“Take the story we retell every epiphany,” said my pastor, Jack Roeda. So, here it is, the story we retell every epiphany: the magi saw a star rise, and it pulled them to Bethlehem, where they saw God incarnate, and then they went home the long way, evading Herod (Matthew 2). “But these sage astronomers also took the long way to Christ,” Jack said; “they took the route of general revelation.” Indeed. The magi, as yet unacquainted with Christ, did not pursue him; rather, they chased his star in the sky, which, though it lit the nativity of the Light of the World, belonged–as far as the wisemen knew–only to the order of creation. In other words, the magi read the star that lit Christ’s crèche as an auspicious, perhaps even a divine, sign, but they could not read it as signaling human redemption. Nonetheless, the star sufficed, and, in its general radiance, the wisemen, who plotted a course to Bethlehem, also traveled the more circuitous route God plotted for them: they journeyed from light into Light.
Over the past months, I have thought a great deal about the magi and their route from light into Light–about, that is, the passage from general revelation to incarnate redemption. And I keep coming back to the story of epiphany, in part, because it helps me understand another commute that matters to me, as a writer and as a reader and as a Christian: the crossing that connects metaphors–those expansive holograms of analogy–to contained truths–the truths of creed and history.
For I do believe we need metaphors. After all, metaphor–because it is suggestive, not exhaustive–sometimes conveys truths that plain speaking threatens to distort. So where plain speaking will not do, the Bible delivers to us, as Neal Plantinga says, a God who “is not only a leopard, eagle, and bear, but also a moth; not only a parent, but also a child; not only a king and warrior, but also a barber and a whistler” (5). Metaphorical language, at its best, then, manages to picture God without profiling God.
But I also believe that metaphor always approximates. Even Christ’s own metaphors–his “I am the Vine” and “I am the Way” and “I am the Good Shepherd” (John 15, 14, 10)–only orbit the contained truth that God publishes through Moses. “I am,” God says, “who I am” (Exodus 3). And if we do not credit this contained truth that God is, inimitably, God, we run the risk, to borrow John Updike’s phrase, of “mock[ing] God with metaphor” (21). We risk the blasphemy of sentimentalizing God. But to refuse God dominion over metaphor counts as blasphemy, too.
For God reveals God’s self to us through both metaphor and commandment, through both the gospels’ parables and their historical, literal record. What’s more, though, I believe that God allows these two kinds of revelation–the general, even prodigal, revelation that metaphor unfurls and the revelation of Christ, the “I am who I am” made incarnate–to mingle.
Although, at first, to be honest, I hated to believe that. I suppose I thought that the perfect orderliness of creation mandated the quarantine of metaphorical revelation from incarnate revelation. But since then, it has occurred to me that God’s allowing metaphorical revelation and incarnate revelation to have congress tells us something about the very fabric of creation–it reminds us that, as David Bentley Hart insists, God creates the cosmos through “a kind of miraculous wordplay” (292).
The interplay between metaphorical and incarnate revelation, however, belongs not only to the order of creation, but also to the order of redemption. And on hearing Jack Roeda’s sermon last epiphany, I saw it clearly: God punctures the partition between those truths we apprehend by metaphor and the contained truths of history and creed in order to ease us from general awe at the revealed world to particular faith in the revealed Christ. Take the magi. They read the star pulsing above Bethlehem as a metaphor, and it led them to the absolute Truth, to “the bright Morning Star” (Revelation 22), to God incarnate.
The magi’s pilgrimage, then, from light–the radiance of a heavenly earthly star, revealed widely–into Light–the unthinkable radiance of Christ revealed specially–matters to me as an episode in the infallible gospel, yes, but also as a metaphor. For the wisemen’s journey reads as both a literal account of and a metaphor for the journey that God has charted for us; we too travel from light into Light.
But having apprehended the very Light of Christ, we must also, like the magi, take care to return to our own country “by another route” (Matthew 2). As for the wisemen, I imagine that, once home, they could not help but read every star in the sky differently. My part, though, is to read books. Yet I, too, having glimpsed the utter effulgence of Christ, read differently. In fact, each anecdote of grace thickens, I tell my students, when we read it as a footnote to the gospel. And all true metaphors become scintilla of general revelation, beckoning us toward knowing God.
Beyond these metaphors, though, an ungovernable radiance tarries. For God is who God is, and we cannot yet apprehend the full brightness of the truth God contains.
Nonetheless, to provide for us in the meanwhile, God, by prevenient, detailed grace, has perforated the fabric of creation, integrating metaphorical revelation and incarnate revelation. Marilynne Robinson calls such prevenient, detailed grace God’s “tender solicitude,” and, reading John Calvin, she mar vels at the image of a God whose “great energy […] rips gala xies apart [but] also animates our slightest thoughts” (x vi). A nd I mar vel, too. I mar vel that the “great energy that rips gala xies apart,” that ignites stars, belongs to the God whom the psalmist imagines knitting (Psalm 139), the same God whom I imagine eyeleting the fabric of creation in order to allow us epiphany, that route from light into Light, that precursor to our journeying home.
Hart, David Bentley. The Beauty of the Infinite: the Aesthetics of Christian Truth. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2003.
Plantinga, Cornelius. “Intellectual Love.” Opening Convocation. Calvin College, Grand Rapids, 9 September 1996.
Robinson, Marilynne. “Preface to the Vintage Spiritual Classics Edition.” John Calvin: Steward of God’s Covenant, ed. John F. Thornton and Susan B. Varenne. New York: Vintage, 2006.
Roeda, Jack. Sermon. Church of the Servant, Grand Rapids, MI. 7 January 2007.
Updike, John. Collected Poems: 1953-1993. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997.