Cross-Eyed, Cross-Over Love, Pastor Kinsey
“My beloved is like a gazelle or a young stag. …My beloved is mine and I am his; Look, he comes, leaping upon the mountains, bounding over the hills.. …”
How often do we hear this on Sundays? Hear this kind of love poetry? And yet there it is, hiding in plain sight in the OT – though this passage from Song of Songs is the only one we hear in our entire 3 year lectionary. It is a great wedding text. Kim and I used a passage from chapter 8: “Set me as a seal upon your heart, …; 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…”
It is not hard to recognize the Song of Songs as love poetry, though, through the history of the church it was pitched mostly as an allegory of God’s love for us. Some questioned its appropriateness in the bible at all!
Yet, all this talk about human love, is but one of its qualities, that sets it apart from other books of the bible! It also portrays our partnered love in a quite modern and positive way, instead of the usual demonizing of women, as either temptors, or a man’s background support. But here in the Song of Songs, there was no Victorian shame in expressing their feelings for one another. Their emotions of longing and desire are portrayed as natural and healthy.
They are young and in love, and like most couples, possessive of each other: demanding to know where the other is, so every free moment can be spent together, reminding others of their special claim on each other, and also insisting on accountability and commitment in their relationship. They luxuriate in the sound of each other’s voice and appearance. She calls him, ‘my lover,’ ‘my beloved,’ and ‘he whom my soul loves.’ And he has a list of pet names for her too: ‘my darling,’ ‘my love,’ ‘my fair one,’ my beautiful one,’ ‘my dove,’ ‘my perfect, and, flawless one,’ and so on! In all these tender and intimate names, one thing is common – the word “my”! Their love is possessive, because like all humans, we have a need to be loved!
As the woman and man call back and forth to each other, they are more than just describing love in provocative language – they are insisting on it! Despite the forces working against them – and there are suggestions that they are from different classes or ethnicities, perhaps not what their parents envision for each of their children in marriage, lurking, just off camera, in the background – yet they insist that they belong to each other!
But perhaps most unique about this book, and its place in the canon of the bible, is the female perspective that takes center stage. Even when the man is speaking to the woman, it is often the woman who is describing it, as in our passage, in verse 10, “My beloved speaks and says to me (and then she describes what he says): ‘Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away,’…” The story is seen, and largely told through her eyes. From the beginning she speaks in the first person: “Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth! For your love is better than wine…,” a common metaphor for the enjoyment of love.
And she is proud of who she is, “I am black and beautiful, O Jerusalem Girls” she describes herself to her girlfriends, in only the 5th verse of the opening chapter. (Pope trans.) She is stepping out of traditional roles for women, and no where else in the bible do we find this womanist perspective!
To me, the Song of Songs love poetry seems to have a flavor of the story of two cross-eyed lovers in Romeo and Juliet fashion, but without the deep tragedy. The passion is similar, but, no one dies at the end. Yet, will they be allowed to stay together, to be life partners? This is the question left hanging at the end, not answered in the text. Their love tryst is cut short, and the woman must shoo her man away so that they are not detected. Their love is as possessive and passionate as ever, but their future is our guess, left up to the reader. And though it doesn’t explicitly break the ‘sexual orientation’ bearer, (being written some 2 ½ mellenia ago), its love poetry could be same-gendered as well as oppositely attracted. The passion is for the person, and fits either way!
Should this book be in the bible, given it never really mentions God, or brings up Israel’s worship life or festivals?
Beyond making for great wedding reading, I am convinced that there is a spiritual message here! Like Jesus, who tells us, it’s not what goes in thru the mouth that defiles – for that only ends up in the sewer anyway! – but it’s what comes out, from the heart, that makes for faith and love.
The lovers passion and possession for one another, its demands and its failings, is nothing if not descriptive of our human-divine relationship, too! Our relationship with God is based on God’s original act of love for us, the free gift of grace that God initiates, and to which we respond. Our God is a jealous God, the 10 Commandments tell us! God loves us fiercely, and will defend us. (In the gospel of Luke) God is like a mother hen who gathers her brood under her wings to protect us from all danger. And so as we grow in God’s love, and just like in our human love, that relationship needs nurturing, it needs to be cultivated, it needs to mature, and take on responsibility.
Lovers don’t take their love for granted, and in a similar way neither can humans take their relationship with God for granted. Like Song of Songs, desiring spiritual time together is just as needful. Reflecting and acting on the new insights and maturity we learn on our faith journey, require attentiveness and devotion. The intimacy with which God knows us, calls to us like a lover does, to take seriously the relationship we want to have with our creator and sustainer.
And, what kind of a world do we want to create once we’ve committed to this loving God, who wants the best for us all? How can we make the small, and the larger communal actions we engage in every day, reflect the realm and kingdom, God desires?
We need not be put off or ashamed, of the fresh and bourgeoning love-language in Song of Songs, but enjoy the poet’s playful exploration of human emotions, just like a good theatre drama we might attend. The church – especially since Augustine – has not always been good at acknowledging this part of human nature. But human love, can translate into our love of God, even though it can never be God’s agape, or unfailing love.
I am reminded here, of the way in which Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul, who was laid to rest this week, (also black and beautiful), was said to have broken the barrier of crossing over from gospel music, to pop and soul music outside the church. The fear was always that the gospel message would be lost in the process, but everyone who knew her said she never left gospel in any of her singing and recordings, no matter how popular she became. Not only did she, not forget, her roots in her daddy’s church in Detroit, but she projected her core beliefs in her love and gift of singing and performing, that shared the message of gospel…, of dignity…, of finding and knowing the love of God deep in her heart…, and lived it, and sacrificed for it, to share with others throughout her career and her life.
We know that God became incarnate in a human being, in Jesus, to show us that God’s love can live among us here, and indeed is what brings about the kingdom and realm of God in the world. It is not what goes in our mouths, but what comes out from our hearts, that makes us children of God, and lovers of the realm of the divine kingdom.
‘Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.’ This passionate call, this cross-eyed, cross-over love, could be human or divine. Let us hear this intimate invitation of love, and commit to it in every aspect of our lives, to the glory of God!