Mirror, Mirror, On the Wall

Listen to these three quotes and tell me which one is the most familiar to you.

“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.”

“For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face.”

“Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who’s the fairest of them all?”

I’m guessing that in that order, those quotes go from least familiar, to somewhat familiar, to very familiar.

That’s right, in order of importance, or at least exposure, a Disney movie takes number one, followed by the First Letter to the Corinthians, and then our text appointed for today, the Letter of James.

That verse from James captured my attention this week, and I’ve thought a lot about mirrors.

Human beings have always longed to know what they look like, how others see them.  The seeming magic of being able to see one’s reflection has led to myths connecting mirrors to the soul.

Different cultures have attached different superstitions to mirrors, for example that breaking one creates seven years of bad luck, or that all the mirrors in the house must be covered when someone dies so that the departing soul doesn’t get trapped in one by the Devil.  Vampires, the undead, supposedly lack a reflection in a mirror.

The ancient Greek myth of Narcissus tells the story of a beautiful youth who, upon glimpsing his own likeness in water, falls in love with his own reflection and wastes away to death.

Narcissus is where we get the modern psychological concept of narcissism, which is all too relevant in our current social and political climate. The ancient Greeks, as much as both they and the Romans loved mirrors, saw their dangers.

It’s hard to think of mirrors as dangerous, the magic mirror in Snow White notwithstanding, when we realize how common they are in our everyday lives.

Ancient peoples used them for grooming, and that was pretty much it—they were called looking glasses, although they eventually used them as tools to focus light to create fire or as signaling devices.

But we use them everywhere–in cars, cameras, telescopes, and complex scientific and medical equipment.

And I, for one, would never go anywhere without my compact, so I can powder my nose, which contains, of course, a mirror.

But as I thought about this verse from James this week, I realized it was prescient in a deep but unexpected way.

“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.”

How often do we look in mirrors and not really see ourselves?

I would venture to say that’s what we do most of the time.

I know for myself that any time I look in a mirror, my eyes immediately go to what I would consider my flaws.

What do you see when you look in a mirror?

Do you see a beautiful child of God?

Or do you see only lumps and bumps, extra weight, sagging bits, wrinkles, pimples, bags under your eyes, too big this or too small that, graying hair, or no hair at all?

James attributes not being able to see oneself clearly in a mirror to being merely hearers of the word and not doers.

I very much doubt that the actual James was thinking of body dysmorphia or body shame in the way we experience it today.

But it fits.

There are multiple multi-billion dollar industries dedicated to making you feel ugly.

Our entire economy is based on telling you that you are never enough–never thin enough, young enough, sexy enough, handsome or beautiful enough.

And unfortunately, the ratio of the Good News of Jesus Christ we receive every day compared to the toxic advertising and pop culture news of how we’ll never measure up to the cultural ideal is pitiful.

No wonder we, just as James says, look in a mirror but can’t see who we really are.

And the reason is the same too, being hearers of the word and not doers.  What does it mean to be a hearer or a doer of the word in this context?

If we are merely hearers of the word, we may sit in church every week, we may pay lip service to doctrine and theology, we may even read the Bible, but we’re not consciously and intentionally opening ourselves up to be transformed by the love of God in Jesus Christ.

If we are doers of the word in this context, we are looking for ways every single day to see ourselves as who we really are: disciples, servants, called and redeemed, cherished and empowered, the very Beloved of the Living God.

And knowing this truth about ourselves is what roots a burning desire deep in our hearts to make sure that every single person we come in contact with knows their sacred worth as well.

This text, and indeed the gospel life, are really about freedom.

James moves from speaking of looking into a literal mirror to a figurative one: “But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act-they will be blessed in their doing.”

The law of liberty.  The hardest thing about freedom in Christ is that it requires trust and risk.

It’s terrifying to think of letting go of all the false standards we use to judge ourselves, because then we’d have to let go of how easily we judge others.

If bodies are not to be judged by size or shape or appearance or health or age or sexuality or gender identity, then how are we to judge them?

How are we to relate to people if we don’t have boxes to sort them into?

And how sad is it that we ask for a different way to judge ourselves and others rather than asking why we feel like we must judge at all?

The perfect law of liberty is James’ term for what Jesus calls the two greatest commandments: to love the Lord our God with heart, mind, soul, and strength, and to love our neighbors as ourselves.

Many people think that loving your neighbor as yourself means loving your neighbor in the same way as or in the same manner as yourself.

That’s not it at all.

Loving your neighbor as yourself means to love your neighbor as part of yourself, as not fundamentally separate from you.

We are the Body of Christ, not individual isolated cells of Christ.  We, the human race, are one organism, one great incarnation of grace and truth.

And so when we look in the mirror, the actual literal mirror, we should see not just ourselves, but the whole world along with us.

James’ mirror is the perfect law of liberty, which is the perfect law of love.

This is where we get to Paul’s mirror in 1 Corinthians.

“For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.”

Ultimately, every time you look in the mirror, you’re seeing yourself.

But you’re also seeing Christ, or rather how Christ is made manifest in you.

So when you look in the mirror, don’t look with the stupid, vapid eyes of consumer culture: “Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who’s the fairest of them all?”

Look with the eyes of Christ, so that you may know with the mind of Christ, so that together, one slow step at a time, we may truly become the Body of Christ, reflecting love out onto the world.



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