Through the Looking Glass

For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known. (I Cor. 13:12)

I heard a strange thump as I was cooking myself breakfast early one morning some years ago. There was another thump a short while later, and I peered down the hallway that led to the back door.  A flash of feathers suddenly exploded against the window frame of the door, followed by the sharp scratch of talons on glass.  I looked out and was surprised to see a robin perched on the wooden railing of the back steps, only a few feet from where I watched through the glass.  He eyed me coldly for a moment, and then flung himself against the window once again.  Repulsed by the force of his own blow, the robin retreated to the back lawn.  He quickly regrouped and was soon back on the railing, poised for a fresh assault.  This time I pressed my face to the glass, and he hurriedly flew off.  

By now I had figured out why the bird was locked in futile combat with the window.  I stepped out onto the landing and closed the door behind me.  Sure enough, it was my own face that peered back at me in the glass.  The bird, of course, was merely acting on instinct.  Robins will pair off and stake out a territory when they migrate north in the spring.  The circuitry of a bird's brain does not know what to make of the smooth panes of glass that, on an evolutionary time scale, have only lately adorned the habitations of their human neighbors.  The indefatigable robin perched on my back railing had no reason to believe the creature glaring back at him in my window was anything other than the brazen poacher he appeared to be.

"Dumb bird," my younger son said dismissively as the robin resumed his tireless attacks upon his own reflection.  With a brain smaller than a grape, the bird at least had an excuse.  But how do we account for our own failure to recognize our reflection when we attack others?

Freud recognized long ago that people tend to project onto others qualities they cannot abide in themselves.  An enemy is really nothing more than a kind of mirror that enables us to view ourselves in the harshest possible light while maintaining the illusion that we are looking upon another.  This is the tendency Jesus was addressing when he said, "Love your enemies."  The Greek word translated as "love" in this instance is not normally used when expressing affection for another person; in fact, we are commanded here to love people we don't like.  The same word is used again when Jesus tells a Pharisee, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself."  The "as yourself" part is key, because if we cannot love ourselves, we will never love others.

The word for love (agape) in such passages is not found in classical Greek and is rarely used outside the New Testament.  It has no exact English equivalent.  Agape is not used exclusively to express godly love, but in certain contexts it is clearly meant to describe something beyond the normal range of human emotion.  It is a love that enables us to see past our own reflection, to see the world as it is rather than as we wish it to be, and yet look upon it without judgment and accept it unconditionally.

Matthew 5:44; 22:39

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