This is the final entry in our December series. To read other essays that grapple with the Advent season, please click here.
When we hear the word apocalypse we usually think of a horde of zombies descending upon a city or angelic horsemen raining pestilence upon the earth. We recall the Book of Daniel and its disembodied hand writing a warning on the wall or the Apocalypse of John which, according to some interpretations, looks forward to the cataclysmic destruction of the world. We may even think about Advent, a time when Christians remember the birth of God on Earth and wait for an apocalypse.
In any case, I doubt love songs come to mind. Yet, love songs are some of the most apocalyptic accounts in the Bible.
In ancient understanding, apocalypse refers to moments when the kingdom of heaven shines upon the earth. Workings of the divine that are normally invisible to us are revealed. Or, as the Gospel of John puts it, the light shines in the darkness. Apocalypse is not primarily about destruction. It is about disclosure, uncovering, revelation. It is the opportunity to get a glimpse of the radiance of God. The biblical book known as Canticles or Song of Songs, but better translated as The Best Song Ever, is a celebration of this very thing. Few parts of life are as luminous and God-revealing as the thunderclap of romantic love.
On the surface, Song of Songs is a love poem. A woman introduces herself in the first chapter. She says that her skin is dark, burned by the sun as she worked the fields. For most of human history, tanned skin was a sign of poverty. The woman’s family was so poor that her hands were needed to work the fields. In contrast, pale skin communicated that a woman’s family had enough surplus that she could remain indoors in relative luxury while others pulled weeds and harvested crops. It was not until Coco Chanel took vacations to the beaches of the French Riviera and returned to Paris with a tan that societies began to regard a sun-kissed woman as alluring. And yet, the woman of Song of Songs says, “I am dark, and I am beautiful” (1:5).
Throughout the poem the woman and her lover trade compliments. He tells her, “In my mind, my dear, you are a mare fit for Pharaoh’s chariot” (1:9). She says to him, “Look at how gorgeous you are, my dear, I mean it, look at your gorgeous self” (1:15). The two don’t always get what they want, though. For instance, the woman says, “I went all over the city, through the streets and squares, searching for the one my body longs for. I searched, but I didn’t find him” (3:2). She looks for him another time but the night watchman discovers her alone and assaults her. She screams to any woman who might be listening, “If you find my beloved, tell him I am giddy with love for him” (5:7-8).
Song of Songs 2:8-14 recounts a time when the couple is united. The woman sees her lover at a distance. She watches him skip toward her and hears his voice. He takes her into his arms and whispers into her ear, “Gather your things, my love, my hottie, and come away with me” (2:10). He continues, as if to persuade her, “See? The winter is past; the rain has stopped and it is not coming back” (2:11). The time is right for young love to make a break. The woman relents. She gives herself to her lover, but at the same time she takes possession of him (2:16). They are no longer independent units. They belong to one another and hold each other’s bodies in trust.
Song of Songs is a celebration of physical love, to be sure, but it is more than that. For as long as interpreters have commented on this poem, they’ve also imagined it as a love song between God and those seeking the divine. It sounds strange to us now, but it was once routine for Christians to think of their relationship with God as an erotic one. Even the Puritans thought this way. They saw in the sexual union of Song of Songs a perfect metaphor for the human hunger for God. They put themselves in the place of the female lover eagerly seeking her man, who they imagined was God. Just as the woman and the man in the Song endure twists and turns in their relationship, there are times when we feel God’s crushing absence and other instances when God’s presence is the most real thing there is.
This is why Song of Songs 2:8-14 is one of the most apocalyptic passages you’ll ever read. It is an exultation at the sight of a lover who has been away. The woman spies the object of her passion. How long the lover has been gone, we do not know. Perhaps just a few minutes. But to someone in love, a few minutes is an eternity. Read another way, this passage also recounts the joy a disciple feels when they apprehend traces of God in this world.
Often times, perhaps usually, we think of the world as if it is all buttoned up, as if there is a firewall between us and heaven. What if it is more porous than that? More like a knotty, old fence with cracks between each board which allow neighbors to watch each other as they work and play in their backyards.
Instead of viewing the appearance of God as something which happened two millennia ago and will only be repeated at the end of days, what if we saw God in a stranger’s smile and the lithe stride of a cat? What if God were present on the lips of a dying parent and a hug given to a lonely friend? What if we rejoiced like the woman in the Song as she sees her lover on the horizon each time we experience embodied love, witness forgiveness, see kindness emerge from suffering and encounter things that have beautiful form?
Song of Songs 2:8-14 is a perfect reading for Advent, for waiting. Advent is a time when Christians remember the birth of God on Earth and wait in expectation for God to return. We wait for an apocalypse. Yet, apocalypses do not happen only in December. If we move through this world with a mind attuned to it, and not only during Advent, we can see an apocalypse each day.