- I come to the garden alone,
While the dew is still on the roses,
And the voice I hear falling on my ear
The Son of God discloses.
And He walks with me, and He talks with me,
And He tells me I am His own;
And the joy we share as we tarry there,
None other has ever known.
- He speaks, and the sound of His voice
Is so sweet the birds hush their singing,
And the melody that He gave to me
Within my heart is ringing.
- I’d stay in the garden with Him,
Though the night around me be falling,
But He bids me go; through the voice of woe
His voice to me is calling.
This hymn was one of my Daddy's favorites, but I must admit that, as a child, I never really knew what it meant. I finally figured out my own context, which we will get to later, but it is a far cry from the meaning the author intended.
Charles Austin Miles was a pharmacist, and evidently a staunch Methodist. One morning he was reading John 20, where Mary Magdalene comes upon the risen Lord. In his own telling of how he came to write the song, he suddenly pictured himself as standing there with them watching their interaction as if he, too, were part of the action in a vision "sent from God." Afterward he wrote the hymn, "by inspiration of the Holy Spirit," he believed. I have my doubts about that and the vision, but he certainly wrote a beautiful song.
When someone initially tried to have it included in the official Methodist hymnal the first time, it became apparent that people either loved it or hated it. The haters made accusations that included "too erotic," which stunned me until I realized the problem.
As a musician we are taught the various historical eras of music—Ancient, Medieval, Renaissance, Baroque, Classical, Romantic, and then the Twentieth Century which has so many styles it is difficult to classify it, and the 21st? It may take a few more years for it all to settle out. Those same eras and characteristics were true of literature and art.
The Romantic Era began in the first few decades of the 19th century. Beethoven was considered a transition composer between the Classical and the Romantic, if that helps. A lot of people, who were used to the balanced, well-ordered, and impersonal Classical Era were a little shocked at the new music and poetry that was being written. The poetry was extremely personal and it was full of lush description. Look through the lyrics above. "While the dew is still on the roses." His voice is "so sweet the birds hush their singing." That is Romantic poetry in a nutshell. (Remember, we are talking Romantic as in a historic style, not as in romance novels.)
So the song is about Mary and Jesus meeting together just after his resurrection. "The joy we share as we tarry there none other has ever known," is a direct reference to the fact that Mary was the first to see him. At that point in time, no other person had felt what she was feeling then. If you have sung the newer hymn "Rabboni", this is the first version.
One line might be a little inaccurate. It seems fairly obvious that Mary and Jesus did not stay in that garden all day long, though the third verse mentions that "the night around them is falling." But the point Mr. Miles makes is a valid one. For Mary to stay there would have been contrary to the Lord's purpose in appearing to her. She was to go tell the apostles. She was the first witness. And as a woman in that day and culture, the fact that the gospel writers chose to use a woman as a witness adds to the evidence of truth. Women were considered unreliable witnesses. If the whole story were made up, surely they would have chosen a witness other than a woman.
So what had I been thinking before this as I sang this song? I saw the garden as a metaphor for prayer. When I pray, I am alone with the Lord in a beautiful place, but as much as I would like to stay, I have to leave him sooner or later. Not that I can't speak to him whenever I want to during the day, as I often do, but that formal alone time has to end.
I really don't see a problem with thinking of the song that way. The Lord doesn't want us down on our knees cloistered away from the world all day long. He wants us out in it, seeking the lost, serving others, and spreading his influence. We have to go back to "the world of woe" eventually, but while we are there, isn't the experience just as wonderful as Mary's, spending time with our risen Lord, knowing his death has saved us and his resurrection has allowed us to someday spend that time with him forever?
But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb, and as she wept she stooped to look into the tomb. And she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had lain, one at the head and one at the feet. They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” Having said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned and said to him in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means Teacher). (John 20:11-16).