Benediction Online

Sunday, July 03, 2011

The Glory of God is the Human Being Fully Alive

Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67
Song of Solomon 2:8-13

Today is one of the very few opportunities we have during the three year cycle of our lectionary to read from the Song of Songs, a wonderful book of love poetry situated at the very heart of our sacred writings. Over the centuries there have been two major ideas about this book of poetry – firstly that it allegorically portrays the love between God and God’s beloved who is Israel, the Church or the soul depending on the interpreter’s perspective, and secondly that it is what it seems to be, an extended love poem expressing the intimacy and delight of heterosexual love.

In the Jewish tradition it is considered a very sacred book – Rabbi Aqiba in the second century argued that “all the world is not as worthy as the day on which the Song of Songs was given to Israel, for all the writings are holy, but Song of Songs is the holy of holies.” It is now especially associated with Passover. Passover is the feast of God’s great love shown in delivering the Hebrews out of Egypt and in that context the Song of Songs is a song of praise for God’s love. It is also an important text in the mystical system of Qabala, as it brings together the masculine and feminine, and is seen as a description of the creation of the world, the passage of Shabbat, the covenant with Israel, and the coming of the Messianic age.

I don’t think Christians today really know what to do with it. As I said, it hardly ever shows up in the Sunday readings, and today it was one of a couple of choices. I suspect that if we did a poll of Episcopal Churches, we would find that most have chosen to read Psalm 45 instead. Yet in the past it was highly regarded; Bernard of Clairvaux wrote eighty-six sermons based on the Song of Songs, and the sixteenth century reformers, particularly Luther and Calvin, preached on it frequently.

Their approach was that this book provides an allegorical picture of the relationship of the Church to Christ, drawing on the idea found in the New Testament that Christ is the bridegroom and we, the Church, are his bride. Today I want to focus instead on what it might mean to us that at the very center of our sacred writings we have a highly sensuous erotic poem.

I want to suggest to you that eros, erotic connection, is at the very heart of our relationship with God as well as with each other. We tend to think of eros as being limited to sexual love but the Greek god Eros embodied not only the force of love but also the creative urge of ever-flowing nature, the firstborn Light for the coming into being and ordering of all things in the cosmos. John’s Gospel, of course, places Jesus as that first-born Light when it says, “The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world,” and also as the creative force, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.”

It’s as though John is taking the Greek idea of Eros and applying it to Christ. When we think of Christ in that way, it is not so outrageous to make the connection between eros and Christ’s abundant life which is like never-ending spring inside us. The life force which we express sexually and in our most passionate encounters with life is on the same continuum with the passionate love of the Trinity which brought all of Creation into being, incarnated as a human and suffered the torture of the cross only to rebound with total love, forgiveness and resurrection life.

It’s like musical notes. There are several different notes, all of which we call C. They are different, because they are at different pitches, but they are all recognizably the same. The eros which is the creative juice of the Trinity is like a high C and the eros which is our creative juice is like a lower C… they are both recognizably the same and yet they are different.

The first reading this morning was the account of the servant who was sent back to the homeland to find a wife for Abraham’s son, Isaac. This marriage looks very different from what we expect today. It was arranged by a servant acting for their parents, they did not have any legal ceremony, they did not have a blessing by a priest… as far as we can tell, Rebekah moved in with Isaac’s mother into the women’s tent, they had sex together and that was it. Surprisingly for the time they seem to have been monogamous – unlike Abraham and Sarah or Isaac’s son Jacob.

Together they created a marriage within which the creative force of eros could be cultivated and expressed. For many of us who are married today, or living in covenanted relationship, our marriage becomes the primary place where we express the loving, creative force that we call eros. It is also the primary place where we experience sanctification – the daily living close with another person calls out not just the best in us but the worse in us too, to be blessed and transformed as we become more and more Christ-like.

As a sidebar, I am delighted that the state of New York this week voted for same-gender marriage. There is no legal reason that makes sense to me why gay and lesbian people should not marry. There is certainly no religious reason within Christianity which would deny the possibility of expressing eros and experiencing the cleansing fire of sanctification within marriage to lesbian and gay people. I look forward to the time when once again California encourages all those who wish, to make this kind of commitment to life.

But many of us are not living in intimate relationship with one other person. In fact 43% of all Americans over 18 are single – in other words they have never married or are divorced or widowed.[1] Eros is just as important for single people. It is at the heart of who we are, humans made in the image of an erotic God. We may express it in our relationship with the divine, we may express it in our work, in our relationship with our cats, in our poetry, in the joy we experience when we fix a broken engine, or play a great round of golf… there are a myriad ways that we experience that great connecting, creative energy. We express it in our relationships and in our worship, we experience it in our minds and our souls and our bodies.

God created the world of matter and bodies and God saw that it was good. All our sacraments involve our bodies – we baptize with water, we anoint with oil, we eat the brad and wine - because it is through our bodies that we experience the world. It is through our bodies that we express that powerful creative force we call eros.

So it makes sense that at the very center of the Bible should be an erotic poem. Because eros is at the very center of our life with God and each other. Last Tuesday was the feast of Irenaeus, the second-century bishop who said “The glory of God is the human being fully alive.” That is the power of eros – to bring the human being fully alive and to glorify God.

[1] America's Families and Living Arrangements survey of 2009


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