When I was growing up one of my favorite songs to sing was “His banner over me is love.” One of the great things about this song was the hand motions. “I’m my beloved’s and he is mine his banner over me is love. I’m my beloved’s and he is mine his banner over me is love. …his banner, over me, is love.” Another thing that really made the song great was that we would start slow and then speed up, so that by the end we were getting our “banners” all mixed up with our “over me’s” and our “loves,” which, for kids and adults, can be very funny.
What we were singing about, of course, was God’s love for us and our love for God. The line, “I am my beloved’s and he is mine” is a phrase that gets repeated throughout the Song of Solomon, also known as the Song of Songs. And this Song, this poetic book of the Bible, has often been interpreted as a love song between God and Israel, or between Christ and the church, of God’s passionate love for the covenant people. All of this is quite true, but once you start reading this thing it becomes pretty clear that this is not the only way this was meant to be interpreted. When it starts out with “Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth! For love is better than wine,” and then quickly moves into the lovers speaking fondly of each other’s bodies, it certainly opens the door for something a little more than just spiritual affection.
Now I took the risk of asking you all to name your favorite OT passages and I guess I should have expected that somebody would name the Song of Songs. It’s one of those texts that goes completely counter to any notions of religion as something drab or disconnected from our humanity. It is charged with passion and energy, so much so that as you read through it you have the occasional thought of “Wow, how did they let that get in here?” For those desiring an integration of the spiritual and the physical parts of our being, it’s an important text to know and claim as part of our Scriptures.
As Mennonites we know a thing or two about songs. About a song’s ability to lift us out of our individuality and unite us in spirit. About the importance of singing together and the value of harmony and the way that a song can be a prayer. Well, here we have a book that dares to have the title Song of Songs. Sort of like the title King of kings or Lord of Lords. Of all the kings, of all the lords, of all the songs, this one surpasses them all and is the greatest, not even on the same level, but the Song of Songs. And the song that is sung here, at least one interpretation of it, is a song celebrating the desire for intimacy, including sexual intimacy, between two people.
The passage that was read begins with that familiar refrain, “I am my beloved’s, and his desire is for me,” a woman’s voice noting that she has given herself over to her beloved, and that her beloved has focused his love and desire on her. The relationship is one of mutual affection and reciprocal love. She continues, now speaking directly to her partner “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 pomegranates are in bloom. There I will give you my love.” She continues a little later, “I would give you spiced wine to drink, the juice of my pomegranates.” This kind of language runs throughout the poem, with continual references to the aliveness of nature, sometimes placing the lovers within the blooming natural world, sometimes using nature as a metaphor for each other’s bodies, and sometimes the line between each other’s bodies and nature getting blurred enough to give the sense that it is all intermingling and unified in the bond of love between these two partners. The song is filled with expressions of the urge for togetherness, and the delight of having found a partner who makes the whole world bloom with life.
We inherit a tradition that has often thought in dualistic terms of body and spirit, with the greater value being placed on the latter. One of the first challenges to the early church came from the Gnostics who believed that the physical world itself, including our bodies, was evil, and that our true nature is heavenly, spiritual. The purpose of life was to transcend our material body through gaining gnosis, saving knowledge, of our pure, spiritual selves. Traces of Gnosticism pop up in different religious systems that over-emphasize saving our souls and place no inherent worth in the physicality of our bodies and creation. On a more general level, the church historically has struggled to see sexuality as a good gift from God to be enjoyed and celebrated. To borrow the two favorite phrases from last week’s children’s story, the church’s attitude toward the spirit and body split has often been: Spirit, soul, spirituality “Oh, that’s good” Body, flesh, sexuality “Oh, that’s bad!”
Perhaps it is worth jogging our memories as to how Scripture imagines our humanity as it has been created by God. That God looked with joy on the physical creation of light, and sky, and vegetation, and animals and echoed that “it was good.” And when humanity finally came on the scene, God saw everything that was made, and “indeed, it was very good.” And that there was a kind of wholeness there that knew of no division between spirit and body, or soul and sexuality, that we all, animals and humans alike, come from this dark, rich earth, and we come all fired up with desire and spiritedness. And that shame about our bodies isn’t something inherent in our natures, but something that has come on the scene later, so that now we cover our nakedness and also cover ourselves from God’s gaze. And God comes looking for us and asks, “Where are you?” Like portrayed in that Garden of Eden scene. Where is this wonderful creature I’ve created and why are you hiding from yourself and from me?
And then for the bulk of our history we have been hidden from the wholeness that God would have us live. The unity of selfhood that can so easily come undone, and make unhealthy separations and severances between things like our body and our spirit. So the body hides from the spirit and the spirit hides from the body and we feel the dis-ease that results.
