The Rev. Charles Hoffacker
Brian and Molly chose for this service three readings from the Bible, all of which have to do with love. It is to the first of these readings that I would draw our attention now, to that delightful and mysterious passage we heard read from the Song of Solomon.
The Old Testament book from which this passage comes is known also as the Song of Songs, which is simply another way to say the very best song of all. It sometimes surprises people to discover this book in the Bible, for it is a collection of love poems. That it is not read more often in Christian worship is regrettable, for it is a celebration of love that can be interpreted on several levels, all of them true. That a passage from this book is one of the readings provided for a wedding invites us to engage in just that sort of interpretation.
Today’s passage includes verses from two locations in the book: chapter two and chapter eight. The verses from chapter two report what one lover hears from the other.
Listen again to these sweet words of invitation.
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.
In these words we can hear the beauty of a Mediterranean springtime, and that is welcome refreshment for us today, as we move toward a Michigan winter.
We can hear as well God’s invitation to us, his beloved, to be his own. We can hear Christ the bridegroom inviting the church his bride to life with him. And we can recognize the splendid cadences of the love of woman and man for each other which appear before us today in all their newness at the marriage of Molly and Brian.
The passage goes on to some verses from chapter eight. Perhaps this is the voice of the other lover, answering, responding to the glorious invitation.
Listen again to these words.
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.
This lover calls for a union with the other as close as a ring on the finger, a tattoo on the arm, a marking on the heart. For love is strong and fierce, as powerful as death and then some. Love is a burning flame that no torrent can quench. Only a fool would attempt to buy it; love is far more precious than that.
If you have ever felt love, then you know these words are true. They speak of the love that unites God and creation, Christ and the church, husband and wife in every true marriage. Such love is so powerful, so central to existence human and divine that words fail us in describing it, as indeed words must fail when we speak of any of the things that are most important.
These lines are from poems that celebrate human love, and only on that basis do they reveal something of God’s love for us and what our love for God can be.
The implication is clear: human love at its best, its most passionate, its most flaming, reveals to us something of the love shown by God. Is that too audacious to believe? Does that seem too good to be true? Perhaps it is to remind us of just this that both the synagogue and the church include the Song of Songs in the Bible.
Let’s dare to look more closely, not at the book as a whole, not at selected verses, but at a single phrase, that place where we hear how love’s flashes are flashes of fire, a raging flame.
You and I may think we know what that means. We know something of what love is, and we know about fire, about flames that rage, and leap, and burn, powerful flames. To compare love to this fire, certain experiences of love at least, may make sense to us.
But let’s look still more closely. Let’s look underneath the English translation at the Hebrew original. The word we translate as a raging flame is a superlative. So the flame in question is, so to speak, the most raging flame, the flame that rages in a way no other flame can excel.
This superlative is constructed by combining the word for flame with a form of the Name of God, something that can be done in Hebrew, but only with difficulty in English. So love is not simply the most raging flame, the flame that rages in a way no other flame can excel. Love is also the God-flame. Just what does this mean? It may mean that human love somehow participates in divine love, even that the passion uniting wife and husband participates in the passion that burns in the heart of God for his entire beloved creation. [See Roland E. Murphy’s discussion of Song of Solomon 8:6 in The Anchor Bible Dictionary 6:154.]
So, Brian and Molly, the love that unites you is the most raging flame, the God-flame! I invite you, during the years ahead, to recognize at the center of your love for each other that love which is God’s passion and compassion for you and all creation.
And I invite you also during the years to come to consider God’s inexhaustible love for you and for us all and find it, time after time, the foundation and inspiration for the love that binds you together.
One final suggestion, Molly and Brian. Your choice of that reading from the Song of Songs together with all the beauty of your wedding has brought to us here in chilly Michigan something of the breezes of a Mediterranean spring. For that we thank you. Now treat yourselves on occasion to reading together the poems found in the Song of Songs. Treasure them throughout your marriage, and you will find them telling you of a spring that is eternal.
• Copyright for this sermon 2008, The Rev. Charles Hoffacker. Used by permission. Fr. Hoffacker is an Episcopal priest and the author of “A Matter of Life and Death: Preaching at Funerals” (Cowley Publications).