SESSION THREE: MUTUAL VULNERABILITY AND DELIGHT— SONG OF SONGS AND MARRIAGE AS A PARABLE OF TRIUNE LOVE
WHERE WE ARE
So far, we’ve done little to deal with the actual portions of the Bible that mention sexuality. Purposefully, the first two sessions were meant to try and reframe how we approach and think about the Bible. In the first session, we discussed how the reading of the Bible is a churchwide endeavor. That is, the Church is the means by which we mediate our understanding of scripture, because it provides the communal frame through which we can interpret the particulars of scripture.
In the second session with David Fitch, we doubled-down on the importance and difficulty of reading as a community. David helped introduce us to notions of ideology and banners, concepts that help us to identify what happens when we start throwing scripture at each other; that is, David helped us see when we turn the grace of God as communicated by scripture into the Law as dictated by the antagonisms society envelops us in. When antagonisms are the basis of the Church’s (Read: the community’s) use of scripture, the Bible becomes a weapon, an instrument of ideology.
David left us with the question of how to discern what it is that God is doing on the ground in the Church. Discernment on our part requires an active participation in the life of Christ by forming our discussions in the same way that Christ forms us through the cross. Discernment means beginning in a space of brokenness – the only space from which God enters the scene. It begins, then, with a posture of humility that acknowledges sin and shortcoming, opening up the community to seeing collectively where God is present and where God is working among them and outside of them.
IN CASE YOU MISSED IT
Once again, since I want to make sure this sinks in for everyone, I’m going to reiterate the assumptions and premises to help us navigate this question and open ourselves to how God is shaping us through it. (Notice: the emphasis here is on what God is doing. We cannot proceed unless we can first get to a point where we acknowledge our need to be led, to be taught, to be humbled in the work of God in this community.)
1. Yes, homosexuality is given minimal attention in scripture, and where it is mentioned it is most often mentioned in an illustrative fashion. But, where homosexuality is referenced illustratively it is used as a negative example— usually, as a for instance of Gentile behavior.
2. Yes, homosexuality is not a matter that receives attention in Jesus’ preaching and teaching. But, that’s an argument from silence, and Jesus’ teaching explicitly endorses the male/female normativity of marriage.
3. Yes, Jesus teaches that marriage is between a man and a woman (“from the foundation of the world”), but St. Paul adapts Jesus’ unambiguous teaching on divorce to allow for divorce in the specific cases (I know Jesus said, but I say to you).
4. Yes, the New Testament Church understands marriage as between a man and a woman. But, marriage is an evolving institution in scripture (Abraham?!)— and, the early Church’s first expectation was for believers to remain single and celibate. Indeed, the celebration of marriages was forced upon the ancient Church by the Roman empire.
5. Yes, it’s true that some of the prohibitions people cite against homosexuality are contained within Old Testament purity codes which have been superceded by the Christian new covenant. But, it’s also true that the early Church at the Council of Jerusalem (Book of Acts) singled out which Levitical codes still bound believers. These include the commandments regarding sexuality.
6. Yes, the Book of Acts shows the Holy Spirit working to expand and open up covenant belonging beyond what the Church deemed permissible from their prior reading of scripture (e.g., Cornelius, Ethiopian eunuch). But, the early Church did not conclude from the Spirit’s inclusive work that their scriptures had been wrong; they realized instead that their reading of their scripture had been wrong— God had always intended the inclusion of Gentiles (Isaiah 60). This same tension is true when it comes to the issues of slavery and women in leadership. The Church concluded they’d misread the dominant themes of scripture in favor of a few verses, which supported their prejudice. The Church did not conclude that scripture was wrong about slavery or women.
7. Yes, homosexuality is nowhere affirmed or even condoned in the Bible. But, nowhere in the Bible is what we think of today as monogamous, faithful homosexual relationships even countenanced.
8. Yes, the Church has historically defined marriage in terms of one man and one woman. But, the Church historically has not demanded immediate agreement about marriage when it has been at odds with the cultural norms of a given mission field. Namely, Christian missionaries have long tolerated polygamy in the mission field in order to advance their mission of proclaiming the Gospel.
