Think for a moment about the most poetic, artistic action of Jesus’ ministry. In the last few moments of His life, He shares a final meal with His closest friends, and in doing so He completely recasts the symbolic, reverent act of the Passover meal into what we now know as the Lord’s Supper. The sacred act of the Passover meal, intended to commemorate the most significant event in the history of the people of God, is suddenly redeemed in the foreshadowing act of this last meal. The bread is His body; the wine is His blood. In a very real sense, the Passover meal becomes a metaphor—in the same way that tenor and vehicle converge to create a metaphor—in the act of the wine and the bread. Through the vehicle of the Table, Jesus reveals the tenor of His great and profound and mysterious grace to us.
There is an imprecision to these figures of speech. They do not draw straight lines from the word to the definition, and as such, it forces the creator (and hopefully the recipient) to ponder, to relate, to grapple with the ideas hidden within them.
But there can be great truth in the metaphor. Because I believe that sometimes—especially when speaking of the mysteries of our universe or the matters of the heart—the metaphor better captures the depth and fullness of an idea. Definitions place boundaries on meaning; Metaphors create space for the meaning to take shape. Definitions are distinct, specific, antiseptic; Metaphors are angular, indeterminable, open-ended. Definitions are like stark, unflattering passport photos; Metaphors are like watercolor portraits.
I think that’s one reason why Jesus often spoke in parables. He was speaking of unfathomable mysteries—propitiation, incarnation, atonement, ecclesiology, grace—and these words we have invented are simply too small and inadequate to fully describe and explain. (And our brains are way too small to understand the mind of God anyway.) Definitions seem to fall short of the immortal grandeur, the cosmic drama, the eternal consequence, of such things.
Why are poetry and other artistic literary elements such a large part of the Bible? Maybe because the message of the Bible is a mystery, something larger than mere words can explain. Maybe poetry and other prose can better express the Truth of the Bible, and the heart of God. Maybe it is through our artistic expressions that the fullness of the Gospel can be more fully expressed.
Billy Collins is a former Poet Laureate and one of the more accessible poets today. In one of his poems, “Introduction to Poetry,” Billy Collins explains his motive: he wants the readers of his poetry to “water ski across the surface of a poem waving at the author’s name on the shore.” But he laments that people only want to analyze his poetry, deconstruct it, reduce it, and pull the soul out of it. “But all they want to do is tie the poem to a chair with a rope and torture a confession out of it.”
This is another hangover from the reformation. As the study of the Word of God became more prominent, the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, historically the apex of the Christian service, was supplanted by the sermon. The Communion Table, with it’s rich metaphor of kinesthetic Truth, was literally set aside to a corner and the Pulpit was moved to the center of the room. As a result, we look to the sermon for Truth, and the Communion Table—and I would add, all other art forms—have been relegated to the lesser actions of the church.
In a twist of well-intentioned irony, the Communion Table has become a metaphor for how the church now uses the arts.
This is not as it could be. Jesus spoke of the Kingdom—which is not a place, but the reign and rule of God in our hearts and lives. And when He spoke, He drew word pictures of lost pearls and lost coins and lost sheep. With the art of words, He painted images of dragnets cast into the fickle ocean, of invitations to a marriage feast, of a prodigal son who had lost his way. He stated these Truths with earthy but profound elegance, presenting an invitation to a better life, a nobler way, a personal relationship with the Maker Himself. As if to imply that this mortal, earthly life we live were simply a metaphor for some larger eternal life He invites us to.
That is the power of the metaphor.