Sunday, 15 April 2012

Song of Songs - I am my beloved's and he is mine


Last weekend was special in three ways at least.

It was of course the weekend of the Boat Race.  And this year Highbury had a stake in the Boar Race.  Highbury’s longest-standing family is the Jeffreys family who trace their belonging here at Highbury back to the late nineteenth century.  Quite some record.  And that’s the connection with the Boat Race. It was with great excitement that I tuned in to shout for Oxford and the Highbury connection.

Anne’s brother’s daughter’s husband’s sister’s daughter was the Oxford Cox.

Wow, what a connection.

It was interesting meeting up with Joanne, Richard’s daughter on a day that was particularly special for her and her husband and their family and for us an our church family here at Highbury.  Special for the same reason and yet for quite different reasons.

For Joanne the day was special because it was Passover.  He ten year old son, Joshua, would be taking centre-stage at the family celebration on the evening I met her at her in-laws house.  He it is who would be asking the key questions as the youngest member of the family as the meal unfolded.  Joanne would miss that evening’s meal but catch up the next evening.  She explained that outside of Jerusalem and Israel the custom has developed to have Passover on two days as it was difficult to work out which was the actual day to have it on.  It was fascinating hearing her speak of the Passover customs her family followed, with the top to toe clean of the house, the kosher food, the unleavened bread and the excitement of the family celebration.

That same day for us was Good Friday.  And just as special as we too mark the anniversary of Passover even as we date Easter in such a way as to follow Passover, parting only from the date of Passover when the Jewish way of accommodating the solar and lunar calendars results in them adding in an extra month in a leap year.

Passover is all about the freedom the people gained from oppression as God delivered the people to liberty from bondage in Egypt.  It’s about the depth of love God has for his people who, as Joanne said, feel the warmth of being special in God’s sight.

Maybe it’s the depth and the closeness and the warmth of the love between God and his people that is special at Passover.  Maybe that’s why it is at Passover that the Jewish people read the second in the Megilloth, that  set of five little scrolls in the third section of the Hebrew Scriptures known as the Writings.

At Passover the Jewish people read through the Song of Solomon or the Song of Songs.

It is the most intensely personal of all the books of the Bible and it is a remarkable celebration of the intensity of personal love.  At one level that’s exactly what it is.

It has been said that there are three types of love.

Agape love is that deep down love God has for us and he wants us to share.

Philos love is that binding love that friends have for one another and

Eros love is that intense love a couple have for each other that finds its expression in the physical act of making love.

It is that third level of love, eros love, that is celebrated here.  As a lover and his beloved exchange words of intense love with each other.  Janet Wootton used to quip that she encouraged a couple to read the Song of Songs to each other on their wedding night.  The imagery becomes very powerful, very evocative.  It is the nearest in Christian holy writ we get to the Kama Sutra.

A remarkable piece of writing.

How wrong people are to suggest Christians are po-faced about sex.  This is proof positive that Christians celebrate sex and find for it a place of security and fulfilment in the marriage of a man and a woman.

Sometimes you will hear it said that Christians consider sex and sexuality to be something that’s part of the fallenness of human nature.  The Song of Songs knocks that one on its head and is in Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s words the finest celebration of the sheer goodness of God’s creation at the most personal of levels.

When the Greek translations of the Hebrew Scriptures applied their logical  approach to the ordering of the books they noted that the Song of Songs was associated with Solomon.  And so they put it as part of a trilogy of books associated with Solomon hard on the heels of the Book of Psalms we associate with David.  Proverbs and Ecclesiastes are linked with Solomon because of his wisdom.  The Song of Songs is linked with Solomon and in many Bibles headed the Song of Solomon because of the Don Juan side of Solomon’s nature, having as he did a love for a thousand women.

Some can say it’s a cop out when the Jewish people arranged this book quite differently and set it in the Canon in that set of five books they associate with the major festivals of the liturgical year.

By linking the Song of songs with the Festival of Passover you might say they are reneging on the wonder of physical love and ‘spiritualising’ these very erotic words by applying them to the love God has for his people.

Another way of looking at it is to think that for the Jewish people at Passover this was more than a doctrinal statement, or a historical commemoration.  Eating together in the most intimate of settings as a family was to be reminded of the intimacy of God’s love for each family and for each person in that family.

Maybe we can take a leaf out of that Jewish book in coming to the Song of Songs in this Easter season as we still are celebrating the death and resurrection of Christ in the Easter season.

The Passion and Easter are not just at the heart of our Christian faith and doctrine, they are not something to explore historically, they are an expression of the intimacy of God’s love for each one of us and for us all as a family of his people bound together in this place.

It’s interesting that it is in Holy Week, on one of those days between Palm Sunday and Maundy Thursday, on one of the days leading up to the Passover Festival that Jesus tells a story about a Wedding Banquet.  The feasting is a celebration of the love God has for his people – many turn down the invitation, and yet all are drawn in.  And in enigmatic fashion Jesus speaks challengingly of the need to join in the spirit of celebration, the spirit of joy.

I wonder whether that prompted a train of thought that then finds its culmination in those words from Revelation 21 we began our service with.

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. A

In the Christian tradition the Song of Songs has been spiritualised of the relationship between God and the church.  The church has been seen as the bride of Christ.  Is this a cop-out because the church is unwilling to affirm the beauty of that eros love that is celebrated in the Song of Songs.  Or is it also an insight into the intensity of that love God has for us and we may have of God in return.

In contemplation and prayer maybe we can draw on the imagery of the Song of Songs and rejoice in the closeness of the love bond that binds us together with God.

For to belong to the church is to be bride of Christ and in the closest of bonds with Christ.

When my father came to preach the last of his sermons and come to the last point he would make in a long preaching ministry.

He said with conviction.  One more thing I cannot give up on.  I cannot give up on the love of the lover of souls.

That’s the love God has for us we may share with him.  That’s the love captured in the wonderful poetry of the Song of Songs.
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 turtle-dove
   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. 
O my dove, in the clefts of the rock,
   in the covert of the cliff,
let me see your face,
   let me hear your voice;
for your voice is sweet,
   and your face is lovely. 
Catch us the foxes,
   the little foxes,
that ruin the vineyards—
   for our vineyards are in blossom.’ 

My beloved is mine and I am his;
   he pastures his flock among the lilies. 
Until the day breathes
   and the shadows flee,
turn, my beloved, be like a gazelle
   or a young stag on the cleft mountains. 

One final thought.

To think of the intimacy of God’s love is something that prompts us to go into the world and face the world and know that we are not alone.

Three times that phrase is repeated

I am my beloved’s and he is mine.

I am my beoloved’s and he is mine (6:3)

I am my beloved’s and he is mine (7:10)

And on that last occasion – comes the invitation to go out into the world.

I am my beloved’s,
   and his desire is for me. 
Come, my beloved,
   let us go forth into the fields,
   and lodge in the villages; 
let us go out early to the vineyards,
   and see whether the vines have budded,
whether the grape blossoms have opened
   and the pomegranates are in bloom.
There I will give you my love. 

It is as we go out into God’s world immersed in the love of the lover of souls that we have the strength to do what on our own we could not.

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