Tuesday, November 13, 2018
Military members owe the same loyalty to the government of the day that civil servants do, but with the extra burden of realizing that unlike workers in, say, Finance or Vital Statistics, they have the unique capability and organization to take power and replace a government that is not to their liking.
Times of social and political polarization make it especially tempting for the military to see itself as a political actor, in the long Bonapartian tradition of the Man on the White Horse. In the especially fraught politics of the US, the number of recently retired senior officers endorsing political candidates rises each year, lending their influence and example to serving members who may feel similarly tempted. In this excellent essay, LCol Cavanaugh, an American Army officer, proposes a Code of Conduct to keep the military apolitical.
While Canada's military is a sliver of the size of its US counterpart, and has always stayed out of active politics, I have personally seen Canadian Armed Forces members, identifiable online as such, criticize policies of the Government of Canada on social media. Non-commissioned members have associated with racist and extremist groups, thus violating the CAF's commitment to diversity and to mirroring the face of Canadian society. I would suggest that LCol Cavanaugh's proposed Code of Conduct works just as well for us, if the words "Canada" and "Canadian" are substituted for United States and American.
There are dark days ahead. Military members have a duty and a responsibility not to make them any darker.
We gather today on this hallowed ground on which is interred Canada’s Unknown Soldier, to remember all those who made the ultimate sacrifice. On the Centennial of the signing of the Armistice, we honour those whose names we know, and those whose names are known to God alone.
For those of you who wish to join me in prayer,
in the respect of our freedom of religion, I invite you to turn your hearts to the God of your understanding or to take this moment in personal reflection.
Please join me in prayer or in a moment of personal reflection.
(Choir starts humming I vow to Thee my country until the end of the prayer)
We give thanks for those who have given their lives in the service of justice and peace.
We know that peace is more than tolerating one another, it is recognizing ourselves in others, and realizing that we are all on the path of life together.
Lord of peace and justice, enable us to lay down our own weapons of exclusion, intolerance, hatred, and strife. Make us instruments of your peace that we may seek reconciliation in our world.
As we remember those who returned from past wars with injuries, both visible and invisible, inspire us to care for all military personnel who are wounded in body, mind, and soul.
Help us to have compassion for our brothers and sisters, who, for reasons known and unknown, have considered or attempted suicide. May we be compassionate for the families and friends impacted by these tragedies.
We remember the families, friends, comrades, and caregivers of those who, in time of war and peace, have paid the ultimate sacrifice to restore peace. Be their refuge and strength in moments of grief
We pray for all military members who are deployed around the world in dedication to the welfare of humanity, and the preservation of justice and peace. Inspire them to give their best in the cause of freedom.
We pray for our Sovereign Lady, Elizabeth II, Queen of Canada, for the Governor General, the Prime Minister, our Chief of Defence Staff and all in authority: that they may have the wisdom, and compassion to meet the call of their offices.
On this Centennial year of the Armistice, we remember and pay respects to our fallen by answering their call to peace.
In sure and certain hope, we pray.
Nous sommes réunis aujourd’hui en ce lieu sacré où repose en paix le soldat canadien inconnu, pour nous rappeler de tous ceux et celles qui ont fait l’ultime sacrifice. En ce jour du centenaire de la signature de l’armistice, nous voulons rendre hommage à ceux et celles dont nous connaissons les noms et ceux et celles dont les noms sont connus de Dieu seul.
Dans le respect des croyances individuelles, j’invite toutes les personnes qui veulent se joindre à moi dans la prière à tourner leur cœur vers le dieu de leur foi ou à prendre un moment de réflexion personnelle.
Je vous invite à vous joindre à moi dans la prière ou prendre un moment de réflexion personnelle.
(La chorale commence à fredonner I vow to Thee my country jusqu’à la fin de la prière)
Nous te rendons grâce pour ceux et celles qui ont donné leur vie au service de la justice et de la paix.
Nous savons que la paix c’est plus que tolérer l’autre; c’est se reconnaître dans les autres, c’est réaliser que nous sommes tous ensemble sur le chemin de la vie.
