Sometimes my mind wanders.
That never happens to you, right?
Certainly not during sermons.
But mine does, so if yours does too, that’s ok, even during the sermon.
I often employ this personality trait to track down details
Of odd stories I see here or there
The internet is perfect for this, maybe TOO perfect for a mind wanderer.
Like one time, for instance, when I caught a bit of a story
About this line in Homer’s Odyssey, where he famously describes the “wine-dark” sea.
Why “wine-dark,” do you think?
Why not deep blue, or sapphire green?
This also caught the eye of William Gladstone, a 19th century scholar
Who would one day become prime minister of Great Britain.[i]
He noticed that this wasn’t the only strange color description of Homer’s Odyssey.
Even though Homer spends page after page describing
Mind-numbingly intricate details of clothing,
armor, weaponry, facial features, animals, and so, so much more
his references to color are strange:
Iron and Sheep are violet.
Honey is green.
So Gladstone set out to count the color references in the Odyssey.
And while ‘black’ is mentioned some 200 times, and ‘white’ about 100,
Other colors are rare.
‘Red’ is mentioned fewer than 15 times.
‘Green’ and ‘yellow,’ maybe 10 each.
And Gladstone started to look at other ancient Greek texts
And noticed the same thing:
there was never anything described as “blue.”
The word didn’t exist, apparently, not like we moderns use it.
Wikipedia, if you search for this, will tell you
That the Ancient Greeks classified colors by whether they were light or dark,
rather than by hue.[ii]
They argue, over at Wikipedia, that the word that might mean dark blue, kyaneos,
could also mean dark green, violet, black or even brown.
And glaukos, maybe word for a lighter blue,
also meant light green, or gray, or yellow.
Gladstone argued that the Greeks’ understanding of color
was something different from our own.
One person writing about Gladstone said that
“it seemed the Greeks lived in a murky and muddy world,
devoid of color, mostly black and white and metallic,
with occasional flashes of red or yellow.”[iii]
And another put it this way:
“Homer has left historians with the impression that the ancient Greeks and Romans had an underdeveloped appreciation of color.”[iv]
That may go too far, who knows,
But it opened up a lively little debate among linguists and scientists:
Did the Greeks actually see blue, the way most of us see blue?
If you don’t have a word for a color, can your brain distinguish it?
I know that sounds somewhat far fetched,
But this is an actually interesting field of study.
Its been a hotly debated topics at scholarly conferences and cocktail parties for a hundred and fifty years. Who knew?
But here’s something that is particularly noteworthy, at least to me:
A researcher named Jules Davidoff recently, about ten years ago now,
traveled to Namibia
To conduct an experiment with the Himba tribe.
The Himba speak a language with no word for blue at all.
In fact, their language has no linguistic distinction between blue and green.
So Davidoff showed several Himba members a circle made up of 12 boxes
11 of them were green, and one was blue.
Get this: the Himba could not pick out which one was different from the others,
Which one was blue
Or those who could took much, much longer, and made many more mistakes
than those who speak other languages, take your pick,
English, Spanish, Russian, Chinese
WITH the words ‘blue’ and ‘green.’
But here’s the thing:
The Himba tribe have more words for GREEN than we do in English
Quite a few more, actually.
Each describing a different shade
And when shown a circle with several boxes of green,
one of which is just a touch different,
the Himba people spot it unfailingly, and quickly, every time.
Much more quickly than we English speakers do.
Davidoff says that without a word for a color,
Without a way to verbalize, or conceptualize, its difference,
It is much, much harder for human beings to notice what is unique about it
Even if our eyes are physically seeing the object in the same way
Rods and cones working similarly, and all that.
Did the ancient Greeks’ see the color blue, without a word for it?
“Before Blue became a common concept, maybe humans saw it.
But it seems they did not KNOW they were seeing it.” Suggests Davidoff[v]
Jury is still out on that one.
On a dreary, rainy day like this one,
Sometimes all we see are shades of gray.
But no, not really:
This is a season of such brilliant colors: reds and greens everywhere
Bright lights on houses and on Christmas trees
White and blue and green and yellow and orange
Alabaster and apricot and aquamarine and azure and chartreuse.
A veritable Crayola box, every evening you drive around town this time of year.
It is one of the things I love the most about December.
We human beings have developed this amazing ability
To detect a wide range of shades and colors and hues.
For many of you who have been to The Kirk on Christmas Eve
And have experienced the sanctuary by candlelight
As we sing Silent Night, Holy Night on the night of our dear savior’s birth
You might feel, like I do, moved by that experience
Of the brilliance of the candlelight, burning through the darkness
Restless with its desire to break forth into the cries of a newborn boy
The kind of cries that shout “it’s a new day, today” for the whole world to hear.
These kind of stories about the human body, our mind and our senses
They are so fascinating to me.
Our understanding is shaped by the language we use
How we sense the world around us by the categories we have to understand it.
Science suggests that we need these different words for color
In order for us to process them correctly.
So where do the words come from in the first place?
Which came first: the experience of the color blue or the word blue itself?
Its not all that far a jump to other human experiences, particularly faith experiences:
Tell me: What comes first, our experience of God or the word God itself?
I’ve been thinking about Mary.
This vulnerable, so young, almost nobody from pretty much nowhere
That stands right there at the heart of something profound.
The Gospel of Luke tells the story almost prosaically
Mary goes out to some Judean town up in the hill country
Out of the way, a backwater sort of place
To see Elizabeth, her cousin, and her husband Zechariah.
It’s the kind of thing that happens thousands of times a day
All over the world.
People traveling to see their family.
