(This article was written for First Things.)
St. Bernard of Clairvaux famously explained that there are three comings of the Lord. He comes on Christmas Eve, in the conversion of our hearts, and on Judgment Day. The three comings are analogous—both like and unlike one another. The first and the last are visible. In his coming as an infant and in his coming as judge, Christ is physically present and seen by human eyes. The second coming is different. It is, observes Bernard, a hidden coming. We experience this coming even though our eyes can’t see him.
This makes it difficult to talk about Jesus’s second advent. How do we talk about what is empirically out of reach? This is the modern dilemma impressed on us by Hobbes, Hume, and Kant. If everything we know comes from sense perception, how do we treat hidden things—spiritual realities that escape empirical observation?
The best answer to this question is that we long for them. We pray for their coming. Or, since I hate talking about spiritual things in abstractions, let me say: We long for him. We pray for his coming. It is Christ’s hidden coming in his second advent that offers a way out of the modern dilemma. The season of Advent teaches us to reckon with the hidden coming of Christ.
I had to think of this epistemological conundrum when I was reading some patristic commentaries on the Song of Songs. You remember the erotic back-and-forth between the bride and groom. At one point, the bride admits to her bystanders (the “daughters of Jerusalem”) that her lover has conquered her heart: “I am wounded with love,” she exclaims—vulnerata caritate ego sum (Song 2:5).
We hardly need to ask what has wounded her heart. The context makes perfectly clear that it is the groom. This is plain to the senses, and the Church Fathers don’t attempt to deny it. But their focus is not on the plain sense of the text. It is instead on something that isn’t in the text at all: an arrow they claim has caused the wound. One patristic preacher after the other expounds on the theme of archery in connection with verse 5—Cyril of Alexandria, Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, Ambrose, Augustine, Theodoret of Cyrus, Gregory the Great, and I am sure with a bit of searching I’d find more.
This is nothing short of remarkable. It is one thing to allegorize the text by capitalizing Bride and Groom. It is another to insert things into the text and then interpret it accordingly. Yet this is the standard approach of the early Church. In the East, Gregory of Nyssa waxes eloquent about archery as he comments on the Song. The Bride, he claims, “praises the accurate archer because he has directed his arrow straight at her, for she says, I have been wounded by love. By these words she signifies the arrow that lies deep in her heart.” The medieval Pope Saint Gregory the Great is no different. In his Morals on the Book of Job, he asks “What do we understand by ‘arrows’ but the words of preachers? … They transfix the hearts of the hearers. With these arrows Holy Church had been struck, who was saying, I am wounded with love.”
So, where is this arrow if we cannot empirically find it in the text? What gives Gregory, Augustine, and other ancient luminaries the confidence to assert that an arrow has wounded the Bride’s heart?
The answer is really quite simple. Once we start capitalizing Bride and Groom, we’re always on the lookout for the Groom. Since there is no mistaking who has ravished our heart, the only question is how he has done it.
It is for the how-question that we turn to archery. St. Augustine is convinced that Psalm 45, Scripture’s next-most-famous epithalamium after the Song of Songs, speaks of the Groom’s arrows with the words, “Thine arrows are sharp, are most powerful” (Ps. 45:5). St. Paul, explains Augustine, is the most obvious example of one who has been wounded by Christ: “By an arrow launched from heaven, Saul (not as yet Paul, but still Saul), still lifted up, still not yet prostrate, is wounded in ‘the heart:’ he received the arrow, he fell ‘in heart.’”
The Fathers see evidence in Isaiah 49:2: “The Lord … made me like a chosen arrow, and in his quiver he sheltered me.” Theodoret directly identifies Christ as God’s arrow when he comments on the meaning of the Bride’s profession of love, “I have been wounded by love” (Song 2:5). He too appeals to Isaiah 49: “For [Christ] is after all the chosen arrow (Isa. 49:2) that wounds the souls it strikes.”
The patristic logic is impeccable: If Christ is the Groom who wounds our heart, then with impatient desire we search the Scriptures for how he does this. That’s exactly what the Fathers do by turning to biblical texts such as Psalm 45:5 and Isaiah 49:2. The broader canonical witness tells us how it is that the Groom wounds his Bride’s heart. Archery is his means—preachers’ words give the Logos entry in the human heart.
Patristic scholars talk about “intertextuality” or “verbal association” to explain what’s happening here. I won’t object. But really, we should call this kind of exegesis advent reading. It is a form of interpretation that longs for Christ to come and that looks beyond the empirical. Only an interpretation animated by desire can spot the arrow.
Scripture demands an Advent posture. The most important things are not the ones we see. The unseen word arrow is arguably the key to grasping what the Bride means when she exclaims, “I am wounded with love.” That, at least, is the consensus patrum. Why are they in agreement on this? Because they read not just for empirical evidence, but in hope and prayer that Christ would come. Advent reading is a hermeneutic strategy that makes arrows fly—a strategy that causes Christmas celebration in our hearts.
Image: Adoration of the Magi, Filipino lippi (Public Domain)