Saturday, March 22, 2008

The Song of Songs and the Triduum

Last night, I read the Song of Songs as a meditation the Easter Triduum, and I couldn't believe I'd never placed it in that context before. The beauty and depth of its poetry had never seemed so profound. As the Bride of Christ, the Church, we are asked to enter into the mysteries of Holy Week with a deep and holy intimacy. We receive the gift of Christ's flesh and blood with renewed gratitude on Holy Thursday; we celebrate His passion with broken hearts, "faint with love" on Good Friday; we wait in silence on Holy Saturday for the resurrection that our Bridegroom promised; and then on Easter, we rejoice at the sound of His voice, knowing that He has risen and asked us to rise with Him.

The Song of Songs begins as the Bride asks to be brought to the chambers of her lover, who is both shepherd and king. In a particularly striking image that prefigures the Passion and Resurrection, the Bridegroom calls His Bride "a lily among thorns" (Song 2:2). They share an intimate meal - as we do when we celebrate the Eucharist - which the Bride describes in this way:
I delight to rest in his shadow,
and his fruit is sweet to my mouth.
He brings me into the banquet hall,
and his emblem over me is love.
... His left hand is under my head
and his right arm embraces me. (2:3-4, 6)
Then the Bride has a dream that makes it seem as though her lover has left her:
On my bed at night, I sought him
whom my heart loves -
I sought him but I did not find him.
... Have you seen him whom my heart loves? (3:2-3)
But just after she says this, she finds him and says that she "took hold of him and would not let him go" (3:4). Her desire to hold fast to the Bridegroom recalls the disciples' desire to cling to Christ and their refusal to believe that He was going where they could not follow.

Then the daughters of Jerusalem - the faithful - are urged to gaze upon the King as he comes in a royal procession, surrounded by the "valiant men of Israel" and
In the crown with which his mother has crowned him
on the day of his marriage,
on the day of the joy of his heart. (3:11)
This is Good Friday, the day of Christ's marriage to His Church, when He receives His crown of thorns, the crown shared by His sorrowful mother, and His love for us is consummated on the cross. The day is "good" because it pleased God to redeem us, it was indeed "the day of the joy of his heart."

The Bridegroom praises His Bride and tells her that "until the day breathes cool and the shadows lengthen," he will "go to the mountain of myrrh, / to the hill of incense," presumably to offer a sacrifice for her (4:6), just as Christ went to the hill of Calvary to sacrifice Himself for us.

Then the Bride has another dream, more heartbreaking than the first, because in this dream, she is not reunited with her lover. "I was sleeping," she says, "but my heart kept vigil" (5:2). She hears her lover knocking at the door, but she does not rise immediately to open it. She is afraid. She has taken off her garment - the veil of the temple has been torn - and her feet have been washed - as the Lord washed the feet of his disciples at the Last Supper - and she hesitates, but the sound of her lover's voice makes her heart tremble (5:4), so she rises. With fingers "dripping choice myrrh" (5:5) - an image which recalls the anointing at Bethany in Matthew 26, as well as the spices used to anoint Christ's body for burial - she goes to open the door, but she opens it to darkness and silence:
My lover had departed, gone.
I sought him but I did not find him;
I called to him but he did not answer me. (5:6)
When the Bride goes looking for the Bridegroom, she is "struck" and "wounded" by the watchmen of the city (5:7), but she praises her lover, even in his absence. She knows he will return. Then her joy is restored when she meets him in the garden and sees the lilies and the vines in bloom, and they retire together to their marriage bed (7:12-13). Again she is able to say, "His left hand is under my head, and his right arm embraces me" (8:3).

So too, we share in Christ's suffering as we celebrate His Passion, but we praise Him even in His seeming absence. We know what he has promised: "you are now in anguish. But I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy away from you" (John 16:22).
We know He will return to us, and so on this Holy Saturday, as the Bride of Our Lord, "we wait in joyful hope," keeping vigil in our hearts and listening for His voice. We wait in silence, knowing that in the morning we will hear Him say:
"Arise, my beloved, my beautiful one,
and come!
For see, the winter is past,
the rains are over and gone." (Song 2:10-11)

1 comment:

DimBulb said...

Two well known Catholic Scripture Scholars think that John had the Song of Songs (especially 3:1-4) in mind when he wrote of the resurrection appearance to Mary as recorded in John 20:1-18.

"In the Canticle (song), it is night (3:1). The woman goes about the city seeking her beloved (3:2a). She says, 'I will seek him whom my soul loves. I sought him but found him not'(3:2b). She asks the watchmen, 'Have you seen him whom my soul loves?' (3:3). Finally, she says, 'Scarcely had I passed them (watchmen), when I found him whom my soul loves. I held him and would not let him go' (3:4).

"In 20:1-18 it is very early (the end of night). Mary goes to the tomb seeking the body of Jesus. She does not find it. She sees the two angels (the watchmen?). Immediately after her words with the angels she turns, sees Jesus, thinks he is the gardener, then recognizes him, holds on to him, and does not want to let go of him.

"The parallels are fairly close. If we add to the above the mention in the Canticle of Canticles of gardens; of brothers; of running; and perhaps even myrrh and aloes; the overall parallels between John 20:1-18 and the Canticle of Canticles become even closer."-Taken from THE GENIUS OF JOHN: A Composition-Critical Commentary on the Fourth Gospel, by Peter F. Ellis.

Ellis points out that the Last Supper Discourse and the Resurrection appearance in John's Gospel are to be seen in parallel, since both contain the same dominant theme: the absence of Jesus, followed by his presence. Further, he points out parallels between John 20:1-18 and the nuptial event at Cana in 2:1-12. Both contain an individual named Mary; Jesus calls both "woman;" he asks each a question; he also implies a separation of some sort from each for a time: "my hour has not YET come"/"Do not hold me, for I have not YET ascended...;" Jesus' "brothers" are mentioned in both events.