By now, we all know the Hallmark Christmas movie trope: Big city real estate mogul comes home for Christmas to small town Nowhere USA. Quaint main streets, (fake) snow-covered roofs, Christmas tree farms, hot cocoa, and someone’s old boyfriend or girlfriend they haven’t seen in years. The perfect setting for romance! — or so we’ve been led to expect before we even finish watching the first scene. Love or hate the films, there is something about going home for Christmas that serves up the nostalgia, finds its way into so many Christmas songs, and makes us long for simpler times.
But it’s this element of finding love particularly in small towns that’s got me thinking this year. I suppose, if you’d prefer, instead of Hallmark it could be Austenian images of Mr. Darcy traversing the countryside to court Elizabeth. My wife’s a big fan and we’ve watched our share of Austen films together. (Our daughter Jane’s name was inspired by one of the sisters in Pride and Prejudice.) But it’s hard to miss the pronounced theme in Austen’s novels of finding and experiencing love in the outskirts.
Well, you might be surprised to know that the Bible has a compatible view of love, and where to find it. But its story is anything but predictable. It goes against every bit of human intuition and appears (at least at first) in the unlikeliest of places.
Nestled deep away in the middle of the Old Testament, in Song of Songs chapter 3, we meet a young woman who is in despair because she can’t find her fiancé. At wits’ end, she says, “I will rise and go about the city, in the streets and in the squares; I sought him [there] but found him not.” But then after she passes outside the city gate, past the watchmen on the wall, she finds him — in particular Darcy-fashion — coming up out of the wilderness toward her, his heart brimming with joy. A happy ending, to be sure, but a notable contrast between her distress and her relief, divided by a simple city wall.
Now, for us, as modern readers, often conditioned to reading the Bible more scientifically than artistically, this can all seem so arbitrary. Why does it matter where he was found, but that he was found? Well, fortunately for us, God isn’t like us. He’s a much more creative storyteller and always has his eyes on the smaller details, catching us off guard with things that confound human reasoning.
The truth is, it matters greatly where the woman found her husband-to-be because when it comes to the Bible’s hometurf, different locations symbolize different theological realities. The Apostle Paul isn’t shy about this in Galatians 4 when he likens the physical city of Jerusalem (and the temple therein) with Mt. Sinai, and with the old, lawful covenant of “Do these things and then you will live” (Lev 18:5). The woman is a poetic picture of something beyond herself, as is the rural landscape she finds love in. She’s a picture of the bride of Christ finding Jesus outside of or apart from the trappings of the Law.
This is also why Jesus was born in small-town Bethlehem, grew up in the Podunk town of Nazareth, ministered to the tiny villages of Galilee, and even more, why he died for us “outside the city gate,” as the author of Hebrews so helpfully reminds us.
The apostles are adamant about this. The prophets insisted on it — both where he would be born and where he would die — for the sake of a pure, undiluted gospel. Because, law and love don’t mix. The law demands something from us; it remembers past offenses. But love gives, and keeps no record of wrongs.
The New Testament is more “Quaint Christmas village” than we tend to think. It’s a village far outside the city limits of our work, hectic lives, responsibilities, moral accolades, and the high expectations that so many people place upon us and that we place upon ourselves. The gospel tells us — and the stories show us — that the law is behind us, not in front of us. So, with a sigh of relief, we can rest in the countryside of God’s grace, knowing that he was restless to come and love us to the uttermost — to find us, in fact — by coming all the way down to our hometown and dying on a cross in our place.