Dieu de justice et de paix, aide-nous à laisser tomber nos propres armes d’exclusion, d’intolérance, de haine et de conflits. Fais de nous des instruments de ta paix afin d’apporter la réconciliation dans le monde.
Alors que nous nous rappelons ceux et celles qui ont été marqués par des blessures, visibles ou invisibles, inspire-nous de prendre soin de tous nos militaires qui ont été blessés dans leur corps, leur esprit et leur âme.
Aide-nous à être plein de compassion à l’égard de nos frères et sœurs qui, pour des raisons connues ou inconnues, ont envisagé ou tenté de se suicider. Rends-nous sensible à la souffrance des familles et des amis touchés par ces tragédies.
Nous nous souvenons des familles, des amis, des collègues et du personnel soignant de ceux et celles qui, en temps de guerre et de paix, ont fait le sacrifice de leur vie pour restaurer la paix. Sois leur soutien et leur force dans les moments de deuil.
Nous prions pour tous les militaires déployés autour du monde, dévoués au mieux-être de l’humanité et à la promotion de la justice et de la paix. Inspire-leur de donner le meilleur d’eux-mêmes pour la cause de la liberté.
Nous prions pour notre souveraine, Sa Majesté Elizabeth II, Reine du Canada; pour la gouverneure générale, le premier ministre, le chef d’état-major de la Défense et toutes les personnes en autorité; que la sagesse et la compassion les accompagnent dans l’exercice de leurs fonctions.
À l’occasion de cette année du centenaire de l’armistice, nous nous souvenons et rendons hommage à nos disparus en répondant à leur appel à bâtir la paix.
Dans cette espérance, nous te prions.
Monday, November 12, 2018
Sunday, November 4, 2018
The Rev. William Andrew White was the Baptist pastor of a black congregation in Truro, Nova Scotia when the Great War began. American by birth and the son of former slaves, White came to Canada through the network of the African Baptist Association and attended seminary at Acadia University in Wolfville.
African Canadians were not allowed to enlist in the Army until 1916, when the government authorized No. 2 Construction Battalion, consisting of black soldiers led by white officers. Rev. White actively recruited for this unit, and half of its strength came from Nova Scotia. White was appointed as the Battalion chaplain was the only African Canadian to be commissioned as an officer during World War One.
The Dictionary of Canadian Biography gives this account:
Some members of the battalion trained in Windsor, Ont., and the rest in Pictou, N.S., and later Truro. In March 1917 the unit embarked for England. They were attached to the Canadian Forestry Corps (Jura Group) and relegated to the status of “company” because they were about 300 men under strength. In May they were sent to eastern France, where they worked alongside white troops during logging and milling operations but were segregated the rest of the time. Their chaplain had a hard row to hoe: white soldiers would not accept his ministrations, even when they otherwise lacked the services of a clergyman. Nevertheless he was an unmitigated force for good across racial lines. Such were his courage, moral authority, and physical stature that he once interposed himself between his unit and a group of white men to avert a riot.
Given the racial prejudices of the day, it was a significant step for the Chaplain Service, thanks to its director, John Almond, who was progressive for his time. Almond had tried to send an Anglican Metis chaplain to serve Canadian Indigenous detachments scattered through France, but his request was turned down by CEF Headquarters which disapproved of "roving commissions". Almond had also wanted to send a Jewish chaplain to France, but HQ likewise objected, claiming that "there were no concentrations of Jewish troops large enough to merit [their own chaplain]" (Duff Crerar, Padres in No Man's Land, 2nd ed, p. 68).
Padre White survived the war and died in 1936. His CEF record may be found here. He deserves to be better remembered as a significant figure in the history of the Royal Canadian Chaplain Service.
Monday, October 29, 2018
In my previous post I mentioned the British artist Tim Godden, who specializes in images of the Great War and of Edwardian sports figures. His style captives me - there’s a simplicity and a sincerity about it I prefer to the legions of commercial artists out there specializing in military scenes. Tim excels at capturing the humanity and vulnerability of his subjects, as in his collaboration with Peter Doyle, Percy: A Story of 1918.
