This is a memory I return to like a ritual. A streak of blood flashing through the air, men crowded close around my beloved brother and cousin, tough blows falling like a heavy rain, the pronounced sense of powerlessness in the vain screams I lifted up to no one.
It was nearly a decade ago that my brother, my cousin and I were attacked by a group of men on a poorly lit street in Quito, Ecuador. We survived, but each of us have struggled in our own way to make sense of it, alternating between panic attacks, substance abuse, post traumatic stress disorder, anxiety disorders, and, of course, in my case: writing sermons about it.
At the age of 22, this was the first authentic glimpse I’d caught of my mortality – of all our mortality. The bone and the blood and the vomit and the tears I witnessed that night congealed to form a mortar sealing my fate: my body is penetrable. I now understood with horrible clarity that this skin we wear is not a wall of bulletproof glass, but rather a porous barrier through which worldly molecules are sucked in and spat out, like the creams we spread on our elbows, like the sweat we emit with exertion.
Our homecoming one week later was to a gaggle of loved ones awaiting our arrival at the airport. Haggard faces greeted us, worried eyes and puckered chins, as we paraded down the escalators attempting to prove our relative health and general aliveness. We were not very convincing, but as our bodies were embraced, as familiar arms enfolded us, for me at least, my healing began.
That moment of healing — that embrace, right there — is how it is with love.
You may find this a strange way to begin a sermon on the Song of Songs. After all, just moments ago I was reading aloud one of the most delicious texts in the Bible, a sensual and erotic traversing of a lover’s body from toe to head. And yet we all know, at the core of who we are, that even as we embrace one another with the most intimate of grasps, to love another is to risk terrible pain. We love in the midst of life, which is also to say, we love at risk of loss.
The Song portrays this risk as Danger. Do you remember the watchmen of the night, the sentinals who in chapter 5 strip the woman, who beat her and bruise her, simply for walking about the town at night in search of her lover? In today’s passage, we hear the woman wishing her lover were like a brother to her. It may sound strange to our ears, but her wish is logical. At that time, she could be seen with a brother in public, even kiss her brother in public – but not so with an unrelated man. To do so was a violation of social norms, a dangerous act.
Gender roles were notoriously strict in ancient Israel. Most of us know that adulterous women in ancient Mesopotamia were often stoned to death. What we often don’t remember is that very few women who behave out of the ordinary in the Bible are praised for it. Israel in biblical texts is frequently portrayed as God’s adulterous wife, who in the book of Hosea is stripped, exposed, and beaten for her infidelities. Sex in the Mediterranean was first and foremost seen as an expression of power, with two actors: the superior, penetrator; and the weaker, the one being raped. To be a woman was to be understood systematically and unquestionably as the inferior, weaker sex.
Within this broader context, it is certainly remarkable that the Song portrays a female character who not only names what she wants, but also pursues it unapologetically. For any ancient Israelite text to celebrate female desire, the female body and female sexuality – and to have it upheld in the canonization of the Bible – is enough to make any modern-day feminist weak in the knees. I mean, look at this stuff!
In chapter seven, the woman in the poem is compared to a queen, with rounded thighs like jewels and a nose as elegant as the tower of Lebanon. Her breasts are first compared to twin gazelles, then to coconuts at the top of a stately palm tree, and finally they become like clusters of grapes on the vine – significantly sweeter, closer to the ground, and easier to pluck than your average coconut or gazelle. As the lover’s passionate description of the woman continues, we, the listeners, are brought in closer to her, more intimately learning of the apple-sweetness of her breath, and of her kisses, which are compared the smoothest, sweetest wine, gliding over lips and teeth.
“My beloved is mine and I am his,” she declares in avid response to her lover’s adoration, and she calls him forth to the fields and the vineyards, where the pomegranates are in bloom, and where she has saved up the choicest fruit for him to consume.
Since her lover had previously compared her breasts to grapes on the vine, I think we can all safely assume that she isn’t exclusively talking about… fruit.
