There aren’t many people who don’t stop in wonder at the sight of a rainbow – it is a sight universally accepted in awe. They bring joy wherever they are seen. Throughout history, in all cultures and religions, the symbol of the rainbow is highly significant. During these dark days of the COVID19 pandemic, they are present in neighbourhood windows, plastered across hospital walls and shared across social media as signs of unity and hope. What is it about a rainbow?
Seven Colours of the Rainbow
Seven is a number that turns up often in symbolic thought. In Buddhism, there are seven levels of consciousness, resulting in the clear light of nirvana and Teresa of Avila’s seven mansions make up the Interior Castle that represents the seven stages of faith. Both peak in union with the divine. There are seven notes in the musical scale of which many combinations create harmony and melody in our world. There is no doubt there is significance in ‘seven’, separately, combined and cumulatively. The marriage of the seven elements points to something ‘other’.
The Science Bit
Rainbows are made when sunlight is refracted through water droplets, splitting white light into the multitude of colours it is made up of. Every colour of the spectrum is needed: just like everyone in our communities is. Everyone belongs, everyone plays a part. What’s more, you need lenses of every colour to see the whole spectrum. You can’t see it’s entirety if you look through the lens of only one colour: a red lens will only allow red light through. The more clear our ‘sight’, the more beauty we see.
You need two ‘elements’ – sunlight from the heavens (ephemeral, untouchable and otherworldly) and water, (physical and touchable) of the Earth. Together, they produce something else. Something numinous. It is transparent yet concrete. Real, but just beyond reach. For me, this is reminiscent in the Easter story where Jesus, being both human and divine, ‘is broken’ to reveal the glory of the universe, of God.
People once believed that rainbows, with their hump-backed bridge shape, physically connected Heaven and Earth. The Buddha’s staircase was rainbow-hued, and the word ‘pontifex’ means builder of bridges; the pope is a bridge between God and His people.
Of course, the origin of the rainbow is well known in Judeo-Christian culture as God’s promise to humanity, given through Noah, after the great flood. Since a child, this has confused me – it was hard to think about trusting a God after He had just drowned out most of the world. I always thought this was a bit harsh.
Nowadays, I see the rainbow as a universal symbol of unity. Union of parts that when combined produce something mystical and magical. Whether a symphony, hues of colour or union with the divine. No wonder it has existed as a human symbol of hope and transcendence throughout history.
If you can think of any other rainbow connections, I would love to hear them.
May rainbows continue to remind us of our inner divinity, the power of community and continue to bring hope as we join together to beat this virus.
Thanks to all who are working hard to keep us safe. God bless.