I wanted a portrait of Phillip Clayton, one of the most well-known British chaplains of the Great War. An Anglican, “Tubby”, as he was widely known, was not one of the front-line chaplains like F.R. Scott or Geoffrey Studdert-Kennedy (Woodbine Willie) but his greatest service to the troops was to found and run Talbot House, a sort of hostel not far behind the line in the Ypres Salient, in the town of Poperinge. Talbot House, or “TocH” as it was known in the phonetic signaller’s alphabet of that war, was mostly a refuge, though it was within reach of enemy artillery. Clayton wrote that “During the varying fortunes of the Salient shells have crossed and recrossed the roof from three points of the compass at least”.
Here is Godden's depiction of Clayton. I will keep the original, and will donate a print of it to the Chaplain School of the Royal Canadian Chaplain Service before my tour here ends.
What made TocH special was its all ranks nature. Clayton had a sign prominently displayed, “ALL RANK ABANDON YE WHO ENTER HERE”. Tim has placed the sign at the top of the painting, and has Tubby framed in the door of his office. Figures of the soldier guests can be seen in the mirror behind him.
The Talbot House motto allowed an informality and companionship that was otherwise seldom possible in the socially rigid and stratified Army of the day. Here is an excerpt from Clayton’s book, “Tales of Talbot House”.
Under its aegis unusual meetings lost they awkwardness. I remember, for instance, one afternoon on which the tea-party (there generally was one) comprised a General, a staff captain, a second lieutenant, and a Canadian private. After all, why not? They had all knelt together that morning in the Presence. “Not here, lad, not here”, whispered a great G.O.C. at Aldershot to a man who had stood aside to let him go first to the Communion rails; and to lose that spirit would not have helped to win the war, but would make it less worth winning. There was, moreover, always a percentage of temporary officers who had friends not commissioned whom they longed to meet. The padre’s meretricious pips seemed in such a case to provide an excellent chaperonage. Yet further, who knows what may be behind the private’s uniform? I mind me of another afternoon when a St. John’s undergraduate, for duration a wireless operator with artillery, sat chatting away. A knock, and the door opened timidly to admit a middle-aged Royal Field Artillery driver, who looked chiefly like one in search of a five-franc loan. I asked (I hope courteously) what he wanted, whereupon he replied: “I could only find a small Cambridge manual on paleolithic man in he library. Have you anything less elementary?” I glanced sideways at the wireless boy and saw that my astonishment was nothing to his. “Excuse me, sir,” he broke in, addressing the driver, “but surely I used to come to your lectures at ____ College.” “Possibly,” replied the driver, but mules are my speciality now.
You can compare Godden’s likeness to this period photograph of Clayton.
Talbot House is now a museum and a hostel, and can be visited by tourists. I hope to make a pilgrimage there myself in the foreseeable future.
I have some more excerpts from Tales of Talbot House, now sadly out of print, that I hope to post here as time permits, as they are excellent stories and vignettes of military chaplaincy from the Great War.
Tuesday, October 23, 2018
Percy: A Story of 1918, by Peter Doyle with illustrations by Tim Godden. London: Unicorn Publishing Group, 2018. ISBN: 978-1-911604-81-5
Percy is a collaboration between a distinguished British historian of the Great War, Peter Doyle, and illustrator Tim Godden to tell the story of a young lad who left his life in a coal mining village in Wales to serve in the infantry in the final year of the War. It is a true story, told thanks to the discovery of the young man’s letters to his sweetheart Kitty, which turned up years later in a flea market.
While aimed at older children and young adults, I thoroughly enjoyed Percy. The first chapters make an accessible social history of what life was life in the coal pits of Edwardian Britain. Suffice to say that the men and boys who went into those mines required just as much courage as they would have needed to face the trenches. It was a dangerous and dirty life, and Doyle tells the story with realism and sympathy while never sliding into sentiment.
We then follow Percy into the Army as a volunteer, wanting to do his bit like his brother and the other men of his village. Doyle takes us through the disorientation of his training and deployment to France, all the while comforted by letters to and from his sweetheart Kitty. The tale is told with great empathy not only through Doyle’s words but through Tim Godden’s wonderfully vivid watercolours. Godden is a noted artist, specializing in the Great War and in sports figures of the early twentieth century. there isa wonderful charm and simplicity to his work, and it is perfectly suited to this project.