SONG OF SONGS AND MUTUAL, MATERIAL JOY
First, take a look at the ancient wedding rite as found in the Book of Common Prayer. While the rite obviously assumes the male/female norm, notice what the liturgy names as the first purpose of Christian marriage:
Dearly beloved: We have come together in the presence of God to witness and bless the joining together of this man and
this woman in Holy Matrimony. The bond and covenant of marriage was established by God in creation, and our Lord Jesus Christ adorned this manner of life by his presence and first miracle at a wedding in Cana of Galilee. It signifies to us
the mystery of the union between Christ and his Church, and Holy Scripture commends it to be honored among all people.
The union of husband and wife in heart, body, and mind is intended by God for their mutual joy; for the help and comfort given one another in prosperity and adversity; and, when it is God’s will, for the procreation of children and their nurture in the knowledge and love of the Lord. Therefore marriage is not to be entered into unadvisedly or lightly, but reverently, deliberately, and in accordance with the purposes for which it was instituted by God.
In the debate over sexuality, verses are plucked from various and different contexts to corroborate one position (and by the very same token, denigrate the position of another). Think Leviticus 18 and Romans 1, to name a few.
The most neglected book of the Bible in this discussion, and perhaps the most neglected book generally in the Church, is the Song of Songs. Perhaps, this is because it is the most openly erotic book of the Bible. Perhaps, it is because the love song uses language many of us would never dream of saying in the bedroom (nor would we want to hear it).
Given the openly amorous language, I wonder why this does not get the attention it ought to receive in debates about sexuality.
It is a love poem, but a love poem of a different kind, something not found in the whole of scripture. Ancient Jewish interpreters of this poem understood it to be a love song conveying the relationship between God and Israel. Reading in that legacy, interpreters in the early Church understood the poem on two levels: on the interior relationship that constitutes the trinity, and the relationship between God and the Church. For ancient interpreters, rarely was it the case that this scripture was referenced to refer to marriage as we know it.
The Song of Songs was not a song of human marriage, but of the marriage of the divine, through which human marriage finally became intelligible to early Christians (Paul, famously, advocated chastity and asceticism before marriage). It should be indicative even from the name of the poem, which takes a superlative, genitive form. It is the Song from which all other songs proceed, which is to say that the relationship disclosed in the Song of Songs is the primary relationship of focus for those in the Church.
The Song of Songs shows us that, in the life of the Church, marriage becomes intelligible only on a tertiary level. The Song of Songs, in primarily disclosing the relationship that constitutes the Trinity, reflects the focus that Christian marriage is meant to reflect: the unmitigated, continuous exchange of grace and love between partners. The relationship that the Song of Songs most ardently expounds is the relationship of grace that marriages are meant to reflect.
Marriage, then, is a signifier of the one-way grace and love of God for the world, given in Christ through the power of the Spirit.
Take this passage from Song of Songs 5: 1-8
- I am come into my garden, my sister, my spouse: I have gathered my myrrh with my spice; I have eaten my honeycomb with my honey; I have drunk my wine with my milk: eat, O friends; drink, yea, drink abundantly, O beloved.
- I sleep, but my heart waketh: it is the voice of my beloved that knocketh, saying, Open to me, my sister, my love, my dove, my undefiled: for my head is filled with dew, and my locks with the drops of the night.
- I have put off my coat; how shall I put it on? I have washed my feet; how shall I defile them?
- My beloved put in his hand by the hole of the door, and my bowels were moved for
- I rose up to open to my beloved; and my hands dropped with myrrh, and my fingers with sweet smelling myrrh, upon the handles of the lock.
- I opened to my beloved; but my beloved had withdrawn himself, and was gone: my soul failed when he spake: I sought him, but I could not find him; I called him, but he gave me no answer.
- The watchmen that went about the city found me, they smote me, they wounded me; the keepers of the walls took away my veil from me.
