Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth! For your love is better than wine, your anointing oils are fragrant, your name is perfume poured out.
Well, we don’t get to read that in church very often!
My first inclination was to preach on our reading from the epistle of James this morning. James has some really good stuff for us. And being about two thousand years ahead of his time, he managed to write down his ideas in 140 character sound bites that would be perfect for Twitter:
#Christianlifehacks from James:
Be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to anger.
Be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who fool themselves.
Religion that’s pure before God is this: care for orphans and widows.
Good advice. And you know what? I’m going to let you work out the details because each one of us needs to figure out in our own lives how to act on these three tweets from James.
I like the gospel this morning too. Maybe ‘like’ isn’t the right word, but I appreciate Jesus’ pointed reminder that rather than focusing on externals, we need to examine our own hearts and worry more about the tendencies within us that damage our relationships with God and with each other. Another bit of good, difficult advice.
But then I read the Song of Songs.
It’s one of the most surprising and one of the most beautiful books of the Bible. It is the book of the bible which paints the most positive image of the beauty and sanctity of sexual love and desire. It is also one of the few books of scripture in which women’s voices predominate. Maybe there’s a connection there! We don’t hear it often, it only shows up a couple of times in our three year cycle of Sunday readings. So I thought we should seize the opportunity and take a closer look this morning.
The Song of Songs is a love poem. It is a poem in which a man and a woman who are deeply in love call back and forth to one another, something like the way we read it together this morning. “The voice of my beloved!” calls the woman, “Look he comes, leaping over the mountains, bounding over the hills.” And her male lover responds, “Arise, my love, my fair one and come away.”
The poetry is beautiful and sensual. It overflows with sexual imagery, so much so that among the Hebrew people, young boys weren’t allowed to read the Song of Songs, because the images were considered to be too intense. As we read it together this morning, some of you might have been wondering to yourselves what in the world this book of erotic love poetry is doing in our Bible. There is no other book of the Bible quite like it. But I really believe that this book, this poem, is a gift, a gift from God. And in a culture like ours where sex is too often separated from loving relationships, where sex is used as a marketing tool to sell stuff, where sexual abuse and harassment happen way too often, the perspective of the Song of Songs is something that we really need to hear.
Now we weren’t able to read all of the Song of Songs together this morning, but if you were to go home and read the whole poem, it would give you a picture of the relationship between two people, images which reveal not just the joy, but also the struggles, the longing, the heart-break and the complexity of this relationship which we call love. Three times in the text, the woman warns her female companions not to awaken or arouse love until it’s ready. Love is sacred, beautiful, and mysterious; but it’s not to be treated lightly or frivolously.
As part of my reading on the Song of Songs I came across an article by a scholar named Nickolas Hiemstra, and he made the point that we don’t always get this sense of the sacred and spiritual nature of love in our everyday conversations. In the English language especially, we’re pretty cavalier about the way we use the word love. I love my school, I love my new shirt, I love my wife and I love to eat hamburgers. You can see perhaps how it is that when we use the word love so freely, it can lose some of its meaning.
But in the Hebrew language in which the Song of Songs was written over 2000 years ago there are three different words for love that are used in the poem. The first of these is “raya” the Hebrew word which denotes friend or companion, even soul-mate. “You are altogether beautiful my love, my raya,” says the man’s voice, “there is no flaw in you.” The love between these two people is first of all an expression of raya, of companionship, of wanting to be together. Friendship is at the core of their relationship.
But their relationship blossoms beyond friendship into another Hebrew word for love which is “ahavah”. Ahavah is the love of deep affection where both your mind and your heart yearn to be with the other. It is loving with all your heart, with all your soul, all your mind and all your strength. It is the love of the will, a passion which becomes a commitment which becomes a decision to join your life to the life of another. The root word in Hebrew of ahavah is the word for “I give”. Ahavah then is love as giving, as a mutual giving of one’s self to the other. In the Song of Songs, ahavah is portrayed as strength and endurance: “Its flashes are flashes of fire, a raging flame. Many waters cannot quench ahavah, neither can floods drown it.”
But there is still another Hebrew word which we translate as love, a third word, and that is “dod”. Dod is the physical, sexual element of a relationship. “Let him kiss me with kisses of his mouth!” proclaims the young woman, “For your dod, your love, is better than wine.”
So here we have the threefold meaning of love which is expressed in the poetry of the Song of Songs: raya, the love of friendship and companionship, the desire to be together which is at the core of the relationship; ahavah, the willful love, the commitment, the joining of one’s life to another; and dod, the passion and intimacy of sexual relations, the physical embodiment of the love that two people have for each other.
Now all three of these, raya, ahavah and dod, all of these are good. All three are gifts from God. God is the one who created us with the capacity and the desire for friendship, commitment and sexual intimacy. And the book of Genesis tells us that when God had created us this way, he blessed us and saw that it was very good. Picture each of these loves, if you like, as a flame, the flame of friendship, the flame of commitment and the flame of sexual intimacy. The message of the Song of Songs is that when two people can put all three of these flames together, that’s when you get a roaring fire. This, I think, is what Jesus meant when he talks about marriage as the two becoming one flesh. The lovers who join themselves together sexually are giving physical expression to their spiritual union which is based on the giving of themselves to each other in companionship and commitment. Our sexual acts become spiritual acts, the expression of and participation in that sacred, beautiful and mysterious reality that we call love. It has something to do with the way we were created by a loving God, in the image of a God who is love.
Now this loving thing isn’t always going to be easy. At one point the woman in Song of Songs turns in longing to her beloved, but he’s not there, and her heart aches. Love isn’t always easy. We know that.
Perhaps that’s why we often try to take shortcuts. Maybe that’s why sometimes we try to have relationships based on only one of the three flames of love.
In a hook-up culture, when you have a one night stand, you may have the flame of dod, the sexual relationship, but the flames of raya and ahavah aren’t there. No companionship, no commitment. No wonder that people are often left feeling empty and unfulfilled. No wonder that people get hurt.
Or we have friends with benefits, a relationship which tries to capture the flames of friendship and sexual intimacy, but at the same time puts up strict barriers to prevent the flame of commitment, because that seems to be the risky part.
Or, perhaps there’s a marriage where the commitment is still there, both partners are going to be there for the long haul, but the friendship’s gone, and they haven’t had sex for years. Commitment is good; but there’s not much fire in that relationship, and there won’t be until the flames of raya and dod are rekindled.
Love ain’t easy. Loving in a messy world that is at times beautiful and at times broken can be complicated. Loving people who are at times saints and at times sinners can leave us vulnerable. Our yearning for intimacy finds expression in many different ways, some of which are healthy and some of which are not. But love at its best, the way God intended it to be, is sacred, beautiful and mysterious, a deeply spiritual way of knowing and being known, of relating to each other. God has given us the gift of love, love as friendship, love as commitment, love as sexual intimacy, love as a roaring fire when we can put all three flames together. May we honour the way God created us in the ways that we love each other.
Homily Yr B Proper 22, August 29 2021, Trinity
Reading: Song of Songs, James 1.17-27, Mark 7.1-8, 14-15, 21-23
Image by Hamza Butt, Creative Commons