She enters, sets her bags down by the front door
Takes the shawl off her head, looks around the house
And says hello.
We’re jumping into this story a bit late.
Its kind of like getting to Star Wars after the opening scene has already been shown
And you might have missed an important detail or two.
The first scenes of the Gospel According to Luke are announcements
First to Zechariah, about his boy, John the Baptist
Which was profound enough to render him mute, unable to speak
And then to Mary, by the angel Gabriel,
Sent by God to tell her that she, too, would have a son
And to name him Jesus
And not only that, but that boy, this Jesus
Would be called “Son of the Most High”
That he would have the throne of David
A kingdom without end.
In Luke’s words, this left Mary “Perplexed.”
I don’t want to move too quickly through this story.
Just think about Mary, at THAT moment.
One minute, Mary is minding her own business
Doing the things poor teenage girls do in Nazareth
Washing and mending clothes
Cleaning the house
And Gabriel shows up and tells her
Not only is she and her fiancé Joseph are to have a child
But it is to be THE CHILD. It is to be Jesus:
I’m not sure Perplexed is a strong enough word for what I might have experienced.
Maybe like standing before the Mediterranean sea
On a brilliant summers day
And trying to describe the most vivid emerald ocean
If the only words I had at my disposal were dark wine cognates and synonyms?
I think I would have been completely dumbfounded.
What else can you say,
When you are told that you’re about to bring Jesus into the world?
So Mary goes to visit her cousin Elizabeth
And she gets there and says hello
And Elizabeth’s baby boy leaps in her womb at the sound of her greeting.
And Elizabeth, who has been anxiously waiting her own baby
Who feels John inside of her, all happy and kicking with anticipation
Elizabeth, who has a husband struck speechless from his own encounter with God
Is herself filled with Joy, and with the Holy Spirit
When Mary Gets there:
“Blessed are you among women, Mary,
and blessed is that baby inside of you…”
The song Mary offers at this moment is called The Magnificat
My soul magnifies the Lord, it starts
And my spirit rejoices in God my Savior
For God has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant…
The Mighty One has done great things
Holy is his name.
And then, as if she finally sees, I mean really sees
In full color, the whole spectrum of what is about to happen
What God has decided to do
With vivid detail and no shade unnoticed
She sings it all:
God’s mercy is for all who stand in awe
From generation to generation
God shall bring the mighty down from their thrones
God shall lift up the lowly
God shall feed the hungry, with good things
God will send the powerful and the rich away empty
God will do these things, has done it, actually: Christ is coming.
God in the flesh: Emmanuel.
When Gabriel appears to Mary
And tells her this is going to happen
She is quiet for a moment, and she just asks how it can be?
And Gabriel says this: Nothing will be impossible with God.
One of the often missed messages of this season
Is that Nothing will be impossible with God.
Its sort of like having your mind opened anew to a color
You didn’t know was even there, but once you have a word for it
You see it, everywhere.
“For NOTHING will be impossible with God” is the word…today…
To each single parent struggling to get to tomorrow,
and to every child growing up in the bleak world of poverty.
To the child orphaned in Syria and
to the teen dodging explosions in Afghanistan;
To every person struggling with a bad diagnosis,
a long unemployment line,
a shattered family,
a hopeless situation…
ANYTIME anyone suggests to you that the problems of our world
and the predicaments of our life
are too complex,
and absolutely BEYOND SOLUTION–
–YOU tell them: “NOTHING will be impossible with God!”
Maybe you just can’t see it yet,
But once you do, you’ll see possibility and promise EVERYWHERE.[vi]
I’ve been seeing these videos online
About a new kind of eyewear
That has been revolutionary
For people who have certain kinds of color blindness.
The videos are of people
Putting the glasses on for the first time
And all of a sudden, they see, they see colors they didn’t know were there
And the reaction is extraordinary.
Here’s a video with just a few of these reactions,
Let me warn you there’s one with just a touch of salty language:
What joy, when you can see something new for the first time!
What amazement, when your whole world is turned upside down
And you can feel the possibilities, the hope.
Can you imagine what Mary must have felt
When God did that for her, from grayscale to full Technicolor.
Can we imagine anew what that might be like
For this world of ours to finally break free
Of its cynicism and cronyism and brutal violence
And instead find a world where the oppressed will receive good news
The broken-hearted bound up
The captive liberated
The year of the Lord’s favor: garlands instead of ashes
The oil of gladness instead of mourning
The very garments of salvation.
Friends, Christmas is coming.
It will be here, before you know it.
It will come silently, in lowly places.
May we be prepared for the complete reorientation of our world that it portends.
May you find your world alive with color, awash with the holy spirit
As the newborn Baby comes….
May it be so.
[i] Kevin Loria, http://www.businessinsider.com/what-is-blue-and-how-do-we-see-color-2015-2 Accessed December 16, 2017.
[iii] Kevin Loria, Ibid.
[iv] Amanda Smith, “Were the Ancient Greeks and Romans Colour Blind” http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/bodysphere/features/5267698
[v] Kevin Loria, Ibid.
[vi] From a helpful sermon on these texts by The Rev. Mark Ramsey to Grace Covenant Presbyterian Church of Ashville, North Carolina entitled “Nothing.”
After the sermon was preached, a member of The Kirk recalled to me a Tennessee Tourism project that her son’s firm worked on. Its cool. Check it out at one of these two links:
http://www.countryliving.com/life/inspirational-stories/news/a45576/color-blind-people-see-fall-foliage/ or http://blanketmedia.club/2017/11/11/tennessee-department-tourism-development-creates-viewing-devices-color-blind-visitors/