Baptism: Being Called to Journey into the heart of God’s Love: A Sermon for Proper 17, Year B

Today we will be baptizing Serena. Baptisms are joyous events in the lives of individuals, their families, and the church. Serena’s baptism is especially joyous for me, because I was privileged to participate in her parents’ wedding, and even more so, because I first met Serena the day she was born. In the nearly eight months since that day, we’ve watched her grow, develop a personality. Though unbaptized, she has already attended at least two vestry meetings where she has delighted, and occasionally diverted, us all. Continue reading

Bernard of Clairvaux, 1153

I love because I love; I love that I may love. Love is a great thing; as long as it returns to its beginning, goes back to its origin, turns again to its source, it will always draw afresh from it and flow freely. In love alone, of all the movements of the soul and the senses and affections, can the creature respond to its Creator, if not with an equal, at least with a like return of gift for gift…. For when God loves, he wants nothing but to be loved; he loves for no other purpose than to be loved, knowing that those who love him are blessed by their very love. Sermons on the Song of Songs 83 (Bernard of Clairvaus, Selected Works, 272-273)

The Voice of My Beloved: Lectionary Reflections on Proper 17, Year B

This week’s readings are here.

This week’s lessons include the only appearance of the Song of Solomon in the three-year lectionary cycle. For those of us who have been reading the David-Solomon track, the shift is rather abrupt. From the events of David’s and Solomon’s lives culminating in last week’s reading concerning the dedication of the temple at Jerusalem, we turn now to the Song of Solomon, a series of verses with no narrative, historical, or even theological context to help us understand them.

The reason this selection is included is because of the connection with Solomon. In the coming weeks, we will be reading from the Book of Proverbs. Both of these texts have been associated with Solomon for a very long time. In the superscript (title) of the work appears Solomon’s name. Its appearance in the canon of both Hebrew and Christian scripture has been controversial because it is love poetry. Full of erotic imagery, the text describes and praises a sensual world of beauty. In both Jewish and Christian interpretation, the poem has been interpreted allegorically, describing God’s love for Israel, or Christ’s love for the church (or the individual soul).

Contemporary readers find some of the imagery amusing: Your hair is like a flock of goats, … your teeth are like a flock of ewes. But the desire, the love that is expressed in this poem transcends time and place.

Often, allegorical interpretation detracts from the meaning of a text. Sometimes, as in this case, it opens up new vistas of spiritual experience. Bernard has this to say about The Song of Solomon:

This sort of song only the touch of the Holy Spirit teaches, and it is learned by experience along. Let those who have experienced it enjoy it; let those who have not burn with desire, not so much to know it as to experience it. It is not a noise made aloud, but the very music of the heart. It is not a sound from the lips but a stirring of joy, not a harmony of voices but of wills. It is not heard otwardly, nor does it sound in public. Only he who sings it hears it, and he to whom it is sung–the Bride and the Bridegroom. It is a wedding song indeed, expressing the embrace of chaste and joyful souls, the concord of their lives and the mutual exchange of their love.”

Sermon 1, translated by G.R. Evans, from Bernard of Clairvaux, Selected Works, Classics of Western Spirituality

Aelred of Rievaulx

Today, January 12, is the commemoration of Aelred of Rievaulx in the liturgical calendar. Aelred was abbot of the Cistercian Abbey of Rievaulx in Yorkshire, England and part of that twelfth-century flowering of Cistercian spirituality. Bernard of Clairvaux overshadows all of the other Cistercian authors of the period and indeed many of their writings seem derivative or pale imitations of his. But one might think of it another way. Bernard was the genius of course, but others like Aelred were so imbued with the same spiritual perspective that when they wrote about it their experience and about the spiritual, they were bound to use language and imagery that echoes Bernard.

In fact Bernard urged Aelred to write his most popular work (at least in his own day), The Mirror of Charity.

I read the following from another of his works Spiritual Friendship this morning:

How right and proper it then becomes to grieve for one another, to toil for one another, to bear each other’s burdens, when each finds his pleasure in neglecting himself in favour of his friend, in preferring the other’s will to his own, in putting his friend’s needs first, in setting himself in the way of whatever threatens. How delightful it is meanwhile to talk together, to confide one’s aspirations, to try and ponder and weigh, and arrive at the same conclusions! And on top of all this, reciprocal prayer, which gains in efficacy with the depth of the affection that inspires it, accompanied by the tears precipitated by anxiety, released by emotion or called forth by grief. And while one is entreating Christ in one’s friend’s favour and seeking to be heard, one is stretching out towards Cjhrist himself in love and longing, and comes the moment when suddenly one’s affection passes from one object to another without one’s being aware; and as though one were experiencing at close quarters the sweetness of Christ in person, one begins to taste for oneself the delights of his presence. So it is that we ascend from that love, already holy, with which we embrace our friend, to the love with which we embrace Christ, thus savouring joyfully and freely the fruit of spiritual friendship; whose plenitude we look for in the future, when the mutual anxieties that beset us will have been wiped out, and the difficulties that we now must bear for one another’s sake have been dispelled, when death’s sting is no more and death itself destroyed–that sting whose wearisome pricks compel us so frequently to weep for one another–when security at last is ours. Then shall we enjoy that sovereign good for all eternity, then will the friendship to which here we can admit but few be poured out upon all, and thence back into God who shall be all in all.

While there is a great deal of Bernard in this text–I think especially of the use of very physical imagery like “taste” and “embrace” to describe spiritual experience, this passage at least is also highly evocative of Augustine. He may be describing his own experience of spiritual friendship, but I also could read this as a commentary on Confessions Book IX in which Augustine describes his relationship with his mother, and especially their shared experience at Ostia and her subsequent death.