I won’t tell you how the book ends, except to say that I found it immensely powerful and moving. Percy Edwards was just one of millions of boys and men caught up in that vast conflict, and in this little book Percy becomes a kind of Everyman, speaking for all of them.
Percy: A Story of 1918, is available on Amazon. I ordered mine from Amazon UK, and it took a while getting to me in Canada, but it was worth the wait.
Monday, October 22, 2018
Preached at St. Margaret of Scotland Anglican Church, Diocese of Toronto, Barrie, ON, 21 October, 2018, the Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost
Texts: First Reading) Job 38:1-7, Psalm 91:9-16; (Second Reading) Hebrews 5:1-10, (Gospel) Mark 10:35-45
whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. 45 For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:44-45)
Last week I was at a conference of my fellow military chaplains, and a familiar complaint was raised. “What do I have to do to get promoted?” “Why was so and so promoted after only a few years, while other good chaplains work hard but are still not promoted?” “I would like some recognition for the good things I do.”
The ironic thing was that these complaints came after a discussion that focused on our common mission as chaplains and officers: caring for military members and their families, looking out for subordinates, and generally being true to our chaplain corps motto, “Called to Serve”.
You can see the contradiction quite clearly. Here are a group of religious people who are trying to live out a common vocation of service to others. At the same time, as members of a military system that uses rank and medals to measure seniority and prestige, these caring and selfless people also cared about themselves.
I’m not surprised, therefore, when James and John come to Jesus and ask to share in his glory. Sure, they sound like a couple of shallow numbskulls, but their behaviour is hardly unusual among the disciples. Just a bit earlier in Mark’s gospel, Jesus hears the disciples arguing and bickering as they are walking along. When he asks them what the argument was about, they shuffle their feet and awkwardly admit that “they had argued with one another who was the greatest” (Mk 9:34).
After that episode, Jesus told the disciples that “Whoever wants to be the first must be last of all and servant of all” (Mk 9:35). Nevertheless, here are James and John, just one chapter later, asking Jesus to be seated beside him in what they think is his heavenly glory. So yes, James and John may be especially obtuse in not understanding the kind of kingdom that Jesus is offering, but I don’t think they’re alone. I think of my chaplain colleagues, wanting to serve others but also wanting to make Major or Lieutenant Colonel, and I see a bit of James and John in them. It’s a bit of a contradiction, the call to selfless service and the need for recognition.
Surely this is a contradiction that most church people can relate to. I think we understand selflessness at some level because we are schooled in it by our life in the church. As children we hear chancel step talks about being nice to others. We sing hymns like “Sister let me be your servant”. We hear scripture readings like today’s gospel, which check our ego and tell us that “whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant” (Mk 10:43).
Nevertheless, our egos stubbornly refuse to remain in check for long. We like to be recognized. Lots of clergy delight in getting titles like Canon. Clergy and lay people like to be thanked at Synod for their service on committees and projects. Congregations are grateful when the Bishop comes and tells them they are doing a good job. Remember the last time that Bishop Peter came here and told us how proud he is St. Margaret’s and the work we do as a parish? That made us feel pretty good, didn’t it? The desire for acknowledgement and recognition is pretty universal in the church, because it’s a human desire, and churches are made up of people.
Parishioners, being people, like to be recognized for all their various ministries. A simple shout out from the priest during the announcements — “Thanks to all the hard work of Jane and Jim, our yard sale raised XX dollars” — carries a lot of weight. And why shouldn’t we thank people? I learned early on as a priest that two of the most effective words I could say in the parish were “Thank you”.
In the ancient world, in the courts of the rulers and tyrants that Jesus mentions in Mark’s gospel, no one said “thank you” to a servant. Servants and slaves were meant to be efficient but invisible, only noticed if needed, like so many household appliances. We say “thank you” to acknowledge service and express gratitude. It’s a way of saying, “I see what you did there, I noticed how hard you worked, and I’m grateful for it.” Every Sunday I’m grateful for all the ministries that make our worship happen, for the leadership that keeps the parish running, and for all the selfless giving of money that keep Simon paid and the lights on and the doors open. I know that you don’t do these things for fame or glory, but I still want to say thank you, to all of you, for all that you do.
