Saturday, 16 May 2020

The Rainbow

Genesis 8:20 - 9:17

The bows appear as concentric arcs with the common centre on the line connecting the eye of the observer and the light source. Most frequently only one bow is visible. It appears on the opposite side from the source; its angular radius of the red border is about 42 degrees. Other colours of the spectrum can be seen inside of this border ending with the violet. Occasionally another secondary rainbow is observed above the primary rainbow. Its angular radius is about fifty-four degrees and the sequence of colours is reversed. The centre of the bows is angularly as far below the horizon as the source (sun) is above.

This entry from the 1964 edition of the encyclopaedia Britannica is less picturesque than Genesis:
“This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and every living creature that is with you for all generations. I have set my bow in the clouds and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the whole earth.”

People have marvelled at rainbows always and as an example of the beauty and mystery of God’s creation they do evoke wonder and questioning, awe and admiration. Yet the science that I have quoted dates only from 1611. The 1771 Encyclopaedia Britannica finding all this still quite modern devoted pages 435 to 441, so some six pages, and a set of exquisite diagrams to the entry. It i s a miracle that we ever came to understand it so minutely, another example of God’s gift to us of reason, deduction and creativity.

All creation is God’s way of revealing himself to us; the perfection that we see in nature, tiny leaves, buds, flowers, fruits always seeming to be the right shape, in the right place, looking as if they ought to be there. But the rainbow is a special sign: God said to Noah “I will remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.”

It is always thrilling to see a rainbow and remains so for most of us well  beyond childhood. Here is Wordsworth thinking about that:

My heart leaps up when I behold
A rainbow in the sky
So it was when my life began
So it is now that I am a man
So be it when I grow old
     Or let me die
The child is father of the man
And I would wish my days to be
Bound each to each by natural piety.

“My heart leaps up” and I wonder if the rainbow we see today, comprehensively explained though it is, strikes deep into a spiritual core that we all know we have and have had from the beginning or as Wordsworth says - “So it was when my life began.” So when we look up at a rainbow we are the ones who remember.

I was struck when exploring rainbows to discover Dame Laura Knight’s picture (in the Tate Gallery) called “Spring.” Painted in an impressionist style it shows a pastoral scene of a meadow, a fly fisherman, a country lady with a gathering basket, lambs in a distant field and overarching it all in the sky a rainbow. The picture is dated, 1916-1920 and is so clearly peaceful. I do not know the life story of Laura Knight but it seems to me to be a response to the joy springing from 1918, and the end of the Great War.

We have recently adopted the rainbow to be a sign for the NHS, it may have several meanings but it is I suggest among other things a sign of eternal hope and a reminder of God’s promises to us.


This sermon can be heard on the following podcast:

The painting that I refer to can be found at

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