By Dr. Reggie Kidd
Many churches sing Christmas carols throughout the month of December. Mine doesn’t. Instead, during the four weeks before Christmas, we sing songs and pray prayers and contemplate Scriptures of yearning. We yearn for the coming. We yearn for peace on earth. We yearn for the return of the King. This year the yearning takes on a particular piquancy. We yearn for the end of pandemic. We yearn for racial reckoning and reconciliation. We yearn for safety in the streets. We yearn for a return of civility to the public square. We yearn for the ability to worship without masks, with hugging, with full-voiced singing, with the common loaf and the common cup. We yearn for the realization of medieval English mystic Julian of Norwich’s promise: “All shall be well.” We yearn for all that Christmas promises.
There is one song in particular that I commend to you this Advent, an especially lovely song of yearning. The Bible calls it the “Song of Songs,” that is, “the best song.” It’s a song about yearning for love—and especially during this particular season of Advent-waiting, I’d offer it as genuinely “the best song.”
Layers of Love and Meaning
Even before Christians came along, people in the Jewish community knew to read this Song at two levels. On the first level, the Song of Songs is—gloriously!—a full throated anthem in praise of conjugal love between a man and a woman. Over the centuries, commentators—Jewish and Christian—have debated as to the exact scenario being depicted. By far the majority of commentators suggest we are witness to a celebration between two lovers: a Solomon-like, shepherd-king-husband and a Shulamite (probably a play on Solomon’s name), queenly wife. Coming from the God who made man and woman to come together as “one flesh,” there’s plenty to relish in a song that leads with “Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth! For your love is better than wine.”
Beyond that, though, from Day One, readers—or singers—of this song have sensed that there’s more at play in this “best of songs” than merely its surface meaning. In the first century ad, Rabbi Akiba said, “Whoever trills the Song of Songs in banquet halls—and treats it as a mere lyric—has no share in the world to come” (Targum Sanhedrin 12.10). Indeed, he maintains, the “whole world is not worth the day on which the Song of Songs was given to Israel for all the Writings are holy and the Song of Songs is the Holy of Holies” (Mishnah Yadayim 3.5).
Jewish interpreters saw a second level of meaning in the Song of Songs: an embellishment of the prophets’ theme of Yahweh as husband and His people as bride. They read it as a love song between God and His people. When they read “I am my beloved’s and he is mine,” they could not help but hear resonances of “I will be your God and you will be my people.” And in their wake, Christian interpreters heard a song in praise of the love between Christ, i.e., God-as-Groom-in-the Flesh, and His Bride, the Church.
Not only do I commend such a reading to you, but I commend keen attention in this love song to the theme of waiting for love. Three times the Song of Songs puts the listener under oath: “Not to awaken love until the time is right” (2:7; 3:5; 8:4 NLT). Each time, the oath is followed by an arrival, first by the male lover “leaping the mountains, bounding the hills” (2:8), second by the male lover in Solomonic splendor (3:6-7), and third by the happy couple, “Who is that coming up from the wilderness, leaning upon her beloved?” (8:5).
This third coming recalls the promise in Hosea that he would bring His people out of exile: “She shall respond as in the days of her youth, as at the time when she came out of the land of Egypt” (Hosea 2:15). She will no longer be married to the false gods (“Baal” means master-husband). Instead, she will be married once again to Yahweh: “I will take you for my wife in faithfulness, and you shall know the Lord” (Hosea 2:20). Let it be noted, by the way, that this “knowing” is one of intimate amore. And it will take place on an earth that will have been “re-Edenized.” Yahweh’s people will be a new “Eve” on an earth where harmony will have been restored between humans and the animal kingdom; where “the bow, the sword, and war” will have been abolished from the land; and where the earth will “answer the grain, the wine, and the oil” (Hosea 2:18,22).
Anticipating a Christmas Wedding
That is what we long for during Advent. With the first coming of Christ, whom the apostle Paul calls the “Second Adam,” the human story has already taken a giant step towards that “re-Edenized” creation. The Groom has come for His Bride; he has paid the price to win her from her bad marriage to the law, to sin, and to death (Rom 7:1-6). The Groom has done so in order that he may, even in the now, be wed to His Bride the Church, and “that we may bear fruit to God” (Rom 7:4). Think about that! And He will come once again for final consummation, to bring her to the banqueting table, the Marriage Feast of the Lamb (Revelation 19:6-10).
At Advent, with the help of songs like Song of Songs, we lean into both of these arrivals.
At Advent, the Song of Songs teaches us that our passion is matched by our Lord’s. The Song is at one and the same time a remembrance of kisses and embraces already shared, and also an expression of lovesickness until kisses and embraces can be renewed when the beloved returns. What is striking is that lovesickness has taken hold of both parties. She sings, “I am faint with love” (2:5). And he answers, “You have ravished my heart, my bride, you have ravished my heart with a glance of your eyes, with one jewel of your necklace…how much better is your love than wine” (4:9-10).
Many of us, perhaps, recall singing the children’s song based on Song of Songs 2:4, “He brought me to his banqueting table, His banner over me is love.” In the text, it’s to His “house of wine” that He brings us, but the point is well taken. The Lord has already come, moved by His passionate love for us. So deeply did He love us that He planted on Calvary the banner of that love—his arms outstretched on the merciless wood of the cross. He continues His loving presence among us when, by the Spirit, he bestows the kiss of His love by hosting us, week by week, at the Table of Bread and Wine. During Advent we prepare ourselves to celebrate His banner-and-Table-setting anew.
At Advent, the Song of Songs teaches us that waiting is a year-round spiritual discipline. We live “between times,” and there are some things we are not going to be able to force. The story that underlies the Song of Songs is one of obstacle after obstacle to the consummation of love—and of Lover and the Beloved pressing on in determined anticipation. For us, one lesson is that we are not the Messiah, and we cannot force the final making “all things new” ahead of time. The Messiah is the promised deliverer. And at the time appointed for Him, He will make “all things new.”
Passionate Preparation In the Waiting
But waiting isn’t passive. Waiting is an active preparation. As Jewish commentator Michael Fishbane observes, it’s one thing to exercise “pious restraint (reliance upon God)” and quite another to indulge slothful “impious passivity.” And so, in the “between times” we work toward the day when we can embrace without masks, even if, until then, we honor love’s demand that we wear the masks for the sake of others. In the “between times” we labor for the day when Black Americans no longer feel a knee on their neck, and we also labor for the day when law enforcement officers—of whatever color—no longer face hate and confrontation when they go to work. Fishbane continues: “The religious spirit must live ‘in the between,’ spurred by ideals without giving them (undue) messianic warrant….The conditions of deferral may constrain idolatrous presumptions, both spiritual and political.” That is part of the lesson of the Song of Songs—and it lies at the heart of Advent hope.
At Advent, the Song of Songs teaches us, finally, that there is a certain sacramentality to our love relationships. That is, they are wonderful for what they are in themselves, and wonderful for the way they serve as pointers to intimacy with God. Some of us are called to celibacy within a circle of friends: friendships to be joyfully consecrated to the Lord. Some of us are called to intimacy within marriage, marriages no less to be joyfully consecrated to the Lord. This “best song” teaches us to guard these relationships, to preserve them, and to be wholeheartedly and unreservedly given to them.