In the two years I have been here, I often look around at this parish and think, “Wow, this is a great place. We could do some things better, but we really get being church, and we do it well. Is it wrong to think that? Is it prideful to think that all of this talent and energy and selflessness makes St. Margaret’s a special church? Is it wrong to want St. Margaret’s to harness all of its potential, to want it to be a leader and a role-model for other Anglican churches in this part of the Diocese? Yes, I suppose it would be misguided pride, if we wanted these things solely for the gratification of our egos. It would be certainly be wrong if we thought that God loved us for being such a good church. Because, really, God just loves us. Regardless.
The whole point of church is to bring people together to rely on the love and grace of God. That’s it. Our second lesson from Hebrews makes this point well. The author of Hebrews reminds us that even the priest, yes, even Simon and me and everyone else at the front, relies on this love and grace just as much as every person in the pews. Hebrews says that the priest, “is subject to weakness” and must therefore “offer sacrifice for his own sins as well as for those of the people” (Heb 5:2-3). All of us, even the folks in the fancy white robes, are imperfect. None of us could not stand before God if it wasn’t for God’s love and willingness to set aside our shortcomings.
Everything good that we do as a church is because of God’s love in Christ. Everything important that we should do as a church going forward is because of God’s love in Christ. Hebrews says that Christ is “the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him” (Heb 5:9). If we take pride in St. Margaret’s as a parish, it should be because we bring people to relationship with Christ. If we make plans for St. Margaret’s to grow, or to improve, or to build a new wing of our building, then Christ should be at the centre of our plans.
There is nothing wrong taking pride in our parish, or feeing good when Bishop Peter tells us that we’re doing a good job. There’s nothing wrong with finding satisfaction in our various ministries to make it all happen. It’s very human to want to be seen and recognized for our contributions, whatever they may be. Some of us are at places and stages in life where we need to be helped and served by others in the church, and that’s okay. Others of us have gifts and talents and energies to serve as Christ calls us to serve. All of us can say thank you. All of us can say I’m glad you’re here. All of us say how can I help. When we do and say these things, we will look around, and we will certainly see Christ in our midst. A church with Christ in its midst is certainly a church, well, not to be proud of, but to be grateful for.
Thursday, September 13, 2018
Canadian Chaplains and breaking the Drocourt-Queant line.
By 17 August, the Canadian Corps had clawed deeply into German lines at Amiens. As the push ground down in the maze of old 1916 trenches, General Currie and Third Army Commander Rawlinson pushed for a relocation of the Canadians to where the Germans would not expect an attack. British Commander Douglas Haig concurred and persuaded the Supreme Allied Commander Ferdinand Foch to agree. Currie’s force was transferred to General Horne at Arras. Here the Germans had fortified a strong belt of defences, thirty kilometers deep, as far back as the partially-drained Canal du Nord. Behind it lay Cambrai. If the Canadians could break in here, the German defences southwards would be turned and the whole front opened for exploitation.
The Canadians had to work fast: Currie had two divisions in the line by August 23. They would jump off three days later, backed by the other two divisions and the 51st Highland Division. Twenty-six Brigades of Artillery and one British Tank Brigade joined in the attack. The first skirmishes at Neuville-Vitasse were over in minutes: hearing the Canadians were in the line, the German defenders were already evacuating the objective when the attack began at 3.am. After great initial gains the offensive ground down in heavy rain, bogged tanks and accidental attack by friendly air forces. When the Canadians finally outran the range of their guns, it was time to pause.
On 30 August the First Division carried out a textbook breakthrough and capture of the critical launching points for the new attack and held them against heavy counter-attacks. Currie planned a renewed attack for 2 September while his guns blasted fields of uncut wire. Altogether, over 101,000 Canadians and 47,000 British troops were under his command.
Monday, September 10, 2018
Long time readers will know, and we hope, support, this blog’s devout belief that no beast of creature is more endowed with nobility, martial spirit, intelligence and good looks than the military goat.
