Light, and the colors revealed by it, is both obvious and mysterious. We enjoy its yellow warmth every day and keep the darkness of night at bay with a variety of incandescent or fluorescent light bulbs. We catch glimpses of its nature when a sunbeam travels across a dust-filled room or when a rainbow appears after a storm. The fundamental process at work in a rainbow is refraction, which simply put is the bending of light. Light bends, or changes direction, when it travels through one medium to another, such as it does from the air and through a prism you have hanging in your window.
Prisms also separate white light into its component colors. Different colors have different frequencies. These frequencies of light enter and exit the prism at different speeds which is how the light is bent. A prism bends the colors twice- once when the light enters it, and once again when it exits the prism. Drops of rainwater disperse light the same way a prism does. Light enters the raindrop from one angle and is bent a second time as it exits the raindrop. Each drop refracts one color of the spectrum, so you can imagine how many raindrops it takes to make a rainbow!
Our ability to see color is thanks to two components in the make-up of our eyes- rods and cones which are located in our retina. These photoreceptors help us to perceive light and particularly color. The rods are less sensitive to color even though we have somewhere around 120 million of them in our eyes. The 6 to 7 million cones which can be found in the central yellow spot (the macula) is where our color perception takes place. Cones are divided into three types: red, green and blue. The blue cones have the highest sensitivity to light and color. The rods employ a photopigment called rhodopsin. They are more sensitive to blue and respond very little to red which leads to some interesting ways in which we perceive color. For example, in bright light our cones enable us to see a red rose but its leaves will be less vibrant. However, when twilight comes our rods will pick up on the green of the leaves and the red rose will be less vibrant.
Stars, planets and heavenly bodies such as comets can also appear to be colored as they twinkle or move across the night sky. In the ancient world those nightly spectacles were often related to monumental events that took place in history. For example, Roman historians took note that a blood-red comet (so bright it could be seen during the day) appeared in 44 B. C., the year Julius Caesar was assassinated. Although we can’t specifically identify the comet or star that appeared to the Wise Men, we know they took its appearance seriously because they packed up their belongings and headed west to find the king they determined it was announcing. Modern astronomers have come up with a few good candidates for this important celestial birth announcement but which one it was is not as important as what the Wisemen did when they saw it and the result it produced when they found what they were looking for. Upon arriving in Bethlehem and seeing Jesus, their feelings were just as full of joy and delight as the ones we express when we see a beautiful rainbow stretched overhead (Mt. 2:1-12).
Bumper stickers proclaiming, “Wisemen still seek Him” were quite popular a while back. While the saying may be cliché now, it’s still true. Eyes which can enjoy the beauty of a golden sunset or a massive rainbow are also meant to “see” the Truth of this season. We don’t have to pack up everything and go on a lengthy journey to find it but our determination should be just as committed to doing so as the Wisemen were. In a holiday season driven by consumerism it’s easy to miss Jesus. Could we develop spiritual eyes that like our rods and cones enable us to adjust our vision and see Him in the midst of all the lights and tinsel? I think it’s possible if we truly want to see (Ps. 9:10; 34:10; 40:16; Is. 55:6; Mt. 6:33).
Ann H. LeFevre, M. Div.
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