August 30, 2021

The Springtime of Love: Exploring Song of Songs

A Sermon Preached by Canon Simon Butler Sunday 29th August 2021, The Thirteenth Sunday after Trinity Song of Songs 2:8-13 During this service a child, Harry, was baptised Over the…

Song of Songs 2:8-13

A Sermon Preached by Canon Simon Butler

Sunday 29th August 2021, The Thirteenth Sunday after Trinity

Song of Songs 2:8-13

During this service a child, Harry, was baptised

Over the course of the past three months we have been taking a tour through the Old Testament history books, especially the two Books of Samuel and the two Books of the Kings, known in Judaism as The Former Prophets. For the next few weeks to the end of September we turn to the books of the Hebrew Bible know to Jews as The Writings. Alongside the Torah – the Law Books in the early part of the Old Testament – and the Prophets, there are a wide selection of books known in Judaism as the Ketuvim – religious poetry and wisdom literature, made up of Psalms, Proverbs and Job, the Books of Daniel, Ezra, Nehemiah and Chronicles – and the Five Scrolls – Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, Esther and, one final book, making its one and only appearance in our three-year cycle of readings – the Song of Songs.

Most of us like a love story and there are a few of these in the Bible: Ruth and Boaz being the most striking. But, standing apart from these narrative love stories is the poetic love story of the Song of Songs, which at a surface reading seems to be a poem celebrating – in the erotic and sexual terms – the relationship between a lover and a beloved. Indeed, such was the sheer bravado of the writer of this book, that for most of the history of its place in the Hebrew Bible, readers and scholars have tried to find ways of making it about anything but sexual love. A whole tradition of interpretation has emerged, among both Jews and Christians, to make this collection of love poems into an allegory which, in simple terms, means that the language of the book is about something else: love between God and Israel (the people not the State), the love between Christ and the Church, or between Jesus and the believing soul.

Having such a sensual piece of literature in our Bibles, with its unashamed celebration of desire, should prove a corrective to the widespread assumption – hardly corrected by the behaviour of believers over the centuries – that faith is somehow suspicious of the sexual impulse. I need not detain you this morning with an account of the way in which sexual shame has become intertwined with Christian faith, in a way that stands in opposition to the glory with which the Song of Songs rejoices in sexual attraction between lover and beloved. There is no doubt that this short book offers a truly biblical corrective to this tradition of sexual suppression which has become too deeply embedded in our culture. But, where this desire to overwrite human desire with what we might call a deeper ‘spiritual’ meaning of this book seems to me to be important, is because there is a deep connection between our sexual and our spiritual longings. Desire for intimacy with someone beyond ourselves is a shared between our sex lives and our prayer lives.

But time is short, so let’s just park that enormous question and focus on the few verses from the Song of Songs (2:8-13) in our reading today and see where they take us.

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.
10 My beloved speaks and says to me:
‘Arise, my love, my fair one,
and come away;
11 for now the winter is past,
the rain is over and gone.
12 The flowers appear on the earth;
the time of singing has come,
and the voice of the turtle-dove
is heard in our land.
13 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.

They could be the words of any of our great love poets, couldn’t they? They are also the sort of things young lovers write about in any age, albeit in different languages appropriate to the age. The speaker here is the bridegroom awaiting her betrothed, who comes to her and carries her off into some sort of beautiful created landscape, almost as if the love between the two creates a sort of springtime, a Garden of Eden in which their love can be truly celebrated. If you’ve ever fallen for someone like that, you’ll know what I’m talking about. Theres a fecundity about this sort of love, which generates life and goodness all around it. May I be as bold as to say that one example of that generative love here this morning is young Harry? One of the reasons his family are here today us to celebrate and give thanks for this gift that comes from the love of his parents.

Scripture celebrates the intertwining of sex and love in this passage and in many other places. Without wishing to impose any of the guilt that so often accompanies the sexual urge, may I suggest to us that sexuality here is not a free-for-all, but something that flows from the desire of love? The objectification of other people that can easily emerge, especially in a culture like ours where sexual encounter tends to emerge first from attraction rather than love, is always a risk to the sort of celebratory world of the Song of Songs.

If the love of the lovers in this passage has the quality of the Garden of Eden, we perhaps do well to remember that Eden is the place where God and humanity first encounter one another, another reminder of the way in which sexuality and spirituality are intertwined. But, to move us beyond the simple celebration of desire, Christians have always seen the place where God and humanity meet as some sort of Eden, some sort of ‘heaven’. This might make us wonder whether when we know the Lord comes to us to meet us, like the beloved seeking out his lover, we have approached the gate of heaven.

Maybe, friends, when we celebrate the Eucharist together, where the Lord comes to us, or when, as we proclaim at every baptism the Lord comes into the life of the one being baptised, this morning, in Harry’s case, we dare to believe we are on the threshold of Eden.

Let me push the analogy one further step from our passage this morning. In the reading, although it is the bride who speaks of her beloved coming to her, it is the beloved who does the searching, whose action initiates the union of bridegroom and bride. Christian theology always prioritises the initiative of God in coming to us, the action of God’s grace which comes before our response, the sending of Jesus to love us back to God, the sacramental assurance that the Lord comes to us whenever we share in Baptism or Holy Communion. Might it also be that, as we all too easily assume that knowing God is some sort of effort that we need to make, some sort of spiritual quest that requires us to take the initiative, this passage with all its focus on the longing of the bride and the activity of the bridegroom, might remind us that longing for God and waiting for God and looking expectantly for God is the central call of the beloved disciple. “Behold, I stand at the door and knock!” says the risen Jesus in Revelation 3. Or, simply return to that experience (if you have had it) of falling in love, what the French call the coup de foudre. What exactly do we do to make that happen? Very little, but be ourselves, available and open to the possibility of love. If you’ve wondered why some people get very excited about God and faith, or if you sense a quickening in your heart for God, think of it as falling in love with the Lord.

And perhaps that is the best place to leave it this morning, to leave open to Harry and to each one of us the possibility that the Christian life is less one of duty and obligation, but more like falling in love, more an affair of the heart. More perhaps like this…

Batter my heart, three-personed God, for you

As yet but knock, breathe, shine and seek to mend;

That I may rise, and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend

Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.

I, like an usurped town, to another due,

Labour to admit you, but Oh, to no end.

Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,

But is captive, and proves weak or untrue.

Yet dearly I love you, and would be loved fain,

But I am betrothed unto your enemy:

Divorce me, untie or break that knot again,

Take me to you, imprison me, for I,

Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,

Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.

John Donne, Holy Sonnets XIV

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