yourselves; if it is groaning, you groan too; if it is happy, rejoice; if it is crying out in hope, you hope as well; if it expresses fear, be afraid. Everything written here is like a mirror held up to us” (en. Ps. 30, exp. 4.1). Notice that for both Athanasius and Augustine, the Scriptures teach us how to live in a way that encompasses the whole person, not only how to act, but how to feel, such that we can say that gazing into the mirror of Scripture is meant to transfigure the one gazing into it such that the more one gazes into it, the more one becomes Who one sees there.

That Scripture has such power is based on a spiritual physics. This is seen most clearly in a couple who has been married for decades. They come to look more and more like one another as years of gazing upon one another yields a similar understanding of reality and how to navigate it, they have similar instinctual responses to certain stimuli and mirroring mannerisms. It is as though one soul animates them both. Why does this happen? We attend most carefully to that which we love, and over time, for better or worse (and quite often a mix of both) we become that which we love. Augustine puts it this way:

Hold, rather, to the love of God, so that, just as God is eternal, you also may abide in eternity, because a person’s love determines the person’s quality. Do you love the earth? You will be earth. Do you love God? What shall I say? that you will be God? I don’t dare say this on my own. Let us listen to the scriptures: I have said that you are gods and that all of you are sons of the Most High (Ps   82:6) (Homilies on the First Epistle of John, 2.14).

This is precisely why gazing into the mirror of Scripture is so efficacious for Christians, because by the power of baptism, they have been animated with the same Spirit that dwells in Christ (Romans 5:5). It is that Spirit and only by that Spirit, which St. Thomas Aquinas, following the Prophet Jeremiah (31:33), describes as the Law inscribed upon the heart (Summa Theologia I-II, Q. 106.1), that Christians are able to become what they gaze upon in Scripture. For apart from this grace such gazing would be futile, for not only would we not understand what we were looking at, but we would totally lack the ability to become what we see. In short, we would be hearers incapable of becoming doers (James 1:22-24).

How often do you look into the mirror? More often than we would like to admit, I would guess. If we are that careful about our physical appearance, shouldn’t we give infinitely more care in considering what extent we resemble that which we have been re-created to be? The stakes simply couldn’t be higher. Of course, our eternal happiness depends upon it, but just as importantly, in a very real way so does that of those around us. For, you see, the mirror of Scripture is meant to transform you into Christ so that your life becomes Gospel, the proclamation of God’s victory over sin and death, so that others too might be given a share in that victory. The French Jesuit, Jean-Pierre de Caussade puts it this way:

As the truth of God has been made known by word of mouth, so His charity is manifested by action. The Holy Spirit continues to carry on the work of our Savior. While helping the Church to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ, He writes His own Gospel in the hearts of the just. All their actions, every moment of their lives, are the Gospel of the Holy Spirit. The souls of the saints are the paper, the sufferings and actions the ink. The Holy Spirit with the pen of His power writes a living Gospel, but a Gospel that cannot be read until it has left the press of this life, and has bene published on the day of eternity. Oh! great history! grand book written by the Holy Spirit in this present time! It is still in the press (Abandonment to Divine Providence, 2.5).

How often do you look into the mirror of Scripture? The face that awaits is the face of Love, the face of Mercy, the face of Life, the face of what you have been re-created to be: “Do you understand, brothers and sisters, the grace of God upon us; do you grasp that?” (Augustine of Hippo, Homilies on the Gospel of John, 21.8).

Your servant in Christ,


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1 year ago

such a powerful reflection! Thank you Tony!