Today we will be baptizing Serena. Baptisms are joyous events in the lives of individuals, their families, and the church. Serena’s baptism is especially joyous for me, because I was privileged to participate in her parents’ wedding, and even more so, because I first met Serena the day she was born. In the nearly eight months since that day, we’ve watched her grow, develop a personality. Though unbaptized, she has already attended at least two vestry meetings where she has delighted, and occasionally diverted, us all.
Babies are so wonderful because they show us, at times, the miracle of a human being becoming herself, growing into her personality, exploring the world, loving her parents. We see in them the miracle of creation, and as we watch them learn and grow, we also are able occasionally to see the world through their eyes and experience for ourselves the joy of things that over the years have become routine.
There is something of that same joy of new discovery, new experience in our first reading, which comes from the text we call the Song of Solomon. It’s the only time in our three-year lectionary cycle that we read from this text. We shouldn’t be surprised by its absence from our regular cycle of scripture reading. Christians have been uncomfortable with the earthy, erotic imagery of the Song of Solomon throughout history. Quite early, the Church Fathers interpreted it spiritually, as a text about the love of Christ for the church, or the love of an individual soul for Christ. That tradition of interpretation inspired some of the great works of Christian mystical writing, like St. Bernard of Clairvaux’s 85 sermons on the Song of Songs, a series he began in 1135 and continued until his death in 1153. I’d like to give you a brief quotation in which he talks about 2:17, a few verses along from our passage, and especially, on the bride saying to her Beloved, “Return.”
But when theWord has left me, and all these things become dim and weak and cold, as though you had taken the fire from under a boiling pot, I know that he has gone. Then my soul cannot help being sorrowful until he returns, and my heart grows warm within me, and I know he is there.
With such an experience of the Word, is it surprising if I speak the words of the Bride and call him back when he absents hielf, when even if I do not burn with an equal desire, I burn with a desire like hers? It will be natural to me as long as I live to speak “Return,” the word of recall, to call back the Word. As often as he slips away from me, so often will I seem him…
That allegorical interpretation aside, it’s worth spending a little time looking at it more closely. While its title comes from the traditional attribution of authorship to King Solomon (and the connection with Solomon is why we are reading from it this Sunday), that attribution has little historical evidence to back it up. In fact, the title in the Hebrew Bible could be translated simply, “songs.”
The text as a whole probably has some connection with a festive performance. There are poems or songs that are in the voices of two lovers, and several that seem to be spoken by a chorus of women and perhaps one by a chorus of men. God is never mentioned in the text, and key terms like law and covenant never appear either. It’s worth noting that the Song of Solomon is one of the very few biblical texts in which we hear a woman’s voice clearly, and where a woman acts for herself. In fact, in today’s reading, it is she who speaks throughout, even when she is repeating the words that her beloved has said to her.
There’s a deep connection between this text and the biblical accounts and understanding of creation. Throughout the Song, creation is praised for its beauty and goodness. There are illusions throughout the poetry to a garden, which likely is intended to lead us back to the goodness and beauty of the Garden of Eden. There is also, and it’s inescapable, praise of physicality, and human sexuality. This is of course why the Christian tradition has struggled with this text over the centuries.
It’s jarring to hear such a reading in church on Sunday morning as we bring our heavy religious and cultural baggage with us. We struggle with it in several ways. The Christian tradition has tended to downplay the physical, there’s a profound distrust of the human body, for example. At the same time, our culture sees sexuality as one of the primary ways in which we shape our selfhood, for good and ill.
Our culture struggles with sexuality and with marriage. While the recent Supreme Court ruling has legalized same-sex marriage throughout the land, there remains considerable resistance, especially among conservative Christians. This summer, the Episcopal Church General Convention authorized for trial use, new rites for marriage and for same-sex marriage. As a church, we have been divided over marriage for many years, and our disagreements threaten our relationships with the worldwide Anglican Communion.
Bishop Miller has stipulated that before using these rites, congregations must participate in the study of marriage that has been laid out in resolutions passed by General Convention in 2012 and 2015, that the vestry must approve the use of the rites by a 2/3 vote, and that we must make provision for pastoral support of those opposed to same-sex marriage. At Grace, we will have these conversations in September, beginning on September 8.
In the meantime, our reading today reminds us of the goodness and beauty of creation and invites us to return to the story of Genesis 1. As we discern what Christian marriage might mean in the twenty-first century, it’s worth remembering that God created us in God’s image; that we are created male and female. Being in God’s image means many things but at its core, as Christians we believe that God is Three. In other words, God, by God’s very nature, is relationship. God created us to be in relationship, with God, and with other human beings. When we live in relationship with another human, in mutual love and flourishing, we can experience the love of God as well.
We see God’s love, in the love of two people for each other, in the love of Christ for the Church, in God’s love for each of us, in the words of grace pronounced in baptism, and in the beauty and wonder of creation. As we baptize Serena today, we are inviting her to begin a journey exploring and experiencing God’s love, and as we do, we are called back to return, called back to our own journeys into the heart of God’s love.