‘Beauty is to the spirit what food is to the flesh. A glimpse of it in a young face, say, or an echo of it in a song fills an emptiness in you that nothing else under the sun can. Unlike food, however, it is something you never get your fill of. It leaves you always aching with longing not so much for more of the same as for whatever it is, deep within and far beyond both it and yourself, that makes it beautiful.’
I wish I could say I had written those words, but they do carry an experience I know well. It’s a quotation from one of my go-to writers, Frederich Buechner. Since ever I can remember I have been moved by beauty… and, for a reason I once couldn’t name, I found that seeing something beautiful always made me somehow at once deeply happy and also filled with longing… And beauty has always spoken to me of God – I have found God in beautiful places, in wonderful music, in art and icon, in amazing churches, on coastal paths and in fragrant gardens.
Since school days I have loved that poem by Manley Hopkins that begins..
Glory be to God for dappled things –
And ends with….
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
From my earliest years I have found the praise of God through drinking deep not only of scriptures and rites, of books and hymnody, but of the world so full of beauty and longing. I embraced Christian faith from as early as I can remember because it gave me words to give meaning to this experience. And it’s not that I have had a life undarkened by sorrow or pain, and I have seen how bitter and ugly the world can be, but even in the midst of that I have found and clung to the beauty that seems more than anything to express the love that is at the heart of all creation.
So today, I’m glad that the lectionary has taken us to a part of the Bible that we rarely read in church, and that we don’t quite know what to do with when we do. It’s the Song of Songs. The first reading today was some of its just 117 verses. You could say it’s a wholly secular text, a collection of love poems that doesn’t even mention God directly. But the Jewish people and their Christian sisters and brothers have kept it as sacred text – I think because we all know that such beautiful words, words of beauty and love, describe something about a deep longing for God. The early church did not throw these verses out of the Bible but decided that they form a poem about the love between Christ and his bride the church – and I think that they were not wrong. Because, there is so much about faith that is rooted in deep love. Firstly, of course, the love of God or each one of us – a love that we should never imagine as abstract and technical and impersonal – but which we can experience as a strong personal love, from a God who truly desires us and cherishes us and finds us beautiful, who declares us to be a work of art (see the letter to the Ephesians). And we, in turn, are invited into a faith and experience that is never first of all about ethics and laws and justice – but is always first about love – love for God and love for God’s people. St Paul had that right – three things abide; faith, hope and love – and the greatest of these is love.
A couple of weeks back we had a reading from the book of Proverbs and I said then that it came from a stream within the Bible collection of books that is rather different from the one we read most Sundays. It’s not the narrative of the patriarchs and prophets so much, not the great miracles and dramas of salvation history, but instead a celebration of God’s creation and an attention to the way that God is known through the everyday realities of ordinary/extraordinary lives like yours and mine. The Song of Songs belongs to this alternative little stream within the Bible, the Wisdom tradition.
There are those, and they can be forgiven of course, who think that religion is all about ethics, about doing good, or indeed that faith is all about religion – about a separate kind of culture and practise from the secular lives we all lead, or that God is in heaven, while we live on earth. The Song of Songs simply celebrates human life and love, expresses its beauty and yearning, and affirms the power and tenderness of love – every kind of love. But that celebration is just as much a celebration of what God has done – as the story of the Exodus.
The Song of Songs is a rather subversive book in a way. The voices who speak of love in this book are on equal terms and sometimes we are not sure whether the man or the woman is speaking. There are times when we can’t even be sure which is which or whether indeed that matters very much. This isn’t a normative kind of book. And this is a biblical book that doesn’t mention God out loud, that doesn’t tell us how to behave or threaten us with the consequences of misbehaving. It’s not a book that talks about praying or going to the Temple or doing works of charity. It is simply about the love from which those things might spring… For me, I think it conveys something of the heart of faith – the beginning of wisdom. The letter of James, from which we heard an extract, is by contrast the kind of Bible book that represents the other tradition rather well; that’s always telling us to be ‘doers of the Word’, to rid ourselves of wickedness, and to do the right thing. It’s right there with the ethical and the religious – and sometimes we all need that. But you can have too much of it. Because unless you know what it means that God loves you and that you are called to love – then there’s not much point just having a list of rules to follow. So today, I hope we can celebrate having a reading from the alternative stream of the Bible, the beautiful and poetic, filled with longing, lovely, moving and gorgeous words of love.