Last month, while travelling on holiday with my son, we stopped at Old Fort Henry in Kingston, Ontario, and I was delighted to find not one but two goats. Each goat was provided with staff, two smartly uniformed reenactors, who answered questions from the tourists. The goats were too busy cropping the sward to reply to questions.
The day before, in Ottawa, my son John and I also saw the final changing of the guard on Parliament Hill for the summer of 2018, and while no goats were on display, there were plenty of red coats.
One doesn’t wish to be overly jingoistic, but in a year where President Trump has been ratcheting up the pressure on us with his trade and tariff threats, and threatening the ruination of Canada, it was very reassuring to see Canadian pageantry - civil, orderly and just a tad understated - on display.
Sunday, September 2, 2018
Preached the Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 2, 2018, at St. Margaret’s Anglican Church, Diocese of Toronto, Barrie, ON,Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23; (First Reading) Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9; (Semi-continuous First Reading) Song of Solomon 2:8-13; Psalm 15; (Second Reading) James 1:17-27 Song of Solomon 2:8-13
A READING FROM THE SONG OF SOLOMON
The voice of my beloved! Look, he comes, leaping upon the mountains, bounding over the hills. My beloved is like a gazelle or a young stag. Look, there he stands behind our wall, gazing in at the windows, looking through the lattice.
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."
Today I’m going to do something I’ve never done before as a priest. I’m going to preach a sermon on the Song of Solomon, for several reasons. First, as you may have heard me say a few times, I love theHebrew Scriptures,, which I don’t think we hear preached on enough in the life of the church. Second, the Song of Solomon, also known as the Song of Songs or Canticles (I will just call it “the Song” in this sermon) is one of the strangest and loveliest books of scripture, a love poem which, because of its poetic and even sensual quality, sometimes seems out of place in the bible.
It seems a little random that we are hearing the Song as our first lesson this particular Sunday. Why is that? Well, all summer, as we followed one of the tracks of the schedule of readings known as the Lectionary, we have been hearing stories about King David. Two Sundays ago we heard about David’s death and started to hear about his son and heir, King Solomon. While he had his faults, scripture celebrates Solomon for his great wisdom, which it describes as the one blessing he asked of God and which God granted him (“I give you a wise and discerning mind; no one like you has been before you and no one like you shall arise after you” 1 Kgs 2:12).
Because of his reputation for wisdom, it was traditionally believed that Solomon was the author of the Book of Proverbs, which we will be hearing some of in September, and of Ecclesiastes. There was a traditional teaching of the ancient rabbis that Solomon wrote the Song as a young man in love, Proverbs as a mature man who has traded love for wisdom, and Ecclesiastes as an old man, somewhat jaded and well aware of his mortality. Biblical scholars tend to think that Solomon didn’t write all of these books, and that their actual authorship is much more complex. However the fact that the Song and Proverbs are attributed to Solomon is certainly one reason why they show up on in the liturgy of the church.
When you read it, you might well be surprised that the Song is even in the Bible, because it doesn’t seem very, well, biblical. The Song isn’t even a Song, really, but is best described as a kind of play in which there are two characters: the two lovers, the Man and the Woman, and then a group or chorus that comments on what is going on. It’s not a long book, just eight chapters, so it can read in one sitting, but depending which translation you are reading, it can be difficult to follow. The voices of the two lovers entwine, like a love duet, with expressions of desire and praise for the other’s beauty. The Song ends, much like our first reading today, with an expression of desire and a longing to be together:
"Make haste, my beloved,
and be like a gazelle
or a young star
upon the mountains of spices!” (SgS 8:14)
In the rest of this sermon, I would like to focus on three things. The first is how the Song reminds us of the importance of earthly, human love, something the church has not always been good at understanding. The second is how the Song describes love not just from the man’s point of view but also from the woman’s point of view, which again is something the church hasn’t been good at. Finally, I will talk about the importance of nature in the Song and how it connects our human world to the natural world as part of God’s creation.
