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Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Christ, the Fairest of All Men III: Song of Songs

Our meditations on Song of Songs ended at the 7th verse of the first chapter, where the “lovely” Bride poses a question to her lover. She asks, “Why should I be like a veiled woman beside the flocks of your friends?”

Song of Songs: Christ and His Church

In this post, let’s look at the next four verses.

8 If you do not know, most beautiful of women, follow the tracks of the sheep and graze your young goats by the tents of the shepherds.
9 I liken you, my darling, to a mare harnessed to one of the chariots of Pharaoh.
10 Your cheeks are beautiful with earrings, your neck with strings of jewels.
11 We will make you earrings of gold, studded with silver.

The speaker in these four verses is the Bridegroom, who is responding to the question posed to him earlier regarding the whereabouts of his “flock” (1:7).  Earlier, we stated that the Bride’s love for her Bridegroom seems to be secretive and unpublicized. Consequently, she goes about hidden and “veiled” so as not to reveal her identity to the world (1:7). Moreover, there is a sense of having lost the tracks of the Beloved; meanwhile, she is surrounded by the Bridegroom’s “friends.” These “friends” do not satisfy her longing for the Beloved. They are called “friends” of Christ in the same sense that Christ called Judah a “friend” (Mathew 26:50). These friends do not really know Christ because they have either strayed away doctrinally to join the folds of the heretics and schismatics, or they have the sound doctrine but do not conform their lives to the Gospel for leading a duplicitous and hypocritical lifestyle. For this reason, the Bride yearns for the “Good Shepherd,” the one who will nourish and feed his sheep (John 10:11).  He responds to her question and says:

“If you do not know, most beautiful of women, follow the tracks of the sheep and graze your young goats by the tents of the shepherds.”

Beginning with verse 8, and for the first time, we hear the Bridegroom speaking. He labels his Beloved as the “most beautiful of women,” a description that stands in direct contrast to the attitude of the “daughters of Jerusalem” who “stare” at the Bride, repulsed at her “dark” skin (v.6).  That which may seem hideous and unattractive to the eyes of the world, may be “beautiful” and appealing to the eyes of God, who looks not at the beauty of the flesh but rejoices in the sanctity of the soul, which conforms its “image” to that of Christ (Genesis 1:27).  Conversely, the world holds in high esteem people with pleasing physical qualities that do not necessarily reflect their deplorable inner condition, which is fully visible only to the eyes of God.   In effect, the Bride becomes a mirror, which reflects the beauty of her Bridegroom. For this reason, despite being “dark” on the outside, the Bride sees herself as “lovely” as the “tent curtains of Solomon” (v.5).

The Lover’s advice for his Beloved is to “follow the tracks of the sheep.” The “sheep,” whose “tracks” the Bride must follow, are the Saints, whose “faith” we must “imitate” after considering the “outcome of their life” (Hebrews 13:7). They are those whose “example” we must “follow” as a “model” or a pattern to be imitated and repeated (Philippians 3:17). Does this take away from the glory of God in any way? No, of course not. It does not detract from the glory that is due to Christ because we only “imitate” those “sheep,” which trod the “path,” in so far as they imitate and “follow the example of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1).  In due time, these “sheep” turn into “shepherds” by the virtue of the saintly life they lead. It is only fitting that we “graze by the tents” of these faithful “shepherds.” Christ’s exhortation to his Beloved, the Church, is to remain under the ministry of her shepherds rather than breaking off to form a schism or a breakaway group. The Bridegroom goes on to say:

9 “I liken you, my darling, to a mare harnessed to one of the chariots of Pharaoh.”

In our postmodern and thoroughly deconstructed world, this may not seem much of a compliment. However, in ancient poetry, human beings, both men and women, are often compared to certain animals. Thomas Wyatt compares beautiful women who could be potential lovers, to “hinds” or female deer (Whoso list to hunt).  In the comparison above, King Solomon uses an analogy to describe the beauty and physical attraction of his beloved. The effect of mares on stallions is identical to the effect of the Bride on other men. Pharaohs only used the healthiest and most vigorous of horses. Thus, the comparison is made to denote the gracefulness and beauty of the Beloved. When a mare is placed in the midst of stallions, she becomes a great distraction to the stallions. Likewise, the beauty and attractiveness of the Beloved are so great, that all men are occupied and wholly taken by her looks.

10 Your cheeks are beautiful with earrings, your neck with strings of jewels.
11 We will make you earrings of gold, studded with silver.

