Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Love as Strong as Death

Chapel Talk
St. Olaf College
7 April 2008
The Season of Easter

Song of Songs 8.6-7
Opening Hymn:  Christ lay in Death's Thrall

This lesson speaks of a ferocious love.  When partnered with our first hymn today, the great Christ lag in Todesbanden, we must speak of a devouring love.  This ferocity comes to expression finally in a sort of fearful symmetry:  love is strong like death.

Hearing about love and its powers, of course befits the Easter season.  The same goes for death.  But to say the are strong like each other not only fixes us to the ferocity of the love that Jesus bore in accepting the death and dishonor offered him but it also can bring us to wonder about what we say when we say "Christ is risen."

I say none of this to soften the word spoken again and again:  "he is not here.  He has been raised."  Without this, we must look elsewhere for hope.  So let us hear carefully this lesson from the Song of Songs when partnered with this message.

This love demands:  set me as a seal upon your heart.  This poem, the Song of Songs, has an important life in the church and in Israel.  It, as modern students of it have noted, speaks of an all-too-human love.  Centuries of reflection have saw in it God's unimpeachable love for the world.  We can take a little of both views and note that God's love, if it is to be at all intelligible to us, has to be comparable to our own.  And so the Song of Songs has pride of place for this, though we may be tempted to the Yankee excess of Cole Porter (I've Got You Under My Skin) or the British modesty of John and Paul (I Want To Hold Your Hand).

Seals, of course, are like signatures.  They display publicly whose identity they are.  The lover wants to be the very seal of her beloved.  This means that she will be the very identity that is displayed around her beloved's neck.  Such a person as seal does not mean identity theft but identity sharing., to tie the fates of lover and beloved together.  It signifies the ferocity of love gets up close and personal.

By demanding this, we can see the stakes of the central line from our lesson.  If lover and beloved are tied together, one has the other as a seal, as the very identity of the other, their fates are tied.  So the demands of this fierce love, is the greatest of sharing, the sweetest swap, and the greatest community.  So love and beloved belong together.  Since Jesus displayed a terrible love, a strange love that bore all close to him, who refused refusal and judged judgment, this poem speaks to him as well.  Jesus bears all close to him, indeed, under his skin.  This, of course, is why Cole Porter is a great source for Christian theology.

This loving proximity, this getting up close and personal, is strong like death.  Fierce as the grave, and cannot be quenched by mighty rivers.  This poem ascribes great things to love and this is worthy indeed of God's.  Let us move closer.

This trope seems important.  In Latin translations of the Bible this comparison between love and death has been taken as a strict equation and so this line of the poem demands further reflection.  If love and death are in stalemate, this runs counter to our experience.  Death always seems to have the upper hand. 

And so we are back to the message of Easter.  The field of Easter always, I think lies shrouded in early morning fog.  This field of Easter stands between night and day and so betrays the eye easily.  Mark's gospel, with its non-angelic young man and its ending in terror, presents the fundamental dilemma for anyone who wishes to think about the Easter message:  he is not dead but risen.  Friend and foe alike, it is not manifest that this fierce love outstripped the grave.  We await further report.  It appears unclear and inconclusive.

Because of this delicate situation, I want no mystification, no hand waving, no empty curt phrase, no obfuscation of the truth of this proclamation.  I desire no quick solution.  To ignore this trope from the Song of Songs is given in to the danger of taking this Easter message and selling it at bargain-basement prices.  He died, he's alive, let's get on with it.  To ignore this endangers the message of resurrection and lends it to toxic perversion.  There is no way around but through.

That love is death-like, many know.  Think of the phrases from your own life or Romeo and Juliet.  All of them bear remarkable instances of dying and death.  Oh, I died in your arms!  But though this underlines the happy circumstance that love has great power and is inevitable, it is unlike death in that while death still is rationed at the rate of one per person, love is not. 

To take the question full on, love is strong as death in the scene of direct confrontation, the place of the skull, Golgatha and the field of the tomb.  Here we are aided by a verse from the great hymn Christ lag in Todesbanden.  It was a strange and dreadful strife when death and life collided.  Die Schrift hat verkundigt das:  wie ein Tod den anderen Frass.  As one death shall eat the other.  The ferocity of love, Luther put it, eats.  Chomps.  Bites and Swallows whole.  And, for those of you faithful to your German, you know that humans get the dainty eating verb assigned to them (essen) and dogs devour (fressen).  When his big teeth are pointed out by Red Riding Hood, the wolf responds:  "so ich dich besser fressen kann!" The fearful symmetry of love and death comes down to one death devouring another.  The next time you see your dog or cat taking its meal, or perhaps a very hungry friend or family member, take this as a reminder of the Easter message.  One death eats the other.

And so this odd dish that death has in front of its maw:  death devouring death.  This image, when set alongside our trope, might seem that love is stronger than death.  They are at least equals.  But the strength of this hope is takes good root in the message of Easter: he is not here, he has been raised. 

In clinging to this, you may find you need to enlarge the letter of this trope.  You may need to add, like I do, conjunctions and adverbs like  "but,." "despite," or "perhaps" or, best of all, "nevertheless."  This will make our poem from the Song of Songs sound a bit different but I think no less true:  "love is strong as death, despite death."

And so, let us stand in this strange sight, let us hope honestly and so love fiercely ourselves this and the seasons ahead.  For the love of God that comes among us in this Jesus, removed from the grave, devours death and so opens up a new breath of life.  For this seal upon your brow, your heart, your arm, is this one who has devoured death and so this dish, his eating, his dessert, is yours.

1 comment:

  1. This is nice, Greg. Thanks for sharing.
    -Charlie R.