Phyllis Trible in her book God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality writes that the Song of Songs is the redemption of the Garden of Eden. Whereas the third chapter of Genesis, expels humanity from the Garden, Song of Songs welcomes us back with a come hither wink.
After Adam and Eve eat the apple in Genesis, they are ashamed of their nakedness. Not so in the Song of Songs. There is no shame at all. There is only joy and longing and excitement.
Trible writes: “It speaks from lover to lover with whispers of intimacy, shouts of ecstasy, and silences of consummation. At the same time, its unnamed voices reach out to include the world in their symphony or eroticism. This movement between the private and the public invites all companions to enter a garden of delight” (p.144)
The book has three voices: A woman, a man and the daughters of Jerusalem. The woman is the most prominent throughout the book.
In the Advent story, we have two women playing a crucial role. Mary and her cousin Elizabeth, both unexpectedly pregnant, both having been visited by angels and both ushering in a new way of looking at God. So, we are to expect something amazing to happen during Advent—something unexpected, something beautiful and wonderful and terrifying and utterly game changing and world turning.
One of the Christmas images is of Jesus as a new Adam, going back to the garden of Eden to fix whatever got messed up there. Maybe setting the world right for once.
So, if the problem in the Garden of Eden was the disobedience of the first couple, couldn’t the obedience of the holy couple, Mary and Joseph redeem this world?
If what is wrong with the world is sin and hardship and disconnection with God, then what is paradise like? Might it be like a garden where all is beauty? Might it be twinkling lights and fine music and good food and hopefulness and peace on earth, good will to all people? Maybe Christmas is our annual reliving and reimagining of life as it should be.
The Song of Songs gives us an image of that kind of garden. There is beauty and love and joy and people reveling in the creation.
The woman sings of her beloved. Her beloved responds with words of affection and love. The daughters of Jerusalem, the Greek chorus are told to let love happen in its own rhythm, without being forced: “I adjure you o daughters of Jerusalem, by the gazelles or the hinds of the field that you stir not up nor awaken love until it is ready.”(2:7) There are other much more explicit and risqué chapters of this scripture than the second chapter. I’ll let you discover that on your own, like so many teenagers have done at Bible camp after dark—doing Bible study by flashlight.
In the Garden of Eden, the tasting of the fruit brought the first couple’s downfall. In the Song of Songs, her beloved is compared to the apple tree, and as the choir sang, his fruit was sweet to my taste.
In Genesis, the animals, especially the snake, denote danger. In the Song of Songs, the animals leap and dance along with the human actors. They are emblems of joy. “The voice of my beloved, behold he cometh leaping upon the mountains skipping o’er the hills. My beloved is like a gazelle or a young stag.” (2:8-9)
The book ends with these words. “Set me as a seal upon your heart…for love is stronger than death, passion fierce as the grave…Many waters cannot quench love neither can floods drown it…O you who dwell in the gardens, my companions are listening for your voice. Let me hear it.” (8:6,7,13)
When the Hebrew Bible was canonized in the 90th year of the Common Era, its first book was Genesis and its last book was the Song of Songs. The Hebrew Bible began and ended in paradise.
So what does this possibly have to do with us today? Well everything. We were given to this world to have unity with creation, not disconnection with it. We were given to this world for love, not violence. We were given life so that we could share in God’s bounty and rejoice when others shared in it too. We were given life so that we could see God in the created order and each other and it would cause us to treat each other with the utmost of respect.
So God saw our disconnect from all of the planned order. It broke God’s heart how we made war, abused the land, disrespected each other and lived in conflict with the created order instead of in harmony with it. And so God in exquisite love and patience decided to smuggle a piece of God’s self into the world in the form of a child, in the hope that we might reconsider our role in the world. This one, this child, might remind us of the beauty for which we were created. This one, this incarnated one of God might help us to remember the beauty with which we were created to walk.
And so each year, we light the candles, we increase the light, we set our minds toward waiting, not for presents that Santa might bring us, but the ultimate gift of a child which shall lead us back to that garden the God created for us.
That child might lead us to rethink our priorities.
That child might lead is to recognize the longing that we have shut up in our very bones—for love, respect, joy, mirth, companionship.
And that child might not only help us to recognize the longing that we have, but like the seekers in the Song of Songs, we might find fulfillment for our deepest dreams and our greatest hungers.
We may find ourselves like St. Eprhem, inspired to write poetry. We might find ourselves wanting to pen letters to friends and family members. We might find ourselves, in the midst of the hoopla of the Advent Season, with the ability to stop and reflect upon what we long for the most. And while we think of that, think of what God longs for too. And if we and God are longing for the same things, then there is no telling what can happen here on earth. What a gift that would be at Christmas time. It may even restore all of that brokenness that is the Garden of Eden.
In a garden of beauty and light and life, all will be fed. All will be welcome at the table. All will walk in beauty. And we will celebrate on God’s mountain. The early church said that the church community is to replicate paradise. When we died we simply changed addresses. So we celebrate this communion meal as a way to prepare ourselves to welcome in that mystery that comes on Christmas. We do so surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses. We do so sustained by a transforming and transformative narrative. And we seek to recreate that story in our very lives.