THE TIME FOR SINGING
(THE SONG OF SONGS)
“The voice of my beloved! Look, he is coming, leaping upon the mountains, bounding over the hills . . . . My beloved says to me, ‘Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.’”
The Song of Solomon, or Song of Songs, as it is also known, is seldom read at weddings, though it should be, and seldom preached upon, which is unfortunate.
Over the centuries, some have found it too passionate and uncomfortably suggestive, because it ties sexuality and spirituality together. Professor the Reverend Wil Gafney(Associate Professor of Hebrew and Old Testament at The Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia) says: “This text is a lovely reminder that our physical bodies are beautiful and beloved, and that loving relationships occur within and not in spite of human bodies.”
The two lovers speak to each other as lovers do – enraptured by each other’s physical and spiritual attributes. Their intimacy is linked with the fertility of spring and the blooming of flowers and singing.
He marvels about her eyes, her cheeks, her hair, her thighs, her feet, her breasts. She is overcome by the sound of his voice, his strength, his lips, his arms and legs. The lovers are portrayed as unself-conscious, unapologetic, unashamed – they are unreservedly in love and that is the full content of their message. Interestingly, the woman’s voice is predominant in the text (more than 20 centuries before women’s liberation).
Many of us, raised as many of us were in a very modest, repressed and perhaps shame-based fashion, recoil from such language, and it may surprise, confuse or anger us that such language is even in the Bible at all.
It may seem amazing to us that the relationship between ourselves and God might be likened to the passionate intimacy between two young lovers, and yet this Song, through the centuries, became a powerful metaphor or analogy of the deeper nature of our relationship with God. Yet some of the greatest saints and mystics, like St Bernard of Clairvaux, St Teresa of Avila and St John of the Cross, saw the Song as a means of illuminating the spiritual life. Apparently, St Bernard wrote 86 sermons on this piece of scripture alone!
In 1680, the English mystic Thomas Watson wrote, “In the Song of Songs we see the love of Christ and his church running towards each other in a full torrent . . . The Lord’s Supper is nothing other than a pledge of that eternal communion which the saints shall have with Christ in heaven. Then he will take the spouse into his bosom. If Christ is so sweet in an [order of service], when we have only … glimpses of him by faith, imagine how delightful and ravishing will his presence be in heaven when we see him face to face and are forever in his loving embraces! …. How fervent is Christ’s love towards you!”
Dr. Dennis Tucker (Associate Dean and Associate Professor of Christian Scriptures, Truett seminary, Baylor University), in an article called How Mystics Hear the Song, suggests that we have tended to misunderstand the deeper purpose of reading scripture
St Teresa urged people not to explain or analyze Scripture but to enjoy it as a pathway toward divine union. Her object, according to Tucker, is not to grasp the literal meaning of the text, but to be seized by the text itself: “I interpret the passage in my own way.” She apparently felt that women advanced toward union with God more quickly than men because, at that time, men had exclusive access to scholastic training, which tended toward rational analysis of Scripture, rather than the devotional, inspirational experience of Scripture (Tucker references Carol Slade, “Saint Teresa’s Meditaciones Sobre Los Canteres: The Hermeneutic of Humility and Enjoyment,” Religion and Literature 18:1 (Spring 1986), 32). Scripture is meant to lead us toward divine union rather than merely satisfying intellectual curiosity and our desire for rational analysis.
As Tucker suggests, “the mystics … challenge us to release our grip on a [rationalist] Enlightenment mentality and to lean into the “divine breast,” that we might be nourished, “completely drenched in the countless grandeurs of God.” And he asks: “Can our languishing love be transformed into radical eros—a deep yearning that knows only the language of intimate communion, the song of the Bridegroom and his Bride?”
In the centuries immediately following the life of Jesus, the Church very quickly abandoned many of its Jewish roots, and along with them the richly embodied sense of human relating and the goodness of sensual experience; and embraced instead the Hellenistic or Platonic mentality, which directed people away from the body and anything physical. As we see in the reading from Romans this morning (Paul says, “I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh”), Christians ended up in a kind of experiential war between the soul and body that went on for centuries. Soul and body were understood as two entirely separate realms, with soul considered vastly superior, as though the body had no real value or purpose, and the soul was seen as trapped in the body and yearning to escape. It’s interesting that during this time the Jesus of history — the embodied, incarnate person, became somewhat lost as the Christ of faith, the heavenly Christ, emerged as the primary focus.