So we also must remember that central, pivotal revelation of our faith that can take us beyond our dis-ease — what theologians have called incarnation. Incarnation, built around the Latin word carnus meaning flesh, physicality. Enfleshment. Signaled in that crucial line from John’s gospel “and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” Jesus, modeling, teaching us, about the coming together of Holy spirit and Holy body. Jesus embodying God’s presence for all five of our senses to see, hear, smell, touch, and then, in his parting, offering a meal that we are to continue tasting, the bread and the cup, knowing God in the everyday elements that sustain us and enter our bodies and give us energy. The goodness of our bodies and of God’s desire to dwell within our bodies just as Jesus modeled. No more hiding. No more severing. But unification, togetherness, incarnation.
The biblical story we are rooted in is one where both body and spirit are good creations of God and where God shares with creation in this urge for togetherness.
Ronald Rolheiser has written a book called The Holy Longing: The Search for a Christian Spirituality. I’ve referred to it a few times before in sermons and musings. Part of what he tries to do in this writing is to communicate an understanding of spirituality that includes, rather than excludes, our sexuality and the drives and desires that live within us. Spirituality and sexuality, he believes, flow out of the same energy that God has breathed into us. He begins the book, in chapter one, with a quote from the German poet Goethe and then makes some of his own comments. The poem: “We are fired into life with a madness that comes from the gods and which would have believe that we can have a great love, perpetuate our own seed, and contemplate the divine.” And then Rolheiser: “It is no easy task to walk this earth and find peace. Inside of us, it would seem, something is at odds with the very rhythm of things and we are forever restless, dissatisfied, frustrated, and aching. We are so overcharged with desire that it is hard to come to simple rest. Desire is always stronger than satisfaction…This desire lies as the center of our lives, in the marrow of our bones, and in the deep recesses of the soul…Desire can show itself as aching pain or delicious hope. Spirituality is, ultimately, about what we do with that desire. What we do with our longings, both in terms of handling the pain and the hope they bring us, that is our spirituality.”
The Song of Songs is a picture of how that charge of desire that makes up our spiritual/sexual selves can play out in a relationship. And, for much of the time, as it was in the beginning, it is good, very good. “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine.” The relationship is reciprocal, with mutual desire, each enriching the life of the other. Honoring each other’s bodies. Finding beauty in the most mundane parts of each other: chapter 7 How graceful are you feet in sandals, O queenly maiden!…your neck is like an ivory tower, your eyes are pools in Heshbon.” And I won’t go into what they say about the less mundane parts or else I’ll really start blushing. These partners are entranced with each other.
But all of this does come with a word of caution. This is not some imaginary world of bliss and fantasy.
With the vulnerability that comes with giving over oneself to another comes the risk of being wounded. In what I consider to be one of, if not the, most powerful statements about love and desire in all of Scripture. Chapter 8:6-7 “Set me as a seal upon your heart, like the seal upon your hand. For love is strong as death, passion fierce as the grave. Its flashes are flashes of fire, a raging flame. Many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it. If one offered for love all the wealth of one’s house, it would be utterly scorned.” As grand and fulfilling as mutual affection can be, the desire and passion that lies underneath our longings is like a raging flame, fierce as the grave, strong as death itself. In a word, powerful. A power not to be taken lightly and not to be played with.
It is not difficult to find ways that the fire has burned or injured many. Sexuality is a root of both great good and great harm. In its distorted form, this power manifests itself in obsessions, addictions, abuse. All so common…All so incredibly damaging.
In a moment of reflection, the lover steps back from her passion to reflect on its fierceness. It’s like a fire. She could dump a whole hurricane on this flame and it still wouldn’t go out. She considers all the wealth she may be able to muster, and still considers this drive to be more powerful. It has great value and should not be treated flippantly. And so she expresses her yearning for this fire between her and her lover to be contained within a safe place. “Set me as a seal upon your heart, like the seal upon your hand.” What we share, let us share it within this safe space that we have created together and let the power between us be balanced. Mutual caring. Wrap me around your heart, like a permanent seal, and I’ll do the same for you. Let us find a way to let this fire warm us and give us light without overtaking us and burning us.
Ronald Rolheiser, himself a celibate Catholic priest, speaks of all of us having that fire within, that good gift of slightly overcharged desire that God has placed in our bodies. Our spirituality and sexuality both come from that fire. He says, “Sexuality is an all-encompassing energy inside us. In one sense, it is identifiable with the principle of life itself. It is the drive for love, communion, community, friendship, family, affection, wholeness, consummation, creativity, self-perpetuation, immortality, joy, delight, humor, and self-transcendence. It is not good to be alone. When God said this about Adam at the dawn of creation, God meant it about every man, woman, child, animal, insect, plant atom, and molecule in the universe. Our sexuality is the energy inside us that works incessantly against our being alone.”
The Song of Songs, the most sublime of all songs that we sing in life, is about how we shape our energy and desires in such a way so as to delight in communing with others. We are all sexual, spiritual beings and we express that urge for togetherness in all our relationships. God has made us for each other and for God’s self.
My prayer is that we can continue to learn to live safely and joyfully under the banner of love.