21 December – First Reading

Commentary on Song of Songs 2:8-14 and Zephaniah 3:14-18

We have a choice of two First Readings today. The first is from the Song of Songs (also known as The Song of Solomon) and is a collection of about 25 poems or parts of poems about human love and courtship, suitable for singing at weddings. The second, from the prophet Zephaniah, is for those who may find the passionate love implied in the passage from the Song of Songs a little too strong for today’s liturgical celebration.

According to The New Oxford Annotated Bible:

“The poetry [of the Song of Songs] is graceful, sensuous and replete with erotic imagery and allusions to the ancient myth of the love of a god and a goddess on which the fertility of nature was thought to depend.

The pronouns (He, She…) imply that the speakers are a bridegroom (Lover), bride (Beloved) and chorus. Although it is also called ‘The Song of Solomon’, the actual author is unknown. And, although dating from about the 3rd century BC, the symbols and motifs date from early mythology and have become the language of human love and courtship.”

Strangely enough, the book has no obvious religious content compared to other books in the Bible, and it can only be given such an interpretation by finding a deeper symbolism in its highly graphic language. Its inclusion in the Old Testament can be explained by the Lord being called the “husband” of his people (Hos 2:16-19). In the Christian tradition, it has been understood as an allegory of the love of Christ for his bride, the Church (Rev 21:2,9), or as symbolising the intimate experience of divine love in the individual soul. The links between mystical experiences and sexual ecstasy are perhaps not so far apart. We should be grateful that such a beautiful work has been included in our collection of God’s Word.

The choice of the reading for today is obviously linked to the Gospel account of the Visitation of Mary and Jesus to Elizabeth and John. The love expressed in the First Reading clearly points to a close, warm relationship between Jesus and John, where John represents each one of us. Perhaps we do not use this kind of passionate language when speaking to Jesus, but there have been mystics who have not hesitated to do so. One thinks of John of the Cross, or Ignatius of Loyola, and even more of Teresa of Avila.

As the passage opens, it is the Beloved, the girl who is speaking. She is living with her parents in the city. Not unlike the lover in one of Shakespeare’s most famous tragedies, the Lover appears at the Beloved’s window. The door is closed and there is a forbidding wall:

There he stands behind our wall,
gazing through the windows,
peering through the lattice.

He urges her to come away with him to the countryside:

Arise, my love, my fair one,
and come away…

The cold of winter, which is also the rainy season, is past. It is now spring, the time of new life. Nature is bursting out in leaf and flower, and the migrant birds have returned to make their nests. The cooing of turtle doves is heard, the first figs are appearing, and the vines are in fragrant flower. And, of course, for humans, too, it is the season of love.

The Beloved is hiding in the clefts of the rock, a euphemism for her home, a place inaccessible to the Lover:

…let me see your face;
let me hear your voice,
for your voice is sweet,
and your face is lovely.

Jesus, too, is still hidden in the womb of his mother. His mother’s voice is enough to create a joyful reaction in John, in Elizabeth’s womb. He knows that where the Mother is, the Son must also be close by.

It is important to realise that our Christian faith is not just a list of intellectual doctrines. Ultimately it is a life based on love, intimacy and affection for our brothers and sisters.

The alternative First Reading is from the prophet Zephaniah. He was a prophet during the reign of King Josiah (640-609 BC), who did much to restore traditional Jewish religious customs. But his example was not followed, and Zephaniah foretold disaster. This indeed happened with the collapse of the Assyrian empire brought about by the Babylonians who went on to attack Egypt, an ally of Assyria. Josiah took sides with Egypt and was killed in a battle. It was to set the stage for one of Israel’s most painful memories – the Babylonian Captivity. While much of Zephaniah is a condemnation of religious infidelity, the last part, from which today’s reading comes, is a promise of better times for those who wait patiently for the Lord.

Today’s passage consists of two psalms or hymns looking forward to the full restoration of Jerusalem to its former glory and religious faithfulness. The whole people (“daughter Zion…daughter Jerusalem”) are invited to celebrate the coming salvation. Words echoed in the words of the angel to Mary:

Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you. (Luke 1:28)

In today’s celebration, it is the close presence of the Lord which is emphasised:

The king of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst;
you shall fear disaster no more.

The reading continues:

The Lord, your God, is in your midst,
a warrior who gives victory;
he will rejoice over you with gladness;
he will renew you in his love;
he will exult over you with loud singing…

And, there is an air of joy:

Rejoice and exult with all your heart,
O daughter Jerusalem!

All of this can fittingly be applied to Elizabeth as she welcomes Mary and Jesus, and indicated by John jumping for joy in the womb of his mother. Let us too share their joy as we prepare to welcome the coming of our God among us in Jesus.

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