You see someone looking in the mirror. Looking. Looking. What is he thinking? Better still, what are you thinking?
Too much attention to his reflection — easy to suppose he likes what he sees. We mock the self-absorption of mythical Narcissus, falling in love with his reflection in a pond.
But we also fear what the mirror will reveal, as in the Brothers Grimm’s Snow White:
“Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who’s the fairest one of all?”
The truth, as they say, hurts.
Mirrors are complicated metaphors in 16th century Reformed theology as well as in fairy tales.
- On the good news side, Christ is often portrayed as the mirror showing that we are chosen for salvation. Look at him: you see that you are joined to him by baptism and faith, part of his Body the Church. Rest assured that you belong forever.
- On the not so good side, God’s law is often portrayed as the mirror that shows all our warts and blemishes. The law shows what perfect life looks like, and we see the contrast in our own experience.
The Heidelberg Catechism, rather surprisingly, goes two opposite directions on the law. (I’ve been blogging for a good while on this beloved Reformed theological standard in honor of its 450th birthday and my denomination’s current consideration of a new translation.)
First, without actually citing the mirror metaphor, the Catechism points to this, shall we say, “negative” use of the law in one of its shortest question and answer pairs:
3 Q. How do you come to know your misery?
A. The law of God tells me.
I’ve already posted a bit about the “misery” which the Catechism describes as the result of our sin. The question here is how we get a better, clearer, more reliable sense of that misery. That is where the law comes in as our mirror.
Please note that the result is not necessarily “guilty feelings.” What we see is not a psychological problem or delusion. It is clarity of how our life stacks up before the God who gave us life and rules the universe, full of grace and truth. The point is not to make you feel bad. The point is to prompt you to call out to God for help.
Interesting (at least to Reformation Geeks like myself) is that this is almost all the Catechism has to say about this negative use of the law. It sort of takes our misery as self-evident, devoting only nine of one hundred twenty-nine questions to the whole topic, only a few of which are directly about the law.
Way at the other end, though, the Catechism has a whole lot to say about the law of God — a much more positive treatment of the law that makes up about one-fifth of the whole text.
There, instead of “misery” the topic is “gratitude.” The law becomes our guide to the Christian life. This what Calvin catchily called the “third use” of the law after the first guilt-revealing use and the second in which society is helped when the law helps prevent all kinds of bad behavior.
But right at the beginning of the Catechism, the law helps us see ourselves clearly enough to prompt us to seek mercy in Christ — so even when it is a mirror of our sin there is good news.
How do you think about God’s law as you live the Christian life?
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