- Let him kiss me with kisses of his mouth!
- Ah, you are beautiful, my beloved, ah, you are beautiful! Your eyes are doves behind your veil.
- I have come to my garden, my sister, my bride; I gather my myrrh and my spices, I eat my honey and my sweetmeats, I drink my wine and my milk. Eat, friends; drink! Drink freely of love!
- His arms are rods of gold covered with chrysolites. His body is a work of ivory covered with sapphires. His legs are columns of marble resting on golden bases.
- Your rounded thighs are like jewels, the handiwork of an artist. Your navel is a round bowl that should never lack for mixed wine. Your body is a heap of wheat encircled with lilies. Your breasts are like twin fawns, the young of a gazelle.
- Come, my lover, let us go forth to the fields and spend the night among the villages. Let us go early to the vineyards, and see if the vines are in bloom; if the buds have opened, if the pomegranates have blossomed; there will I give you my love.
Where did I get such words? I wonder what the Parents Television Council would say about them. I have a suspicion that the sexual innuendo, with an outright offer of sex (even married), would make this not a green light show. Where, again? The Bible, silly! More specifically, The Song of Songs. (The exact passages are chapter 1: verse 2, 4:1, 5:1, 5:14-15, 7:2-4, and 7:12-13.)
In a world with great consternation about love and sexual acts, Christians have this entire book of Holy Scripture with a bride and bridesmaids and groom, thinking about male and female, and passages like the ones above. A logical person might conclude that the words would be part of the schedule of readings. I am generally a logical person, so I used this really good
lectionary website to search for the Song of Songs in the lectionary. How many times does it appear in the Sunday schedule? NONE! Habakkuk is read once, on the 27th Sunday of year C. Paul’s advice about submissive wives gets in there, but there’s no room for the poem. Still, there are a lot of texts not on the Sunday schedule. What about the standard daily readings? As far as I can tell, NONE! Even the letter of Philemon gets one day, Thursday of Week 32 of year II. Yet there is no room in a two-year schedule, over 400 options, for one about Solomon’s bride and groom. It is said that Martin Luther wanted to remove the book of James from the Bible. The Song of Songs appears to be Catholicism’s James.
At least the Catholic church doesn’t go as far as Joseph Smith, who expunged the poem from his Inspired Version, used by Mormons. But how does the commentary to the Catholic translation of the Bible, the New American, explain the book? From the introduction, “The author of the Song, using the same literary figure, paints a beautiful picture of the ideal Israel, the chosen people of the Old and New Testaments, whom the Lord led by degrees to an exalted spiritual union with himself in the bond of perfect love.” Thus, the bridegroom is God and the bride is the Jewish people Israel. Another allegorical concept developed throughout the centuries, placing Christ as the groom, bringing the church as bride. A third approach developed with God and the Virgin Mary as the actors. Reading the text literally is also mentioned, but only as a secondary possibility: “While the Song is thus commonly understood by most Catholic scholars, it is also possible to see in it an inspired portrayal of ideal human love. Here we would have from God a description of the sacredness and the depth of married union.”
The problem with all this allegory is found through Occam’s Razor, named after the theory’s populist, medieval Franciscan monk William of Ockham. (He was excommunicated, actually, which makes him an interesting choice for this series.) William’s exact phrase was Pluralitas non est ponenda sine necessitate; in English, Plurality should not be posited without necessity. We generally use it to summarize parsimony, that of two equivalent explanations, the simpler one is to be preferred. It’s very Bayesian, like me. The complicated explanation for the appearance of this Canticle we’ve done, as allegory. What’s the simpler choice? Romantic love was a subject important enough to include writings about. The Hebrew Scriptures include laws and rules, like most of Leviticus. They include historical notes. They include practical advice for living, the Proverbs. Why wouldn’t there be a description of married love?
It took a while for Hebrew authorities to agree upon the books in their scriptures. Even in the 2nd century AD, there was some question about the Song of Songs. It is a little different; it doesn’t mention the name of God explicitly, unlike pretty much everything else. Thus, it’s not surprising that as the Christian churches developed, they struggled with the difference. It got harder, since strong Stoic influences infiltrated the church, with disdain of pleasure and joy. Then there were the Manicheans, who were taught to avoid the “evil” material, passionate, and emotional, to become fully “good”, spiritual and rational. Obviously, sex and love were far too passionate. Manicheanism, popular in the third and fourth centuries, was condemned as a theology, based on an incorrect understanding of good and evil, which doesn’t involve salvation through Christ. On the other hand, the negativity around sex, and promotion of celibacy, was very popular. Celibacy was promoted by fourth century male theologians John Chrysostom, Augustine, Athanasius, and Jerome. Extrapolating wildly from a short passage, in this case Pauline advice in 1 Corinthians, has happened, is happening, and will happen again. The problem is when it leads to messes. I’ve written before about the consequences, in the Benedict bit and elsewhere, including the jumping off point for this series. I’m not sure Manicheanism lost. The razor of Occam was defeated, as the purpose of the Song became increasingly complicated, stories and allegories proposed and advanced.
It’s not surprising, since most of the people in charge were celibate males, conditioned against the beauty and happiness of sex.
The last century has brought back to religion, partially and reluctantly, the idea of unity and sexuality. We need more. A positive Christianity must take God’s world as not evil; it cannot be Manichean, or even approach those ranks. Recovering the lost meaning of the Song of Songs will help greatly. Placing more emphasis (or should I say any emphasis) on the book in the Lectionary would lead to more discussion, more instruction, and greater knowledge. Plus, there’d be more joy. Catholic christianity is currently a movement that has confused respect with emotionlessness. Even allegorically, the canticle reverses that sense, flowing with poetic emotional language. We learn about God through a means other than suffering. Taken properly, we see the inherent goodness of love, kisses and beautiful descriptions and hints of gifts and happy circumstance.