- I charge you, O daughters of Jerusalem, if ye find my beloved, that ye tell him, that I am sick of love.
Obvious innuendos aside, the centerpiece of this passage is the opening and closing to the Beloved. The whole dramatis of this section relies on the climax that occurs in verse 6. Read as the relationship between the Church and the Lord, this can be identified immediately as a statement begrudging the lustful desire of the Lord’s flock and instead turning her to seek after him properly.
Beneath this, though, is a deeper meaning. The theologian Robert Jenson writes in his commentary that what is revealed in the oscillation of open and closed is moreover the laying out of the recurring pattern of Israel’s salvation history. This history is laid clear by the shifting nature of the love the woman has for the Beloved, shifting from seeking after him, to desiring him, to knowing him properly.
Deeper still, there is something revealed about the nature of the Trinity here. The same oscillation between lust and love, between eros and agape, is representative of the continuous exchange of love and grace, and the transformative, active power therein, that makes the Trinity’s inner communion distinct.
The song, in its ebb and flow, tracks and maps the exchange of love that constitutes the unity of God: Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit.
And notice (this next part is important for the rest of what I am going to say): The kind of love and desire described, the kind of actions used illustratively, they are all embodied acts.
The cult classic film, Babette’s Feast, is a helpful example in attempting to understand the grace God gives, which is the same grace that makes God, God. In the film, which takes place in a small town in Sweden, the two female leaders of a struggling congregation that declined after the passing of its founder, find a woman on their steps needing a place to stay. She was fleeing persecution from the French, who had killed her family. The women agree to let her stay, and in return she cooks and cleans for them, providing meals for their services and maintaining the church. One day, she happens to receive the winning ticket of the lottery, worth $10,000. After notifying the two sisters, she insists that they celebrate her winnings with a large feast, which she offers to prepare. She leaves for a while to get everything necessary for the feast. When she returns, a boatload of food arrives with her, and she prepares a full meal in French style, with which the locals are unfamiliar and on first taste, unsatisfied. But as the feast progresses, the gathering becomes more and more lively, the food tasting better and better with each bite.
At the end of the feast, the two women, fearing that she will leave since the feast is over, ask the lady what she plans to do. She replies by saying that she is not leaving, for she spent all her winnings on the feast. “That is the cost of a meal for friends at Café Anglaise,” she states.
The story is a story of unmerited grace, where the Christ-figure both upsets and reconciles. The narrative, which shows a lot more Gospel than cultural criticism will allow us to admit, tells us a several things.
- The human Jesus really was a human, who appears to us in the state of brokenness and need. Therefore, the redemption offered in Christ is one offered through a body.
- The price of grace can be paid only by Christ: It is inaccessible without him.
- The promise of grace is never revoked, for it promises bodily resurrection and rehabilitation.
TRINITY, THE BODY, AND MARRIAGE
Before we start judging gay people for the supposedly distinctive unrighteousness of their marriages, straight Christians need to first have a positive understanding of what marriage is and what it does. And for us Christians, that means taking the resurrection seriously. In fact, taking the resurrection seriously is the only way that the Christian view of marriage makes any sense.
The resurrection, we confess in the creeds, is bodily; the Christ who leaves the grave on Easter morning is not only alive, but he is alive and breathing. The resurrection we profess is embodied, which makes the marriage of two people not simply a sign of invisible grace, but a physical embodiment of the promise God gives in Christ, the only promise that could ever be unconditional.
As we saw in the Song of Songs, the relationality of the Trinity is what marriage ought to point to. And insofar as one person of the Trinity is, in fact, a Person (albeit with a capital P), then the relationship expressed in his life, death, and resurrection, provides the necessary centerpiece of the physical bond we call marriage.
In fact, without that piece, marriage is simple a soluble spiritual bond that cannot sustain itself, and that will inevitably not take seriously the importance of the body. That is, without the resurrection, Christian marriage becomes unintelligible, because the body becomes meaningful.