The Song is, as I said, sensual in parts, even erotic, though the language is highly poetic in the language and images of the day. As the man and woman praise the beauty of each other’s bodies, there are some passages that wouldn’t make the greatest pickup lines today, as when the man says to the woman “Your belly is a heap of wheat, encircled with lilies” (Sg 7:2). That might not go over too well, like the man’s praise that “Your hair is like a flock of goats, moving down the slopes of Gilead” (4:1). On the other hand, verses such as “your kisses [are] like the best wine that goes down smoothly, gliding over lips and teeth”, well, those work just as well now as they did then. There are times where the Song just crackles with longing.
If you are wondering why the church saw fit to keep this book in the bible, that’s a good question. For a long time, well into the middle ages, the Song was read spiritually, so that it could be interpreted along the lines of the man being Christ and the woman being the church. However, the fact that someone would want to read the book this way, as opposed to just taking it literally as a love song, says something about the church’s long and tortured history with human sexuality, which goes right back to the story of how the nakedness of Adam and Eve in the garden was a sin, and which continued for centuries in celebrating chastity as godly and the human body as a source of temptation and evil. In such a worldview, marriage was a necessary evil, good only for the procreation of children.
The Song reminds us of the artificiality of this dualistic theology which celebrates spirit at the expense of body. It reminds us that real flesh and blood people lived in biblical times, just as they did today. It reminds us that human desire is natural, even beautiful, and that our bodies and our sexuality are gifts that are part of God’s creation. Our own Book of Alternative Services reminds us of this in the marriage liturgy, when it begins by describing marriage as “a gift of God” in which the partners may “know each other with delight and tenderness in acts of love” (BAS 528). The editors of the Serendipity Bible, designed for small groups in evangelical churches, uses the Song as the basis for a bible study on marriage and intimacy. The Song reminds us that our faith speaks to all areas of life, and that intimacy, trust, and affection can be part of our lives as Christians.
This realization is made more remarkable because the woman is a full and equal voice in the Song of Songs. If you heard the sermon that Jenn, our theological student, gave last month on the story of David and Bathsheeba, Jenn noted that Bathsheeba is essentially voiceless and powerless. She is merely a beautiful object that David wants and gets, however immorally he does so. In contrast, the woman in the Song is an equal partner in the duet. She speaks with as much poetry and passion, she relishes her lover’s beauty as much as he does hers, and her longing is just as strong as his:
Awake, O north wind,
and come, O south wind!
Blow upon my garden that its fragrance may be wafted abroad.
Let my beloved come to his garden and eat its choicest fruits.” (Sg 4:16)
The Song reminds us that men and women are equal and full participants in God’s creation.
The final thing I would point out about the Song is the importance of nature and natural images. In the passage from our first lesson, the woman describes her lover as being like “a gazelle or a young stag” (2:8) or elsewhere as an “apple tree”. Likewise the man describes the woman elsewhere as being a “dove”, a “mare”, and the woman describes herself as a “rose of Sharon” and a “lilly of the valleys”. The entire Song is full of references to animals, and one scholar has counted twenty four plant species. Biblical scholar Elaine James calls the Song a very green poem, written at a time when humans lived much more closely to the natural world than most people do today. The Song reminds us that the natural world, which appears to be changing and disappearing at a frightening rate, is part of God’s creation, and reminds us of our obligation as stewards of creation to care for that world.
So while the Song is in many ways a very sensual poem, full of natural images of the earth and of human desire, it is also a very spiritual poem. The idea of the earth coming back to life - for now the winter is past, the rain is over and gone - is also an image of redemption and salvation. One commentator I read this week noted that today’s passage would be a great scripture reading for a wedding where one or both parties had experienced a divorce or the loss of a spouse. Likewise, even for those of us for whom the youthful fires of love might have died down a bit, there is in the Song a powerful affirmation of human love as something that is powerful and wonderful.
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. (Sg 8:6)
For those who carry the memory of a love and life well lived, or who nursed and cared for a loved partner through sickness and old age, the Song speaks to them as much as it speaks to young lovers. The Song of Songs is one of the great gifts of scripture, a reminder that God is with us even in the earthiness of our lives. The Song of Songs would make a great extended bible study, perhaps one day when I am brave enough to lead it, and some of you are brave enough to join me.
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