Posted by Tim on 28th January 2013
Snow is falling in England, at the time of writing (23.1.13). It usually happens a few times in winter, but it’s unusual for it to be quite so deep or to lie around for more than a few days, particularly in the warmer south. Our continental neighbours who are more accustomed to snow must marvel at the havoc and delight it causes. Schools close. Deliveries cease. Traffic stops. Instead, people make snowmen and throw snowballs. We go sledging. Facebook is filled with photos of cute children playing in the snow.
At least for a few days, until we get fed up with wet shoes, cold fingers and traffic chaos, we are thrilled. Children want to go out and play with it. Even adults become childlike and light-hearted. We play in it, and marvel at its sparkly beauty and the silence it creates.
Why do we like snow so much? What is it about it that we find beautiful? What is its appeal? Is it merely that it highlights the bare branches of trees and covers unsightly streets and buildings with a silent shroud of serene white? Or is there something deeper, visceral, instinctive in it? Something intuitive that we subconsciously connect with?
In the Bible, snow doesn’t feature much. It is an occasional meteorological phenomenon (2 Samuel 23:20), and sometimes it is used simply to describe something particularly white (Exodus 4:6). It occasionally snows in Israel, particularly on the higher mountains like Hermon, but for much of the year, it’s just too hot. In a hot, dry, dusty climate, things don’t generally stay white for long, so things that are intrinsically white are often used as metaphors. Snow, wool and milk are all biblical examples of this. Where they come into their own is when they acquire a spiritual significance because of their colour. White is deeply significant.
In cultures all over Europe and Asia white is, understandably, associated with cleanliness, and by extension purity and innocence. Ancient Egyptian and Roman priests wore white. Babylonians and Chinese recognised the dualistic tension between white and black, day and night, yin and yang, good and evil. Brahmins wore it, and Japanese pilgrims do. Moslems on the hajj wear white. So it is clearly not merely Judeo-Christian imagery, but something common to humanity. Where does the link with purity come from? It may be that it is simply because milk is white, that it became associated with the innocence of a baby, unsullied by the world. But I think it goes back further than that.
Genesis tells us that on day one, God made light. The first thing that God created, even before he made heaven and earth. Light, in its purest form, when it is not bouncing off objects, is brilliant white. Light is frequently associated with purity, understanding, and God – ‘who dwells in unapproachable light’ (1 Timothy 6:16). God’s clothes are described as white as snow (Daniel 7:9) and so were the angel’s (Matthew 28:3). John says the same of the hair of the risen Jesus (Revelation 1:14).
So, deep in our folk memories, the whiteness of snow reminds us of God’s purity. It reminds us of our desire to be cleansed and become pure like God. Two of the most famous verses about snow are about finding forgiveness. David, repenting of his sin, said to God ‘Wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow’(Psalm 51:7). And God’s great promise of forgiveness and cleansing to humankind in Isaiah 1:18: ‘Though your sins are scarlet, they will be as white as snow.’
Deep snow covers up all manner of ugliness, making even the roughest outlook beautiful. When I see urban wastelands blanketed in this picture of innocence, I am reminded that God’s love covers a multitude of sins (1 Peter 4:8). When we look out on a pristine white landscape, let’s take the opportunity to glorify God who is even more pure, and who will one day grant his followers the privilege of dressing, like him, in white (Revelation 19:8).