Detailing the beauty of the Bride, the Bridegroom goes on to describe her features.  Her “cheeks are beautiful” because the beauty of Christ has been imprinted on her features. It is only with “earrings” that her beauty is pronounced and made visible, signifying that apart from Divine intervention, the Bride’s looks are not complete and lack the pleasing appearance that is often associated with a young lady at her own marriage ceremony. The same applies to her “neck,” which is only made beautiful by the “strings of jewels.” To emphasize the role of the Divine in adorning the Bride, the Bridegroom declares in the following verse “We will make earrings of gold.” The maker of the “earrings” is God, Who bestows His virtues and gifts upon His Church. All ornamental objects discussed thus far represent the virtues or the gifts of the Holy Spirit that are given to the recipient of the Sacrament of Confirmation.  This is further solidified in the words of God as He speaks to Israel through the Prophet Ezekiel:

“I clothed you with an embroidered dress and put leather sandals on you. I dressed you in fine linen and covered you with costly garments. I adorned you with jewelry: I put bracelets on your arms and a necklace around your neck, and I put a ring on your nose, earrings on your ears and a beautiful crown on your head. So you were adorned with gold and silver, your clothes were of fine linen and costly fabric and embroidered cloth” (Ezekiel 16:13).

The Gifts of the Holy Spirit are seven in total. They include wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord. Seven centuries prior to Christ, Isaiah prophesies about a “stump of Jesse,” from whose “roots a Branch will bear fruit” (Isaiah 11:1). On this “Branch,” the “Spirit of the Lord shall rest; the spirit of wisdom and of understanding, the spirit of counsel and of fortitude, the spirit of knowledge and of godliness. And he shall be filled with the spirit of the fear of the Lord” (Isaiah 11:2, 3). Those who receive the gifts of the Holy Spirit in the Sacrament of Confirmation are made more docile to the will of the Lover and more obedient to His voice.

We end our reflections on the verses above with a prayer imploring Our Lover to intensify His love for us and stir in us a spirit of obedience, righteousness and docility to His will in our lives, in Christ’s name.  

Sunday, January 13, 2013

The Power of the Gospel

A few years ago, I used to teach at a high school in Al Ain, United Arab Emirates. Al Ain is one of the seven emirates that make up the UAE. The country is located in the gulf region, and despite its receptiveness of people from different ethnic and religious backgrounds, Islamic extremism is still rampant, while varying in degrees from the most ultra-orthodox to the more moderate, yet practicing Muslims. In the midst of this setting, I would conduct my affairs, going to school, shopping at the grocery store, and even offering private English lessons to high school students. One of my clients was a Grade 10 student, who was originally from Palestine, and judging by the full hijab and traditional Islamic dress she would wear, she took her faith seriously. She needed help with her novel, Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities.

There is a love triangle in this novel between three characters, Charles Darnay, Lucy Manette and Sydney Carton who has a great physical resemblance to Charles Darnay. Carton is in love with Lucy, while Lucy loves Darnay and later marries him. The settings are England and France during the years of the French Revolution. I read the novel for my student in the course of a month. At the end of the novel, Darnay, being an aristocrat, is imprisoned in France. Without fully disclosing his plans to anyone, Carton’s love for Lucy makes him decide to take Darnay’s place in prison. Carton visits Darnay and exhorts him to exchange his clothing with those Carton is wearing. Quietly and without much explanation, Carton slips into the convicted man’s clothing and takes his place in the guillotine, while Darnay, in full dismay, puts on Carton’s clothes, leaves the prison, and returns to his wife a free man.  As I was reading this part, I could see my student from the corner of my eyes rushing to wipe off her silent tears, which came streaming down her cheeks.

In the background of Dickens’ narrative, there is a clear allusion to the universal theme of Redemption, where a person lays down his life to save the lives of those whom he loves. There is something special about Redemption, something that speaks to the core of our being regardless of our cultural, religious or ethnic backgrounds, and regardless of all the confusion, chaos and perplexity the postmodern society has wrought upon us, we can still recognize a good story of redemption when we hear one. This was definitely the story of Vicky Soto, a first-grade teacher who hid her students in the closet and told the killer that they’re in the gym, which prompted him to pull the trigger on her. Her heroic action has sparked endless tributes that flooded the social media, demonstrating a great sense of devotion, gratitude, and appreciation. Suddenly, online public forums became empty of all polemics and bitter fighting over dogmatic views and were filled with a unifying gesture of love and admiration for the heroine.  

The reaction to the horrifying incident at Sandy Hook Elementary School is almost identical to my student’s reaction to the selfless sacrifice of Sydney Carton. Both incidents stir an emotional response that lauds the person sacrificing himself (or herself) for others. Ms. Soto’s sacrifice, like that of Sydney Carton, embodies an idealized sentiment of profound love that is often missing in our modern, selfish society.  However, the biggest commonality between these two narratives is they both echo the greatest sacrifice of them all, that of Our Lord Jesus Christ on the cross. In essence, it is Christ’s sacrifice that sets a model, an example or a pattern; every time this model is mirrored, every time this pattern is repeated, it is capable of rousing the hardest of hearts and the gravest of sinners into a noble, dignified and righteous spirit. These examples of Christ’s sacrifice are reminders of a longing that is imprinted on every heart, calling back every sinner to Christ’s love and inviting them to consider their eternal salvation. Unfortunately, often times these reminders go amiss, and the voice of God amidst the narrative is ignored or unrecognized.