When I saw that the Song of Solomon was appointed as one of today’s lectionary texts, I jumped at the chance to preach on it. Not because I immediately knew what I was going to say, but because I have never really known quite what to do with this book. In my elementary school days, it was the source of not a few giggles. In junior high, it led me to wonder if I would ever find a beloved who would compare my neck to an ivory tower. In high school, I took a more lofty view and presumed that it must have represented God’s love for the church. And in seminary, I gave up altogether and vowed never to preach on it until I had it all figured out. But I have come to enjoy the challenge of preaching on difficult texts, and so I welcomed the opportunity to wrestle with this book. It’s not all figured out, and I am not going to take sides in the debate about what the text really represents. But I do think that this passage can help us rediscover something extremely important that has been missing from our Protestant religious culture.
The passage begins like some other grand appearances in the bible – with hearing before seeing. The woman cries out, “The voice of my beloved!” Then the man appears, larger than life – leaping over mountains and skipping on top of hills. He’s a figure of mythical proportions, the stuff of legends. As in any good fairy story, the beloved is compared to an animal – he is like a deer, first bounding and prancing, then standing still, wide-eyed and curious, gazing in through the window. He speaks: “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away. The cold season is over, the weather is magnificent. There are fragrant flowers and fruiting trees and joyful music everywhere. So arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.” The lover calls to his beloved, inviting her to leave her place so that they can be together.
Now we don’t have all the details, but we can assume that the man and woman are in a new relationship, since they aren’t already together. And what do we know about new relationships? They’re exciting and passionate. Perhaps they’re a little scary. Or really scary. They require some getting used to. Maybe it takes some time to build up trust. I sometimes think that forging a new relationship is like dancing a dance when you don’t yet know all the steps. The closeness is new and interesting, and you can imagine it turning out beautifully, but you don’t exactly know what’s going to happen next.
I worry, though, that the beginnings of relationships have wrongly acquired a bad reputation. People with new loves are notorious for public displays of affection, for using sickeningly sweet nicknames, for neglecting their friends and family, and for ignoring worldly reality. This is partly why we say that love is blind. I don’t know how many times I heard in my first years of marriage, “Oh, you’re still on your honeymoon!”… as though I wasn’t really married yet. But I wonder if, instead of disparaging excitement and romance and beauty and delight, we can take them seriously as virtues and even necessities. I wonder if cultivating genuine passion in life can help us grow in our relationship with God.
Over the past few years, I have struggled with how to think about my love for God. When I was growing up, I tended to think of God as a Father figure, a strong, caring, male deity who would reward me for doing good things and punish me for doing bad things. There were plenty of hymns in the hymnal that reinforced this image for me: “Father, I Adore You,” “Eternal Father Strong to Save,” “This is My Father’s World.”
In later years, I came to treasure the image of a mothering God, a wise and judicious woman who knew me better than I knew myself, who saw everything that I could be and encouraged me to give my all to a world in need. As I grew more interested in modern hymn texts, I became aware of many beautiful hymns that illuminated maternal aspects of God. But even then, my ideas about God remained similar to my ideas about parents. And my love of God remained the love of a child.
But the human heart has a much greater capacity for love. We do not love only as a child loves a parent. We also love deeply our friends, our confidants, those to whom we can bare our souls and tell the most appalling secrets. We love our children, our siblings, our animals, those who depend on us for survival. We love our home – our town, our country, our school – places toward which we feel strong loyalties. And we love our partners – wives, husbands, our significant others, those people with whom we form the most intimate relationships. Those people who bring passion and excitement into our lives. And it’s this kind of love that is explored in the Song of Solomon.
Over the past several thousands of years, most biblical scholars and clergy (including John Wesley) have done everything possible to explain away the sensual nature of this text. Anything in the slightest bit romantic (which is just about everything in this book) has been translated into proper “church language.” And so the man becomes God, although the word “God” never even appears in the Song of Solomon. And the woman becomes the church. And the love between this man and this woman becomes the love between God and God’s people. Even so, what becomes of the passion? What does it mean for us and God? What do we do with it?
What we have done is ignore it. With our modern cynicism we have become ashamed to enjoy the romance of life – it’s too Victorian. With our science and technology, we have become immune to the wonder and mystery of life – the unknown is just something that has yet to be discovered. And with our Puritan inheritance we have become afraid of the delights that come with loving deeply our God – it’s too emotional, too disturbing, too Catholic.
So we say that when we’re in love, we see through rose-colored glasses. We live in this imaginary world of beauty and goodness. You’ve seen it in movies or read it in books, I’m sure. All of a sudden, everything is clear. All the songs on the radio make perfect sense – funny how we’ve never heard the words that way before. We begin to dream dreams we’ve never dreamt. The wind smells sweeter, food tastes better, colors are brighter, and life has a tang it never had before. It’s as though our senses are on overdrive, sending us into a temporary euphoria. Best to enjoy it while it lasts, because all good things must come to an end. Once the illusion fades, it’s back to the real world.
But what if it’s not an illusion? What if the clarity and the glimpses of beauty are actually a foretaste of the future? What if our hopes for the relationship are fulfilled or even exceeded? What if we dared to imagine the depth of God’s love for us? What if we could trust that God cares for us the way we need to be cared for? What if we could be sure that God wants to be with us for all eternity? What if…
The bridegroom calls to his beloved: “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.” God also calls us to arise and come away. God calls out, “Arise! Arise from slumber, arise from apathy and cynicism, arise from the shadows, arise from isolation and loneliness. And come away.” God calls us to leave some things behind. “Come away from where you have been. Come away and be in relationship with me, come be active participants in the world, come away from the familiar, the comfortable, the known – come away to grow and serve and experience anew the joys and challenges that come with being people of God.”
Come away, and together we will accomplish wondrous things in the world. We will strengthen the faint-hearted. We will heal the sick. We will mend brokenness. We will fight injustice. We will feed those who are hungry. We will dream big dreams. We will create a new future. And we will spread the love of God far and wide and that is something we can be passionate about.
“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.”
copyright Erika K.R. Hirsch 2009
Words of Assurance
Holy One, in Christ you have shown us the way into your Beloved Community of mercy, love and peace, in which you are making all things new. We come to affirm our covenant and sacred promise to be in loving relationship with you. Thank you for giving us life. Open us, body mind and spirit to your truth. Fill us with your grace so we can fall in love with your world to offer–and experience–forgiveness, reconciliation and hope.