White as snow

DSC00220Snow 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).

You can make me clean

Mark starts off his gospel in a unique way – it’s all action.  He doesn’t use genealogies, birth narratives or theology to tell you who Jesus is.  He uses stories.  It’s very postmodern in that respect.  But the stories aren’t just random events:  they’re carefully selected illustrations of Jesus’ power and identity.  Mark systematically builds a narrative out of healing, deliverance, forgiving, and other miracles which lead to the pregnant hanging question in 4:41 – Who is this guy?

The story that finishes chapter 1 is often unnoticed in this accelerating sequence, or if it’s mentioned at all it’s to show the compassion that Jesus has for the socially marginalised.  But that’s not what it’s really about.  It’s not about healing at all.  Mark’s already told us about Jesus healing Peter’s mother-in-law, so why do we need another healing story?

The clue is in the request: You can make me clean, if you want to.  The man wants to be clean.  Leprosy (and other skin diseases lumped together with it by the ancient Israelites) resulted in the victim being ritually unclean.  This meant he could not pursue his relationship with God, because he had no access to the temple to make the appropriate sacrifices to restore and maintain this relationship.  This man’s biggest concern was not his disfiguring disease, or his resulting social isolation, but his inability to draw close to God because of his uncleanness.

In Hebrew thought there were three classes of purity: holy, clean and unclean.  If you wanted to move up the scale there were complex rituals for purification involving the blood of a bird sacrificed over a bucket of ‘living’ water (Leviticus 14:5), but it was very easy to move down again.  Just eating a prawn or touching a dead body made you unclean.  So people went to great lengths to avoid touching lepers, or even gravestones.  So in this instance, something utterly amazing has happened.  Jesus touched the leper and not only did he not become unclean, the leper became instantly clean!  In our culture we have lost the impact of this, but it is in fact an indisputable allusion to the divinity of Jesus.  It’s an interesting verse to use (say) with muslim people, who have retained in their culture an understanding of uncleanness.  This verse amazes them.

Ritual purity is not a recognised concept in the West, so we have no real mechanism for understanding it, but the awareness of it is still there.  Like Lady Macbeth, frantically trying to wash the illusory blood from her hands, deep inside we know that we are unclean, but we don’t know how to deal with it.  Perhaps this is why we are so obsessive about hygiene – at least we can clean the outside of the cup!  Sometimes Obsessive Compulsive Disorder manifests as a paranoia over cleanliness – it’s even nicknamed ‘Lady Macbeth syndrome’.  People who have been sexually molested often scrub themselves vigorously to get rid of the inner contamination as well as the external, and it has been suggested that sometimes self-harm can be a way of trying to deal with this, as bleeding lets the ‘inner dirt’ out.

Sometimes Christians suffer from a similar problem.  We’ve been told over and over again that our sins are forgiven, and we know that as soon as we repent our sins are blotted out by God, but we don’t always feel forgiven.  We want to keep saying sorry, or earn our forgiveness.  That is because we still feel unclean.  We aren’t taught that Jesus cleanses, so we can’t appropriate the ritual purity before God that enables us to feel clean.  We are like Isaiah, in that we know we are people of unclean lips (Isaiah 6:5), but we don’t experience the cleansing.

500 years before Jesus was even born, Zechariah prophesied about him, that through him God would open up a fountain for ‘sins and impurity’ (Zechariah 13:1).  Unless we fully appreciate this dual aspect of Christ’s accomplishment on the cross we do not fully enjoy the grace he has poured out on us.  This Easter we can stand before God not only forgiven but spotless and without blemish because we are washed with the blood of the Lamb.