And yet danger is never far around the corner. These two chapters of the Song, as with most of the Song before it, are fraught with unrequited longing, with an undercurrent of tension and danger throughout. The woman repeatedly expresses her wish to kiss her lover in the streets of the city, and she adjures the Daughters of Jerusalem, her audience, not to wake love before it is ready – presumably because it may be too dangerous to do so. Later in chapter eight, she must defend herself and her actions to her brothers, who see her as a child and threaten to lock her away from the rest of the world.
Any of us who have loved, romantic or not, know what it is like to have our love threatened. For my family, the night I and my brother and my cousin were attacked, the danger was also men in the streets of a city at night, who threatened to take our lives. But Danger comes in many forms. A friend of mine recently gave birth to a stillborn child; the danger she faced was pre-ecclampsia, and it took her child before they were even able to meet face-to-face. For some, Danger is named racism, and allows a man to legally shoot and kill a 17-year-old boy for playing his music too loud, as was the case for Jordan Davis in Jacksonville, Florida. Some of us face danger in the form of our own inner demons, depression or addiction or anxiety, which try to convince us that we are unlovable, or undeserving of love. And heartbreaking loss comes still in the form of divorce, sexism, betrayal, homophobia, anger, abuse, misunderstanding. At times it can feel as though Danger stalks us from every angle, ever-present, as vigilant as the watchmen of the wall.
To love others is to risk the pain of loss. And yet the act of loving others in spite of this loss is to defy death itself, to stake claim to the idea that love is strong as death.
Set me as a seal upon your heart, says the woman in the Song – for love is strong as death. Yes, set me as a seal on your arm, for passion is as strong as the grave!
It has become a recent trend for couples, when they marry, to tattoo their wedding bands on their fingers. But the woman in the Song goes even a step further than that. She is not even hoping even to be branded upon her lover’s heart, as our modern ears might hear it, but to be made a part of his seal, which in the ancient world would have been something like his signature.
A person’s seal was dipped in ink and rolled upon a sheet of paper. The opposite impression, much like a modern-day stamp, acted as the individual’s signature when sending a letter or signing a contract. They were often worn on a chain, hung around one’s neck – coming to rest atop the heart – or around the arm or wrist as a bangle. When the woman commands her lover to set her as a seal on his heart or his arm, she was not merely asking for their love to be branded upon his being, but indeed that she become as much a part of him as his very identity.
Were she branded upon his heart as a memory, his love would die with his death.
Were he to set her as a physical, permanent seal on his body, it would turn to dust just as quickly as would his body.
But to incorporate their love into his seal, into his very identity, the woman believes, is to transcend and outlast death. She becomes a part of him, in life and in death. His signature remains in significant documents, his identity in the memories of the community, his very being, even in death, bound up in hers.
When we give of our love to others, we are tapping into the essence of who we are as human beings. When we open ourselves up to vulnerability, we change and are changed by those who we love. It is in the experience of mutually reaching out to one another, with our bodies and our hearts and our minds, that rebelliously defies death’s sting.
In this way we confront death: in the act of loving, embracing, connecting, holding, conversing, admiring, laughing, touching, consoling, stroking, clutching one another. We love in spite of death. We love in the midst of death. We love at risk of death. We love in defiance of death.
for love is strong as death,
passion fierce as the grave…
[So] Make haste, my beloved,
and be like a gazelle
or a young stag
upon the mountains of spices!
Come to the garden.
This week, my heart is in a state of delicate preparation: I will graduate from seminary. The past three years at Union have been those of a constant prodding: a loosening of scripture from bonds of intolerance and injustice, a massaging of my heart to understand (if not to forgive), and an unfolding of my mind to questions, to uncertainty, and to flexibility.
Some years ago, before coming to Union, I went to the Boundary Waters (on the Minnesota-Canada border) with a group of friends from bible camp. A seemingly endless chain of cold, clear lakes linking upon lakes, the Boundary Waters provides peaceful respite from motor-boats, pontoons, and other forms of civilization. There, one’s heart can wander amongst the stars even as the body submerges the mind, relentlessly sweeping away useless thoughts as a paddle cuts through water.
This trip, however, my heart could not wander freely with the stars. Instead, it is the moment in my particular history to which I pinpoint the death of my ‘faith’, at least as it existed at that time. Read the rest of this entry »