As a result, the Church’s approach to sexuality has been governed by the ideal of a single, celibate, preferably solitary monk or nun – virtually an impossible ideal, though many strove to achieve it. As theologian Darmuid O’Murchu says: “Ours is a culture rife with addiction because we are deprived of mysticism. In the Catholic Church … we have had what I call ‘celibate rationality.’ This legacy from several centuries in our theology maintains that God has nothing to do with sexuality … It counsels us to transcend eroticism and passions, not integrate them responsibly into our living.”
Fortunately, the mystics of a later era re-discovered the Song of Songs. In his article, Tucker says “In the Middle Ages, more “commentaries” were written on the Song of Songs than any other book in the Old Testament. Some thirty works were completed on the Song in the twelfth century alone.”
In the 16th Century, St John of the Cross wrote The Spiritual Canticle, infusing it with the imagery of the Song of Songs, as a way of expressing our longing for union with God and the “ecstasy of God’s embrace” (Tucker). John’s erotic language describing his soul being ravished by Christ reveals the sometimes conflicted and confused attitude toward love and sexuality – toward being human — that was adopted in the Roman Catholic tradition.
As good as it was that various saints and mystics saw the deeper meaning in this Song, and discerned that this passage could be seen as much more than a simple love story between two people, I think it’s important not to over-spiritualize the passage and dismiss its significance as a passionate love song between two young lovers. One of the things that comes across in the Song of Songs is the simple delight in being human – in being young and in love – in physical prowess and beauty. There is a strong implication that these are God-given and good.
As I used to say to people at marriage preparation classes, God invented human intimacy – God isn’t going to be shocked by anything you might be doing — and God’s idea of paradise, as expressed in the first chapters of Genesis, is a man and a woman, completely naked, perfectly equal, in a garden, surrounded by astounding beauty and great food. That vision seems to be given further expression in the Song of Songs.
It seems ironic for me to be quoting scholars and taking a rather rational or dispassionate approach to the subject of passion! However, anyone who has been in love already knows what I’m talking about.
Have you ever had what you would call a great love? I believe there is a great love – some great passion – in all of us. Some discover it in loving their spouse or children or grandchildren – some find it in dedication to a cause or a profession like teaching – some find it in a love for nature or some aspect of it – some, like monks and other religious, find it in a total dedication to God. Indeed, all of these and more may become vehicles for experiencing the love of the One who created us and who loves us with an eternal and measureless passion. As St Augustine said, “God loves each of us as if there were only one of us.” What a tremendous and inspiring insight, expressing the intensity and yet the absolute equality of the way God’s love works.
Our passion can be a sign and source of God’s activity within. People have complained that “God” per se is not the focus of the Song of Songs, which, it seems to me, is a rather pathetic and limited way of looking at God. You don’t have to say “God” for something to be about God! As far as I am concerned, the genius of this book is that it implies that God is found in and through human love and relationships, not merely through external, traditionally “religious” activities.
The two lovers reveal to us that love, in all its expressions, but especially in the context of human sexuality, is a way of encountering the divine — that devotion to another in this way is not idolatry but a means of expressing gratitude and reverence toward the One who created it. Far from the misguided idea that God has nothing to do with sexuality, this passage right in the middle of the Bible joyfully proclaims otherwise.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus critiqued those who, no matter what God sent their way, refused to respond – they didn’t like John (the Baptist) because he was too austere, and they rejected Jesus because he was too earthy and enthusiastic – too full of life. They wanted someone they could take seriously, someone who fit the conventional expectations, not this goof who danced with children and celebrated life with all the wrong people.
To quote St Benedict, whose festival day is celebrated this week (July 11), “It is time for us now to arise from our sleep.” That sounds very much like “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away; for now the winter is past, the rain is over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth; the time of singing has come . . .” and may be taken as the summons to the new life that the risen Christ makes to all of us – calling to us as children do to embrace the joy and delight of being alive and to join in the dance — calling to us as Jesus called to Lazarus, to come out of our tombs and shake off all that binds and deadens us so we may emerge into the fullness of God’s presence and embrace life and love in abundance.
The Venerable Grant Rodgers+
Readings for Pentecost 5:
Song of Solomon 2:8-13 The voice of my beloved! Look, he comes, leaping upon the mountains, bounding over the hills. My beloved is like a gazelle or a young stag. Look, there he stands behind our wall, gazing in at the windows, looking through the lattice. My beloved speaks and says to me: “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away; for now the winter is past, the rain is over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth; the time of singing has come, and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land. The fig tree puts forth its figs, and the vines are in blossom; they give forth fragrance. Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.
Romans 7:15-25a I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!
Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30 “But to what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another, ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.’ For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon’; the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.”
At that time Jesus said, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him. “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”