Editor’s note: This is part three of a series. Part one can be found here and part two here.
In the previous article, we reflected on human marriage, which “has profounder origins than the sexual instinct, and is connected above all with the spiritual nature of the human person.” Marriage on earth is but a reflection of the relationship where we find true fulfillment: eternal union with God. Holy Scripture gives us a deeper understanding of that relationship.
The God of the Old Testament and the God of the New Testament seem to present different faces to us. To seize on the metaphor, God in the Old Testament does not present His face at all, not even to Moses. But in the Incarnation, God has a face in truth, a genuine face that looks on us with human eyes and speaks with human lips — O wonder!
One explanation of the difference between the Old and New was advanced in the mid-Second Century by Marcion, who gave his name to the heresy that denies the presence of God in the Old Testament. This false doctrine seems perhaps a little quaint to us now. But note that the 1910 edition of the Catholic Encyclopedia refers to Marcionism as “perhaps the most dangerous foe Christianity has ever known.” (Arendzen, John. “Marcionites.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol 9 (New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1910) accessed 17 Dec. 2022. )
I wonder if we don’t inherit a little taint of suspicion from those Marcionite forebears, which makes us too sensitive to a certain lack of tenderness in some of the Old Testament encounters between God and His people. But this is just a matter of emphasis. In fact, the Old Testament is dripping with God’s tenderness, albeit sometimes expressed in broken-hearted laments over His people’s unfaithfulness.
What distinguishes the Old and New more than anything else is the distinction between promise and fulfillment. God promised so much, so often, to His people. Augustine wrote, “We receive the Old Testament, therefore, not in order to obtain the fulfillment of these promises, but to see in them predictions of the New Testament; for the Old bears witness to the New. … [T]he holy and spiritual men of these times … understood … how God appointed all these sayings and actions as types and predictions of the future. Their great desire was for the New Testament.” Contra Faustum, IV.2. If the New Testament reveals the wedding feast of the Lamb, the Old Testament shows perhaps the courtship. This, then, is why we find such deep wells of poignant longing in the Old Testament. The Old Testament recounts a passionate courtship, with the Lord Himself as the suitor. Biblical religion, it is sometimes said, is not ultimately about how we seek God but about how He seeks us.
Biblical religion… is not ultimately about how we seek God but about how He seeks us.
An unpleasantly graphic but deeply moving account of His tender love is reflected in chapter 16 of Ezekiel. The prophet tells how God found Israel, illegitimate offspring of pagan people, like an infant abandoned in a field, not even cleaned from the bloody residue of birth. He gently washes her and allows her to grow to beautiful womanhood. “When I passed by you again and looked upon you, behold, you were at the age for love; and I spread my cloak over you, and covered your nakedness: yes, I pledged myself to you and entered into a covenant with you, says the Lord God, and you became mine.” Ez 16:8. And like a loving spouse, He adorns her with embroidered cloth, with fine linen and silks and leather shoes, with jewels and bracelets and even a crown, till she is lovely as a young queen.
It’s illuminating to pause the parable there; what follows is a mournful account of His bride’s unfaithfulness, but what we must not overlook is the love and compassion on display. This abandoned whelp, in a condition that is almost repellant, is transformed into a true paragon of beauty. The lesson is this: no matter what pitiful mess I am, no matter whose fault that is, God does exactly the same to me. No matter how much I am marred by circumstances or sin, even if I am, in plain fact, disgusting, here is Our Lord, coming with water and oil to cleanse me, and with robes and finery to dress me.
The Old Testament is brimming with profound expressions of love like this. Usually, they are accompanied by expressions of joy and delight. Through Isaiah, God speaks to His people: “As a bridegroom rejoices in his bride so shall your God rejoice in you.” Is. 62:5. Here the prophet speaks of a future marriage, which we now know through Jesus Christ. We are living in the age of fulfillment, for which so many generations waited. Even in their waiting, though, the psalmist expressed the simple and deeply consoling fact of the Lord’s love: “the Lord takes delight in His people.” Ps. 149:4. His love is not newly found; it extends far back into time, equally passionate, unwavering in tenderness, always near.
His love is not newly found; it extends far back into time, equally passionate, unwavering in tenderness, always near.
Perhaps the Bible’s most vivid and lyrical expressions of God’s love are found in the Song of Songs. Again, as in Ezekiel, we find an intimacy that almost must embarrass the reader unfamiliar with the text. It opens with the words of the Bride, “Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth,” Song 1:2, and we know the urgent longing of this soul in love. It is the longing of every soul, even if it lies under an accretion of betrayal and neglect. If we could throw off the detritus of despair, if we could remove the scar tissue left by sin, we could find ourselves bold enough to say this. “[T]he Bride, in her exile, does not want anymore to be told about her Bridegroom, no matter how beautifully. Now she wants to talk directly to him, without any intermediary, and to be with him at last.” Arminjon, Blase, SJ. The Cantata of Love (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1988, Kindle ed.), “Overture to the Four Seasons of Love,” Reading. Father Arminjon observes, in the Introduction to his marvelous book, that mystics from the Church Fathers to Therese of Lisieux have reverenced the Song of Songs. It is no wonder.
When Jesus came to earth, He came to realize, to make real, the marriage so long spoken of. As long-married people know, this is not only a matter of ecstasies. It involves a quiet and growing fulfillment that is far deeper. The Bride and Bridegroom don’t spend the rest of their lives dancing at the wedding. They start making a home. This is where Jesus wants to go, with each of us. We are to make a place for him, for he longs to be with us in intimate friendship: “Whoever loves me will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our dwelling with him.” Jn 14:23. What a striking image! There is no suggestion of ascension to ethereal heights, no penetration of inner sanctums fit only for the enlightened and powerful. Jesus is speaking of a loving domesticity. Jesus tells us, like he told Zacchaeus, to come down quickly from all such awkward perches, “for today I must stay at your house.” Lk 19:5.
The Christian path is ever leading us to the place where we truly belong. The stringent conditions required for holiness do not stand between us and admission to that loving home. They certainly make us better company, but that will come. To enter in, that is the key. The Lord takes delight in His people; how could anyone turn away?
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