If you are not familiar with today’s scripture reading or the part of the bible from which it comes, the Song of Solomon also known as the Song of Songs, you are not alone. This relatively brief book found wedged between the much more familiar book of Ecclesiastes and the book of Isaiah is only 8 chapters long. And, it is one of only two books in the bible that make no reference to God.
It has been the source of radically different interpretations of the years but most modern scholars agree that this Song is a piece of poetry that portrays an erotic love between two young people. They have not yet been betrothed and their relationship is not yet recognized by the girl’s family (which would have been important during the time it was written) but they are hopeful that their union will culminate in marriage.
So if you are familiar with the words of the Song of Solomon it’s likely because you have heard them read at a wedding ceremony. Afterall, the poem paints a picture of a couple caught up in a mutually consenting, egalitarian and passionate love. Astonishingly, the female voice is as strong and clear as the male voice which is no small thing given that this poem was likely first written some 2500 years ago, long before the women’s liberation movement. Who wouldn’t want to model their own committed relationship after the one described here? .
You may also have heard or sung hymns and songs with lyrics taken from some of the more powerful parts of the Song of Songs, lyrics like “Many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it.”
Whether you are familiar with these writings or not, what won’t come as a surprise to any of us is that over the centuries they have been a source of great embarrassment for religious leaders. What do we do with words found in our holy scriptures that are clearly full of sexual innuendo?
Our Jewish brothers and sisters decided this Song is religious allegory recounting God’s love for Israel and the history of their relationship. Christians have contorted it into an allegory of Christ’s love for the church. These interpretations have allowed religious communities to embrace these writings as sacred.
But what if we just celebrated that this secular piece of poetry expressing young and passionate love is found in our bibles without making it about anything other than what is is about because what’s not to celebrate about young love and what really is there to be ashamed of? Maybe it’s because I’m one of those sentimental people who becomes irrationally giddy at the news of anyone who has managed to find a mutually respectful, passionate and lasting love with another human being whether they are young or old, straight or LGBTQ+ but nothing brings me greater joy than hearing that someone has fallen in love. They don’t even have to be in love, I can get excited if someone has simply managed to find a date for Saturday night.
I think that’s because so many of us long for the kind of love described in today’s reading and yet we know it can be so elusive. We want the kind of love that makes us come leaping upon the mountains and bounding over the hills at the sight our beloved. But If you are someone who has been looking for this kind of love, swiping right and swiping left for what seems like an eternity without success, you well know that this kind of wholehearted, mutually respectful, passionate love can’t actually be manufactured or pulled out of a hat. So when two people do fall into this kind of love we celebrate because we are never entirely sure when, where and if it will come.
And because of the slippery nature of this kind of love, if it does manage to find us, it can be as if we are being swept up into a great mystery or taken over by a force larger than life, a force that can transform our lives. We can find ourselves willing to make changes we were previously unwilling to make or that we didn’t even know were possible. We can find ourselves willing to take risks and give of ourselves for the sake of the other.
I know this well in my own life because when I was a young single person training for ministry I made a bargain with God. I said God I will answer this call to ministry you have placed in my heart but I will not do it alone. I want you to find me a partner. I just forgot to specify the gender of the partner I was looking for and so much to my surprise and I’m sure to God’s great delight, I fell in love with the girl next door and my whole world was turned upside down. I no longer knew who I was. I had to learn to navigate the waters of a church that still wasn’t safe for clergy who were open about their sexual orientation to be out of the closet. I had to change in ways I didn’t necessarily want to change. But I was willing to do it for love and I’d do it all again.
I tell you this not to say that if you are looking for a partner you just need to pray for one and God will order one up for you. I know people who have been praying for years and that hasn’t happened to them. It’s not quite that simple. I tell you this to illustrate what the power of love can do to us. It can change us. It can shape and mold us into people we did not previously think that we could be. To be clear, I am not just talking about human love here, I’m talking primarily about Divine love, the source of all love, the love in whose image we have all been made.
There’s a reason why mystics across the centuries have used sexually charged language to describe their visions and experiences of God. The language of the Song of Songs is everywhere in their writings as they try to express the ecstasy of mystical union with God. They know what it is like to be so caught up in the depths of Divine love, to fall so deeply into God’s love, that one’s life is forever changed, that one is able to see more clearly and know more profoundly that everything, every thing and every one, that life itself, is as wondrous as the first breath of spring and as glorious as the fragrance of the vine in first bloom.
And that might not be such a bad thing for any of us to get swept up into this last week of August 2021 when we are still in the midst of a pandemic, when cases of Covid 19 and its variants are on the rise and our lives are being restricted once again and divisions between us seem to be growing, when the forest fires are still raging and violence is erupting on the streets of Afghanistan and beyond.
Earlier this week, when I read today’s passage from the Song of Solomon describing these two young lovers bounding across the fields towards one another and I thought about the context in which we find ourselves, I found myself thinking about the Vancouver Riot kissing couple. Do you remember them? On the night that the Canucks lost the Stanley cup to the Boston Bruins 10 years ago this June, Scott Jones and Alex Thomas were on their way home when riots broke out in the streets of Vancouver. While trying to make their escape they ran into a group of police officers, some in riot gear, and they got knocked down by the police. Thomas, seeing that his girlfriend was panicking, leaned over to kiss her to calm her down. Photographer Richard Lam captured the moment on film. Of the thousands of photos taken and film shot that night documenting the extent of the damage, it was this singular image that caught the imagination of the world as it spread across the front pages of newspapers, websites and TV newscasts.
Why? Because when we are the midst of turmoil, when life is out of control and danger is all around, we need to be reminded that at the heart of life itself is a creative force that is stronger than all destruction, a beautiful force that has the capacity to calm our fears and steady our nerves, to make us strong enough to get up on our feet again and do what we need to do. When things are being torn apart and there is violent unrest and petty division among us we need to be reminded that there is a creative and alluring force that can draw us together, mend our lives and transform us into a people made new, people who actually want to make changes for the sake of one another because we know we are bound up in love.