Saturday, December 21, 2013

The Bridegroom of Souls

As far as I can determine, December 21 is the only day of the year when there is a Mass reading from Song of Songs, a title which basically means “The Best Song.” It’s also known as Canticle of Canticles and The Song of Solomon who is thought to have been its author.  This Old Testament book consists of a series of love poems and it’s the only book in the Bible that never mentions God. 

The Mass readings for December 21 offer an option to be used instead of the passage from Song of Songs 2: 8-14 which begins “Hark! My lover—here he comes springing across the mountains, leaping across the hills.”  This passage accompanies Luke 1: 39-45, the story of the Visitation when Mary, bearing the newly conceived Son of God in her womb, went to visit her kinswoman Elizabeth.

Jesus is the “lover” who travels across mountains and hills.  Jesus is God-in-the-flesh who, like any lover, wants to be with his beloved. He wants to be with humanity.  He wants to unite himself to each one of us.

I suspect that a second option is offered for the first Mass reading for December 21 because some people are squeamish when it comes to the love poetry of Song of Songs.  Various Biblical scholars have even described it as a celebration of erotic love which some might judge has no place in sacred writings. Yet erotic love or eros is not by its nature sinful.  It is only sinful when it becomes infected with lust which turns another person into an object to be used for pleasure.  In fact, God, who St. John declares is Love, is the origin of eros. God loves each person with a passionate love that is eros.

Pope Benedict XVI wrote about this in his first encyclical Deus Caritas Est (God is Love) which was issued on Christmas Day, 2005.  Writing about Song of Songs, he said: “According to the interpretation generally held today, the poems contained in this book were originally love-songs, perhaps intended for a Jewish wedding feast and meant to exalt conjugal love.”  He then wrote about eros and another form of love, agape, or self-sacrificing love: “
God loves, and his love may certainly be called eros, yet it is also totally agape.  The Prophets, particularly Hosea and Ezekiel, described God's passion for his people using boldly erotic images.”

In his 2007 Message for Lent, Pope Benedict explained this interplay of eros and agape in God. He wrote: “These biblical texts indicate that eros is part of God's very Heart: the Almighty awaits the ‘yes’ of his creatures as a young bridegroom that of his bride. … Dear brothers and sisters, let us look at Christ pierced on the Cross! He is the unsurpassing revelation of God's love, a love in which eros and agape, far from being opposed, enlighten each other. On the Cross, it is God himself who begs the love of his creature: He is thirsty for the love of every one of us.”

This is the meaning of Christmas. God loves humanity and each individual so much that he sacrifices himself, empties himself, so that we could be one with him forever. Love desires union with the beloved and God sacrificed all in order to be one with us. 

It should be no surprise that the erotic poetry of Song of Songs is in the Bible. While expressing the passion of human romantic love, it also reveals the passionate love of God who has traditionally been called “The Bridegroom of the Soul.”


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