My beloved speaks and says to me: “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away; for now the winter is past, the rain is over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth; the time of singing has come, and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land. The fig tree puts forth its figs, and the vines are in blossom; they give forth fragrance. Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.
Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm; 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. If one offered for love all the wealth of his house, it would be utterly scorned.
(Song of Songs 2:10-13; 8:6-7)
For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name. I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, having been rooted and grounded in love. I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.
Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your people. Kindle in us the fire of your love. Send forth your spirit and we are created, and you will renew the face of the earth. Amen.
Our first reading is from the Song of Songs. The Song of Songs is an anthology of originally separate love poems.1 Together they form an unabashed celebration of passionate, intimate, and sensual love. This love fills one with ecstasy in its presence and heartbroken longing in its absence (Song 2:5; 5:8). The innocence and directness with which this love is expressed and experienced harkens to the idyllic early descriptions of the Garden of Eden, in which our forebears lived naked and unashamed, enjoying unfettered delight in sharing their sexuality and their very selves with one another. It stands as a par excellence depiction, merely by analogy of course, of the kind of open, warm, affirming, emotional, embracing, self-giving, liberating and creative love we are meant to share with others, with the entire creation, and even with God. Yet this experience of love, whether with a spouse, friends, family, or God, can often seem as elusive as the Garden of Eden itself. Studies suggest that the opposite experience, that of loneliness, is growing in America. Today about 20% of adults say they only have one person in their life with whom they can talk about personal concerns, while 25% say they have none.2 The social media trend, with all of its bane and blessing, attests to our innate hunger for connection, and possibly the way it continues to allude many of us. And even in the Church, where people intuitively sense it should be a place of love, often find emotional distance, harshness, rigidity, judgment, and rejection.
Our reading is excerpts from two of the poems in the Song of Songs.
The Lover calls to the Beloved, “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.” With eagerness and excitement, the invitation to share the passion of love is given. This enthusiasm is connected with a change in the seasons. “The winter is past, the rain is over and gone.” The harshness, cold, and rigor of winter is giving way to the tender warmth of spring. The sun is shining. Flowers are blossoming. Birds are singing. Fruit is bursting from the trees. Earth and air swell with color, light, fragrance, and sound—breathtaking beauty strangely forgotten in winter’s night. The world is changing, almost magically. Death is replaced by life; barrenness gives way to fertility; stagnancy overtaken by freshness; rigidity with grace, apathy by vigor; withering with flourishing, blossoming, growing, living, thriving—gradually, slowly, but in a way that suddenly overtakes you when it arrives. The invitation to love comes with the invitation to participate in the rebirth of everything living, to join in the song of the springtime of all creation.
As the beloved is invited to a sexual awakening, and as sexuality is a core aspect of being human, she is invited to awaken to the fullness of her aliveness. Like “the fair beauty of the earth, From the death of the winter arising,”3 she is beckoned from a flat-lined life of fear and apathy, so characteristic of our modern age, to the sometimes frightful experience of passionate emotions, enveloping feelings, vigorous energy vibrating through her body. Not merely a rigid, predictable, and mechanical show of so-called feeling, but the spontaneous warmth and fire of love radiating out from one’s core through the entire being. To love in this free and fully-alive way is to be truly human and is to recapture some of what we lost in our departure from the Garden of Eden.
This love, the love that banishes the coldness of winter, that brings with itself the rebirth and reawakening of life itself, is among the most powerful forces on earth. This love is as strong as death. In the way that nothing can stop the inevitability of death, so love has an irresistible and unshakable character to it. It is as tenacious as the grave. The force and energy of love is like a raging flame. This fire of passion has an intensity that cannot be quenched by even the strongest of flood waters. The love that makes the creation new takes over one’s entire being with a force beyond reckoning.
And because this love fills the heart of the Beloved, she asks the Lover: “Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm.” Seals in the ancient world were cast metal or carved stone that had a marking unique to the owner which would be pressed into soft clay or wax as a form of signature. These seals were often worn as rings, as an amulet on the arm, or around the neck on a cord. She asks to be the seal that hangs on his neck and rests on his heart, to be the seal on his arm, or finger. Because she has this heart-filling, life-enriching love for him, nothing would thrill her heart more than for this affection to be reciprocated—that thoughts of her would be continually on his heart, that thoughts of her would be like a signet ring–with him whatever task he sets his hand to. and with this kind of mutuality of love, no floods, no trial or difficulty could quench this flame.
Our second text is from the third chapter of the letter to the Ephesians. The context and setting is quite different. The sensual and erotic love of the Song of Songs gives way to the life of the Church together as a community of redemption. In this beautiful prayer, the author asks that the Church would be strengthened by the Holy Spirit and Christ would dwell in their hearts by faith.
