A Metaphor to Live By

Advent begins on Sunday, and I’ve been reflecting on the great metaphor which opens John’s gospel: Jesus Christ as the incarnated Word of God.

Missed Connections

Anno Domini MMXX has revealed that the American nation and the global experiment have been one long page of Missed Connections. Somehow, in our fervor to become more and more connected, we have become less and less so. With familiar and formal relationships fraying under our fingertips through the schism-makers of politics and pandemics, faith and philosophies, it is easy to despair of ever understanding another human being again. For those with faith in Christ, however, we have a linguistic and a relational precedent that just might save our lives (and, in fact, already has).

The Gospel of John opens with a startling image that holds me in perpetual astonishment: “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (1:14). John’s incarnational metaphor reveals a God who has and gives the power to make impossible connections. It’s not just that God chose incarnation to redeem the world. It’s that He inspired John to use a metaphor, and this metaphor in particular, to describe it. This is an astonishing literary and redemptive act. It creates two kinds of bonds: the linguistic bond of a metaphor, and the physical bond between speaker and utterance. And it is these bonds that make communication with God and one another feasible, making impossible connections between wildly different people.

Two Kinds of Bonds

A metaphor, by its very function, is a great equator. It brings together two extremely different things and declares, “You are now one”. It is a match-maker of sorts, leaving in its wake all kinds of impossible marriages: the world = a stage, eyes = windows to the soul, the Church = a bride, etc. In doing so, many of the attributes we associate with one “marriage partner” become associated with the other “marriage partner”. The men and women in this “stage-of-a-world” become “players,” and so forth. A metaphor, then, takes two diverse contexts and binds them together into an entirely new one. 

The beginning of John’s gospel erupts with the most remarkable of all metaphors, one which proclaims a fusion like no other, either in literature or  reality: Jesus Christ = The Word Made Flesh. The person of Jesus Christ binds the context of God with the context of man, the context of perfection with the context of fallenness, the context of eternity with the context of mortality, the context of love with the context of rebellion. Because John’s gospel is not fiction but divine revelation, this linguistic act literally makes it possible for us to draw near the throne of God through Christ. We are bound to God and He to us, and through Him to one another.

The physical bond of the Word Made Flesh is no less important. A word is never just a “thing” on a page, it is a living vessel of meaning, memory, and relationship. We have become so accustomed to “seeing” words that we forget their intrinsically physical nature. Not only does spoken language require the motion and coordination of the mouth, throat, and body, but the very need for words arises from physical impulses and experiences. The next time you stub your toe, watch a puppy video, or swerve to avoid an erratic driver, think of this. Words are given and received by the body as sound waves travel across space and time, from one heart to another. God knows full well the imperative bodily-ness of the Word. He spoke creation into being; He translated the dust of the earth into human flesh; He told His story through the mouths of Middle Eastern nomads; and He entered into humanity as the supreme act of communication itself: A Word Made Flesh. Normally, utterances, once they leave the body through either the voice or the pen, become detached from the utterer and the life which gave birth to them. They seem to die, waiting on a page for someone to recognize and resurrect in them the life they once had, the life they were made for. In the case of Christ this disconnect, this death never occurs.  God’s creative Word never becomes a mere utterance, devoid of life.  The Ultimate Utterance of God, His undeniable “I AM” is eternally bound to flesh and blood. It is impossible for God to “ghost” or “troll” someone on the internet, to drop an inflammatory remark and then just disappear. He is what He says He is. He is fully present in everything He says because He is His own Word. 

A Metaphor to Live By

For those who have given their lives over to Christ to become more like Him, the use of this Incarnational Communication is available and imperative. But, as Mary asked, “How will this be?” (Luke 1:34). If we are in Christ and His image-bearers, we are also little metaphors, bearing the Word of God to the world, making more impossible connections. If the Word Made Flesh is our precedent then Incarnational Communication forces us to hold together faith and works, and to love our neighbors as ourselves because we are commanded to do so. 

First, we must remember that our words arise from our bodies as much as our minds, and that they have a physical effect on the ones to whom we speak. Even though we’re speaking across increasingly greater actual (6+ feet) and more virtual distance, we must never seek to detach physically from what we say. This implies being conscious of our own bodily vessels as we communicate as well as caring for the bodily vessels of our conversational partners. For ourselves we must ask: “Am I tense? Am I turning away my body, my face, my eyes from this person? Am I showing with my tone, gestures, and posture that this person is less than worthy of my time, respect, and love?” For others we must ask: “Do I see this person before me, either in space or on the screen, as an Image of God, endowed with many concerns that are not wholly apparent or comprehensible to me? How will what I speak affect their embodied life in this moment?” We must be willing to turn away from surface-level statements and opinions tossed around social media, texts, and mass media and engage with one another in real time, face-to-face. We must be willing to stand by what we say and witness the physical effects of our words on others, to be wholly responsible for our language.

Ultimately, even though we appear to live in wildly different ideological, cultural, and socio-economic contexts, the metaphor of the Word Made Flesh reminds us that, if we are bound to Christ then we are bound to one another. Heaven and earth, God and man, they have already merged. The most impossible connection has already been accomplished by Christ, so who are we to fear the smaller impossibilities of politics and pandemics, faith and philosophies? If we are to love our neighbors as ourselves, we must make a metaphorical transaction: my neighbor = myself. Their context and concerns are my context and concerns. If we truly believe this, then we cannot turn away from our neighbors without turning away from a part of ourselves. To be exiled is a devastating thing. We were made to bond.

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