This is not just my idea of course. There was once, long ago, a Jewish rabbi who said of the Song of Songs,
‘The whole world is not worth the day on which the Song of Songs was given to Israel, for all the writings are holy, (but) the Song of Songs is the Holy of Holies.’
Of course you already know well another Bible story about two people in a garden, the story of Adam and Eve in Eden. In that story there is talk of the knowledge of good and evil, but the human beings fail in goodness or obedience. So they are expelled from the garden and an angel with a flaming sword bars their entrance. But also in the Bible is this other garden – in the Song of Songs – an open garden full of trees and flowers, a garden in which no-one is cursed or accused, in which no-one feels shame. There is beauty here and people may walk in it and enjoy it. In this book the man does not cast blame on the woman or the woman the serpent – and they continue to enjoy the figs and vines and blossoms. The flowers are on the earth and the time of singing has come. No-one is silenced or banished – and all are welcome. There is also here is no terrible division between the genders. There is pain and longing here, but God is not found being austerely repressive, but is known in the beauty of love. This story too is in the Bible.
And there is another story of a garden in the Bible – one we read at Easter when Mary Magdalene meets Christ in the garden after the resurrection. I am sure that the writer of the Gospel knew exactly what he was doing in invoking a memory of the garden in the Song of Songs. And the love between Christ and Mary Magdalene becomes a metaphor for the love between Christ and his church. There is beauty and longing to be found here too. Titian’s painting of that scene, in the garden, was chosen by the British public to be the first picture in the National Gallery that was released from storage at the end of the war. It expresses longing, hope and beauty.
I know that it might seem odd to focus on themes like beauty and love at a time when the world is full of ugliness and pain and sorrow. Isn’t this just kind of effete and escapist? Doesn’t the world need clear and prophetic words about justice more than it needs any celebration of beauty?
Of course we need clear and prophetic words. We need ethics and morality and guidelines and all of that. We need to know how to be good. But I think first we need to know that we are loved and that there is at the heart of creation such beauty and tenderness.
Some of you know the story of Etty Hillesum, a Dutch Jewish woman who lived through the time of the occupation of the Netherlands by the Nazis and who, eventually, died in one of the camps. We have many of her diaries and letters. She bore witness always to the vitality and significance of beauty. She wrote this from a transportation centre where she was, for a while, forced to work – in July 1942;
‘My red and yellow roses are now fully open. While I sat there working in that hell, they quietly went on blooming. Many say, “How can you still think of flowers!”
Last night, walking that long way home through the rain with the blister on my foot, I still made a short detour to seek out a flower stall and went home with a large bunch of roses. And there they are. They are just as real as all the misery I witness each day.’ Etty Hillesum
I have had, over the years, much education and learning about the stream of Bible tradition that we normally read on a Sunday. I have worked for Christian Aid and advocated prophetic voices. I have worked hard at leading service in the community to make the world a better place. I have read and re-read the story of our salvation through Abraham and Moses and Jesus. And I regret no part of that at all. But I return to the wisdom tradition, to that experience of beauty tinged with longing for the one who made it. More and more I want to bathe in the love of God, to believe that I and all of you are loved, to celebrate my love and longing for Jesus Christ, and to echo St Paul who told us in words more beautiful than poetry that ‘there are three things that abide and the greatest of these is love…’. The Beatles said it more prosaically, but no less truly, ‘Love is all you need’.
So ends my last sermon. My work here is done.
But the love of God is eternal and ever new. Amen.