In the garden of delight
September 1, 2012
A quiz question for you. Where do these lines of poetry come from, do you suppose? “Eat, friends, drink, and be drunk with love.” “Refresh me with apples, for I am faint with love.” Romeo and Juliet? Keats, Byron, some other romantic poet? No, they come from the Bible, from the Song of Songs, from which our first reading was taken. The Song of Songs is a little known book tucked away at the end of the Wisdom section of the Old Testament. It’s unusual in a number of ways. It’s a collection of love poetry, thought to have perhaps originated as poems read at wedding celebrations. Unusually for the Bible, God is not named or referred to directly in the whole of the book.
And again, unusually, the book is written as a dialogue between two lovers: we hear the woman’s voice and then the man’s in alternating sequence. That’s not found anywhere else in the Bible. And perhaps most striking of all is the language and tone of the poem. It’s sensuous and erotic, it celebrates human intimacy in a warm and earthy way.
So far, so intriguing. But there’s more. If you read the text closely – and I do suggest you go home and read it, it’s only take you half an hour at the most – it’s clear that the relationship between the man and the woman aren’t married to one another. They are making arrangements to meet up in the fields, and waiting outside one another’s houses, and so on. Again, again nowhere in the text is the procreation of children mentioned as the end goal of this relationship. Now given that traditional Christian teaching has set sex within the context of marriage and family, this can all start to seem very counter-intuitive, confusing, maybe threatening even.
But hold on. We haven’t come to a reading group this morning: we’re not here simply to be intrigued. We’re here to listen for God’s word speaking to us through the scriptures. We need to ask ourselves how God by his Holy Spirit is addressing us in the here and now through the words of this love poetry that is the Song of Songs.
Why? Well, you don’t need me to tell you what a tangle the Church gets into when it starts talking about sexuality. We feel on safe ground where marriage is concerned – though less so perhaps, since now gay marriage has been put on the table for discussion – but where any other aspect of sexual behaviour is concerned – sex before marriage, cohabitation, surrogacy, sperm donation to name but a few, not to mention the whole contested area of non-heterosexual experience – it can seem as though the church hasn’t got anything to say beyond “thou shalt not!” Perhaps, then we shouldn’t we surprised to discover that no-one much is listening.
I, for one believe that we need more wisdom in this whole area. God’s grace is sufficient for us, and by God’s grace we have a whole range of resources in the bible and the Christian tradition and in modern scholarship that can help us to understand better our own experiences and those of others, and that can guide us and our children and grandchildren towards a meaningful Christian ethical framework for the complex world of relationships in which we live.
And the Song of Songs is, I think one of those resources that can help us. But as always when we read the Bible, we can only get to how it speaks to us now if we have a good grasp of what it means on its own terms. At first sight, it looks like straightforward love poetry. But those who have studied the Hebrew verse closely have fund that it is strewn with references to the psalms, the prophets, the books of the law. The language of the Song is full of clues that link it to other parts of the Old Testament with its great theme of God’s love for his people Israel. So there’s two things going on here. The Song of Songs is both celebrating the joy of a faithful and loving sexual relationship, and also giving us an insight into God’s relationship with us.
“God is love and those who live in love live in God, and God lives in them.” God’s redeeming love for us all is the great message of the Bible. The Bible is full of stories of love, of which the central one of course is of Jesus Christ, love incarnate, love suffering upon a cross, love that is victorious over death at the resurrection. It may seem strange to you that the Song of Songs makes a connection between human sexual love and God’s love for his people. But actually this is a connection we find in various parts of the scriptures. It comes up in a negative sense in the book of Hosea, where the prophet’s adulterous wife becomes a lived parable for the faithlessness of Israel towards their God. It comes up in a positive sense in the Book of Revelation with the powerful image of Christ as the bridegroom and the church as his bride. The message for us, the Good News is that through Christ’s redeeming work of love we are taken into the intimacy of the life of God in a way which mirrors and yet transcends human sexual intimacy.
Are you struggling with this? Are you finding this hard going at 10 o clock on Sunday morning? I think as Christians this is an area we struggle with, because we may have been told perhaps explicitly, but more probably implicitly, that our sexual nature is something to feel bad and ashamed about. Now let me be very clear. This is not, repeat not, a biblical understanding of human nature. The witness of the bible in Genesis is that man and woman are created in the image of God. As the psalmist says, behold, I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Our sexuality is inherent in who we are, part and parcel of that fearful and wonderful gift of bodily life that is God’s gracious creation in which we participate.
For me, this explains why the church finds it so very hard to have a calm and honest and prayerful conversation about sexuality. So many Christians start from a place of anxiety, of shame and guilt, rather from a confident sense of God’s goodness and grace in this aspect of our lives. When we harbour unacknowledged negative feelings towards ourselves it’s easy then to project them outwards in anger and bitterness towards others, and sadly there is ample evidence for this kind of behaviour within the Anglican Communion at the present time.
Yet the delight of the Song of Songs is that it takes us into a guilt-free zone, a kind of garden of Eden. This is a book that celebrates God’s goodness to us in creation and the joys of human loving as part of that creation. “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 turtle dove is heard in the land.” (2: 11 – 12) Here on the edge of the Peak District we’re surrounded by the beauty of nature. We don’t have to go far to enjoy wild flowers and birdsong, and for many of us, enjoying creation is a powerful way of tuning in to God’s presence with us. The Song of Songs wants to remind us that we’re not observers of creation, we’re part of it. Our bodily selves with all our aches and pains, our desires and longings, we are part of the goodness of God’s creation. St. Irenaeus says: “the glory of God is a human being fully alive.” And that human being can be you, and me, and all of us.
The poetry of the Songs of Songs speaks to us not only of human desire, but of our desire for God, and God’s desire for us. This is the God whose desire is to share himself with us, and that is what we celebrate in this service of Holy Communion: the God who in Jesus Christ makes himself completely vulnerable to us in love, shares with us his life, his very self, his body.
Lord Jesus Christ; Let me seek you by desiring you,
and let me desire you by seeking you;
let me find you by loving you,
and love you in finding you.
Frances Eccleston, September 2012