On Recognition

Monday in the 4th Week of Advent: Song of Solomon 2:8-14, Luke 1:35-49.

How would you recognize Jesus if He stood in front of you? This is a common enough prompt from preachers, although theologically it seems to hold no water. What I mean is that we hear a lot about Jesus’s second coming in the Book of Revelations and it sounds like there will be no doubt about what’s going on. If we ever have a chance to see Jesus in this lifetime, I think cataclysmic events and the great winnowing of humanity would make it evident. 

Or maybe not.

Maybe Christ, in a great act of mercy, will first meet each of us as a normal human, just so that we can give Him the love He gave His Father, almost like an entry ticket to Heaven. OK, then, how would you recognize Jesus if He stood in front of you?

Today’s readings provide poetic moments of recognition. The Song of Songs, also called the Song of Solomon, Canticles, and Canticle of Canticles, is one of the most interesting books of the Old Testament. It doesn’t deal with moral teachings or God’s covenant with His people; what’s more, it celebrates sexual love and has passages that excite the passions. It’s possible to read it on a completely secular level as a long love poem. Yet early on, rabbis defended its inclusion in the canon of sacred scripture partly because it is said to have come from Solomon himself and partly because it was seen as an allegory of God’s love for His people, specifically in the gifting of His law and the installation of the Ark of the Covenant in Jerusalem. Christians built upon this allegorical reading of the Song of Songs and came to see it also as an allegory for Christ’s love of His Bride, the Church. I think that the section found in today’s first reading is a lovely way to look at God’s relationship to each of us on a very personal level. I think it’s entirely consistent with scriptural tradition to think of the author of the love poem as someone (perhaps Solomon) who seeks to use language and poetic form to communicate how very personal a loving relationship with God can be.

Springbok in Damaraland (contemporary), Stefano Zagaglia | Image from www.stefanozagaglia.com.

Each of the lovers describe one another with evocative metaphors and analogies. Today, we read: “My lover is like a gazelle or a young stag. Here he stands behind our wall, gazing through the windows, peering through the lattices.” This passage speaks to the vigor and power of our God, like a young stag. I like considering surprising images of our God. The Dominican theologian, Fr. Simon Tugwell, writes that “we need imaginative models, ways of looking at life, that leave room for novelty, for amazement, for that hesitant, enquiring joy that comes when we think we recognize something but are not quite sure” (Prayer: Living with God, 20). He traces scriptural examples where God is portrayed as a robber and a laundryman while Christians are deserters and nonconformists. He summarizes:

The important thing is that we learn to use our imagination in a way that will lead us into the spaciousness of the Gospel, letting us become the kind of people whose hearts can be enlarged, the kind of people therefore who can keep company with God, whose heart knows no bounds. If we use our imagination in a way which cramps us, the results may look very proper, but we shall end up with a world too small for God. We may find, for instance, that we have opted for a morality that is desperately moral, but devoid of the wild freedom of true Christian morality: a morality that imprisons us in “goodness” instead of freeing us for God. And this is one of the worst kinds of imaginational cramp. (27-28).

So, back to our passage, this virile Lord of ours is separate from us, but does not let that stop him from “gazing through the windows, peering through the lattices.” We have the sense that He’s an impatient and persistent lover.

He doesn’t stop at simply looking. He calls to us: “Arise, my beloved, my dove, my beautiful one, and come! For see, the winter is past, the rains are over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth, the time of pruning the vines has come, and the song of the dove is heard in our land.” If this is God (and I like imagining that it is), then we start to realize that an aspect of His love is as insistent and longing as a lover’s. Lovers see the world differently. They are so caught up with one another that their perspective on anything and everything is tinged with the excitement of the relationship. Flowers smell better, sunsets are more beautiful, angry and frustrated people appear more baffling and silly. This is the love of God that we can be caught up in, that transforms for the better how we look at the world.

The passage ends with God’s desire to see us: “Let me see you, let me hear your voice, For your voice is sweet, and you are lovely.” We read in the scriptures and the writings of the saints how often this sentiment is expressed from people in their desire to be in God’s presence. But, honestly, I’ve never thought that He thinks that way about me! This really is a failure of my imagination. How wonderful to consider that God longs for me just as much as I long for Him. More, in fact — I’m sure of it. Does He think my voice is sweet and I am lovely? (Seriously, I feel a little silly because this thought makes me want to blush! How great is that?) In the Song of Songs, we recognize God as a lover we long to be with, the thought of whom dominates our waking hours and our dreams.

The Visitation (1737), Jerónimo Ezquerra | Wikimedia Commons.

Another moment of recognition is given to us in the gospel of the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary with her cousin, Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist. In an unforgettable image, “When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the infant leaped in her womb.” Before they are even born, the gestating babies of Jesus and John call out to one another, they make their mothers aware of their recognition. Then, “Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit, cried out in a loud voice and said, ‘Most blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And how does this happen to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?'” Can we imagine a scene where the fullness of Christ’s coming is more evident? Not only has the Spirit impregnated Mary and made Elizabeth’s pregnancy possible, Christ is there, bodily within Mary, while the Holy Spirit “fills” Elizabeth with knowledge and words. The Persons of the Trinity greet one another through the women who bear them. John is witness and participant as well, and his ministry will resound with the shock waves of this encounter. 

I feel that Elizabeth’s final words are appropriate for both of these women, not to mention all humans: “Blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled.” Her words echo lessons from the Old Testament and speak it in a new way, incarnated as it were, as these two women bear for humanity a new understanding and perfection of this Wisdom. The blessedness of which Elizabeth speaks is partly grace and partly our own assent to be an active part of God’s plan. It is also, I think, the path to answering the original question posed on today’s reflection. How would we recognize God? I think it starts with longing for Him. We can long for Him in so many ways: as a Savior from the sin and corruption of the world, as a wise brother who can guide us to our Father, as a Father who welcomes His prodigal children, and as a lover who consumes our every thought and makes the world brighter just by being Who He Is. When we long for Him, we enter into a reciprocal gazing (He is already looking at us, calling to us). We can see Him in our hearts and in our imaginations, allow Him to share the silence of our ponderings and prayers. This attunes us to God and Godliness. We begin to see Him working through others and, in fact, beam with recognition when we witness His work in the world. Every time we give thanks to Him and ask for His help in becoming a better person, more fit to be in His Kingdom, He grants us greater depth of vision, a better ability to recognize the good and the bad. This lifelong process is our Christian journey, and none of us should be dragging our heels in getting on that pilgrimage!

Icon of the Visitation (20th century), unknown artist | Image from passionistnuns.org.

So, if Jesus comes bodily to earth again, I can only ask His help in recognizing Him and pray that my time spent longing for Him and getting to know Him bears the fruit of recognition.

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