The Song of Songs speaks of… things that will make you blush, speaks of things most of us are too modest to speak of in church. It speaks of a hunger to be held. It speaks of the need for another. It speaks of the pleasure of sex. And it speaks not in the stern voice of some disapproving prude, but it speaks, or rather, it sings, in passionate, stirring cries: one worships their beloved’s body, praising its entrancing shapeliness and its intoxicating smells. Another begs to be touched, even to be taken. We read of fingers through the hair and hearts racing and euphoric release. This is sex (in the Bible!) with no head shaking or ehhhhhhemmmmms from up in heaven, with no joyless priest appearing to pry these lovers from each other’s arms and tell them that they should wait until they are married. This is sex, enjoyed just because. This is sex with all the ecstasy, and with all the confusion we might expect – for the Song of Songs speaks, speaks honestly, not only of desire’s consummation, but of the morning after, of one who has slipped out of bed before break of day, leaving the other to wonder what, if anything, their night together might mean.
The Song of Songs speaks of sex, speaks of sex so candidly and expressively that, since time out of mind, prim, squeamish religious people have sought to squirm their way out of what would seem to be this scripture’s most straightforward and obvious reading – that it is a love poem which glories in one body thrilling to the touch of another. And though, nowhere, nowhere does the Song of Songs make mention of God, the Church has been so desperate to de-eroticize what is plainly erotic, that for millennia, the Song of Songs has been taken by some to describe a union not of coupling bodies, but of the soul with Christ. We – you or I, each of us singly, individually – are thought to be the gushing sweethearts who swoon at the thought of being ravished by Jesus. The suitor on the veranda, looking in on his lover through the latticework and trying to entice her out for a stroll, he is the Romeo-Christ of the book of Revelation, who – behold! – ‘stands at the door and knocks.’ These sort of interpretations can be quite charming, even compelling, but however true many of them may be in what they suggest of the intensity of God’s yearnings, and in what they suggest of that lovesickness of our own, deeper far than what the delights of flesh can satisfy, however true these interpretations are in themselves, they are not true, not entirely true, to the text, to the specific scripture set before us.
This specific scripture, the Song of Songs, speaks not, or at least not only, of our spirits resting in God, but rather, speaks of our bodies resting in the embrace of another. The Song of Songs has religious significance not in spite of all the sex, but because of all the sex. The Song of Songs’ spiritual importance shines forth not when we look past the sex that is spoken of, but when we look closely at the ways that sex is spoken of. For the poem sets much of the seduction and the lovemaking in a garden – in a lush paradise of blooming flowers and babbling waters, where bird and beast sing in praise of passion, and where lovers sit, in the thick of the peaceable, green wilds, sit, in the shelter of a great shade tree there at the heart of the sacred grove, sit, feasting on its sweet fruit. This image, of two, who are naked, in a garden, partaking of its sumptuous pickings, this image of two, abiding in harmony with one another and with all creation, this image cannot but call to mind Eve and Adam in Eden.
In the Song of Songs, we see one beckoning to his beloved, drawing her out of doors, then see the two elope to an oasis of bliss where, in what appears to be a springtime for the ages, the whole world is reborn roundabout them. Lilies and roses rise in triumph over the thorns of the ground God had cursed. Fawns and gazelles frolic unafraid, for the menacing foxes are no more. The Song of Songs evokes Eden – heaven on earth, a sanctuary of serenity where all that is shares together in a fellowship of glad affection. The Song of Songs evokes Eden, to be sure, but it alludes also to the vineyards of Jeremiah, to the banqueting table of Isaiah, to the bridal chamber of Hosea, to the quiet streets of Zechariah, to the green pastures of the psalmist. The loveliest vignettes from across all of scripture are re-staged in the Song of Songs; the glimpses they give us of the beauty and the goodness of the cosmic reconciliation God is bringing to be – these are gathered here, by the poet, with human sensuality at their center.
It is as if the Song of Songs would have us imagine our sex to be a sort of ministering, a ministering that serves this, the work of God in mending the world. It is as if what the Song of Songs wants us to see is that what marks and what makes the sex Christians have to be Christian is not, is not foremost whether it happens within a marriage or, in this day and age, whether you delay it until the fourth or fifth date instead of the first or the second; no, it is as if what Christians, what we, should be asking about sex is not how long we should wait to have it, but what do we want it to mean? What do we want our sex to mean? And this question is not about loosening our morals, but enlarging the scope of them; historically, the Church has said of sex only – be chaste, and you better not cheat. This question, what do we want our sex to mean?, expands the circle of ethical concern, not shrinks it. It pivots from a prohibitive posture to one of aspiration, of striving, where what is of religious significance is less the sex we do not have than the kind and the spiritual quality of the sex we do.
The Song of Songs invites us to imagine that sex means ministering unto another, that sex means better-to-serve-than-to-be-served, that sex sometimes means sacrificing for the sake of mutuality of pleasure. The Song of Songs bids that our sex be so sweet and restoring, so gladdening and good as to herald the wholeness of the Eden that was and of the heaven on earth that yet will be. The Song of Songs wants our sex to beautify and build up the other, and this as a way of sharing in the beautifying and building up of the world that God is about right now. The Song of Songs envisions a giving of ourselves to another, a giving of ourselves to another in vulnerability and in hope – and a being received by another as the broken but precious wonders we are, a being received by another with tenderness and thanksgiving, a being received by another in and through which we become something more than we once were. The Song of Songs shows us sex as sacrament, as a way of blessing another, of bestowing grace upon the body of another. The Song of Songs shows us that our desire, our longing and our loving, has a power to purify, to ennoble, to lift another, to lift them so that they can see and can know themselves to be cherished beyond measure. Our desire, our longing and loving, can make it safe for another to stand, to stand undressed in body and in soul, to stand baring all of who they are, to stand, and to not be afraid. The Song of Songs would have our sex heal and honor and comfort and sanctify, so that, even east of Eden, we might again be naked and unashamed.
Note: This sermon was very much informed by both Robert Jenson and Ellen Davis’ commentaries on the Song of Songs, as well as by Eugene Rogers’ marvelous book Sexuality and the Christian Body.