In the ancient world, between the 1st and 4th centuries, a proto-religion called Gnosticism came out of the early Christian tradition. You’ve probably heard the name before. In fact, you’ve probably been a practicing gnostic before (don’t feel bad about it; its America’s religion, really). There were two central things, thematically speaking, that made Gnosticism different from the early Christians: their conception of the body, and their notion of salvation. The latter, for Gnostics, informed the former. They thought of the body as encumbering the soul, the freedom of which is the ultimate salvation.
We may not want to admit it, but we (as a society) are much more prone to thinking of bodies in this way, in this negative light that ties the body to a negative materiality. For Gnostics, salvation ultimately ended in the release from the body and the ascent of the pure soul.
Despite its ravaging popularity, even to the point of being a distinct part of our philosophical inheritance, the Gnostic notion of the body is utterly different from the one offered in Christ and in our marriage to Him.
The marriage rites, which quote from Genesis (something we will talk about next week), tell us that the couple “cleaves” to each other. The couple, that is, literally physically attach to each other (yes, that means what you think it means). The resurrection and the ascension, the moments in which God raises both Christ and humanity with Him, are bodily acts, and in that vein give our bodies a substantive meaning – a positive meaning.
Further, the ascension, which is the visible sign of the unity of the Trinity in which all of humanity is invited to participate, actually makes our material lives good. The goodness of the body of Christ, raised into active participation in the unity of love and grace, raises our bodies into that goodness as well. When Christ returns from the dead in the physical body that was nailed to the cross, the bodies we have were given a good meaning.
The resurrection, assured in the ascension, makes the bodies we have important conduits of grace. Grace comes not in a disembodied, vaporous form, but in the substantive body of Christ. That body was made naked and vulnerable to us, such that we might “see the Father” (John 14:9). The vulnerability of Christ’s body is a sign to us of the goodness of our own vulnerability. And remember, the body the disciples see after the resurrection – it’s still vulnerable. Jesus urges Thomas to “put your finger here; see my pierced hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side” (John 20:27).
Nowhere is the vulnerability of our bodies more evident than in marriage.
Thus, all the acts of marriage, and especially sex, are the truly parabolic moments that signify a couple’s reflection of the Trinity. We have to remember that the Trinity, whose love we attempt to reflect in marriage, is the constant self-disclosure and love and grace to itself, which requires of it an absolute vulnerability. Each of the members of the Trinity is always already open and vulnerable to the others.
When we open ourselves to others (literally and metaphorically) and become vulnerable, our three-way relationship with us, our partner, and God becomes intelligible. Our nakedness takes on a theological meaning, because it reflects the same nakedness that binds the Trinity together.
Thus, marriage is not only an outward sign of an inward grace, but a physical sign of a bodily grace. God, who is all in all through Christ in the unity of the Spirit, cannot help but raise our bodies, too. It is only from that stance that we can begin to evaluate, in a Christian sense, the goodness, or not, of nuptial unity. That is, if we are to evaluate marriages as a church, then this positive understanding of the goodness of our bodies and the reflection of the Trinity that is a centerpiece of the sanctifying function that marriages serve for the community called the Church.
That grace, moreover, is the means by which marriages become sanctifying bonds given as a gift to the Church for its edification. More on that next week. To end, I want to offer you a “Charge for a Wedding,” written by Eugene F. Rogers, a theologian who was my first teacher at UVA, which does not depend on male-female normativity for the coherence of Christian marriage:
“Dearly beloved: we have come together in the presence of God to witness and bless the joining together of these God’s human creatures, [x and y], in Holy Matrimony. Marriage signifies the mystery of the love that God bears for human beings, in that God desires, befriends, and keeps faith with us. That love is mysterious to us in that, unlike us, God just is love, an interior community, never lonely, already rich. That love is open to us in that God desires, befriends, and keeps faith in God’s very self, as these two desire, befriend, and keep faith with each other. And God’s Spirit internally witnesses and blesses and keeps faith with the love in God as today we externally witness and bless the love of these two human creatures in God’s image. Today the celebration, blessing, and witnessing of this wedding catch us up into a parable of the inner love and life of God.”