That Christ would dwell in their hearts by faith. Faith is both an important word for Christians and a challenging one for all members of the modern age. Since Descartes, doubt and even radical doubt has been a hallmark of Western culture. Whether from a scientific, anthropological, historical, or psychological perspective, it has become increasingly difficult for many people to believe the specific truth claims of Christianity. And if we are honest, sometimes belief is difficult for us as well. We, like the Psalmists, experience a profound ambiguity in our experience. Sometimes God’s absence is felt more keenly than God’s presence. Sometimes God’s inactivity is more apparent than God’s activity. Sometimes God’s detachment is more believable than God’s involvement. And sometimes we are at a total loss to understand and explain the broken shards of existence we perceive our lives to be. And the shrill clamor of Christian rhetoric, demanding a perfection and certainty of faith we fail to possess, and refusing to lend a sympathetic ear to our painful and conflicted experience, only serves to shame, alienate, and isolate us in a fearful retreat of either denial or despair.
The author of the letter to the Ephesians tells us that Christ dwells in the heart of the Christian community by faith, after having been rooted and grounded in love. The Greek text indicates that it is very likely we should understand this “rooting and grounding in love” to precede the indwelling of Christ by faith and that this “rooting and grounding” has ongoing effects. Literally it says, “That Christ would dwell in y’all’s hearts by faith, y’all having been and remaining rooted and grounded in love.” In other words, love precedes faith. And this love is not an individual experience. We are told that Christ will dwell in your (plural, all y’alls) hearts by faith. Furthermore, the verbs rooting and grounding are agricultural and architectural metaphors respectively. The church is pictured as a garden and a building, and particularly a building that will be filled with all the fullness of God. Earlier in chapter 2, the author makes clear this building is God’s temple itself. Love is the rooting and grounding of the Church—the garden-temple. This garden-temple is not unlike Israel’s temple which was full of agricultural imagery—lampstands that look like a grove of trees complete with carved buds, blossoms, and almonds; carvings of trees, flowers, gourds, and pomegranates adorning the walls—harkening back to the Garden of Eden itself, the first temple and dwelling of God’s presence.4 Love forms the roots and foundation of the garden-temple of the Church. And as a warm, open, self-giving love shapes the entire community’s life together, and as mutual affection graciously pervades the entirety of its shared existence, we become the temple where God is experienced in our midst. And we begin to taste a bit of the future restoration of all things, when God will make all things new, when the glory of the renewed earth surpasses even the glories of the Garden of Eden itself.
Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar once said, “Love alone is credible…The Church’s formal authority, like Christ’s is ultimately credible only as the manifestation of the majestic glory of divine love.”5 The faith of the Church cannot be believed unless it is experienced and received initially and preeminently as love. Balthasar continues saying this love comes to humans “‘from outside…because love exists only between persons, a fact that every philosophy tends to forget. God, who is for us the Wholly-Other, appears only in the place of the other, in the ‘sacrament of our brother or sister.’”6 In an age when faith can seem increasingly difficult, we are reminded of the words of Jesus, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). The Christian message becomes believable only as love. And perhaps this can function not only for “all people out there,” but also for “all people in here”—for us.
Love alone is credible. Love alone has the ability to bestow faith. Love alone can be believed. Faith breathes its life in us through the “sacrament of our brother or sister” in the gracious and self-giving love we share.
In light of the ambiguities and complexities of our experience, in the midst of the pain of isolation, when we despair looking for any trace of God’s presence on a planet scorched with indifference, hatred, violence, and cruelty, experiencing the warmth and embrace of another person’s love awakens the ancient memory of a world that could be different than the one we see. Feeling the powerful aliveness of love bears in itself traces of that magic power which beckons “the fair beauty of the earth, from the death of the winter arising.” When the Christian community embodies this tender, affectionate, faithful, caring love, whether between spouses, friends, family, or strangers, we experience love’s sacramental power: faith and hope are kindled in the God “who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist” (Romans 4:17), and “whose voice calls into history from its end, saying, ‘Behold, I make all things new’, and from hearing this word of promise [we] acquire the freedom to renew life here and to change the face of the world.”7
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Originally the homily at the wedding of Christopher and Alie Fiorello
Painting by Vincent Van Gogh, “Undergrowth with Two Figures” (1890)
Tremper Longman III, Song of Songs, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001), 43-44. ↩
Robin Marantz Henig, “The Science of Loneliness,” Psychology Today. http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/cusp/201408/the-science-loneliness. Retrieved on August 13, 2014. ↩
From the hymn, “Hail Thee, Festival Day,” by Venantius Fortunatus (530-609). Translated from Latin to English by Maurice F. Bell in The English Hymnal (London: Oxford University Press, 1906), number 624. ↩
For more on the correspondence between the temple and the Garden of Eden see Gregory K. Beale. The Temple and the Church’s Mission: A Biblical Theology of the Dwelling Place of God (Downer’s Grove: Intervarsity Press, 2004). ↩
Hans Urs von Balthasar, Love Alone is Credible, (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2004), 148. ↩
Ibid, 150. ↩
Jurgen Moltmann, Theology of Hope (New York: Harper and Row, 1967), 26. ↩