Fleming Rutledge is a preacher and teacher known throughout the mainline Protestant denominations of the US, Canada and parts of the UK. She is the author of seven books and has received a grant from the Louisville Foundation to complete a book about the meaning of the Crucifixion.
One of the first women to be ordained to the priesthood of the Episcopal Church, she served for fourteen years on the clergy staff at Grace Church on Lower Broadway at Tenth Street, New York City.
Fleming and her husband celebrated their 50th anniversary in 2009 and have two daughters and two grandchildren. She is a native of Franklin, Virginia.
Love Against the Odds
St. John’s College, University of Durham, England
LOVE AGAINST THE ODDS
Richard A. Norris, Jr.
Sermon by Fleming Rutledge April 26, 2005
Prayer of William of St. Thierry
As we approach the epithalamium, the marriage song, the song of the Bridegroom and the Bride, to read and to weigh your work, we call upon you, O Spirit of holiness. We want you to fill us with your love, O Love, so that we may understand love’s song—so that we too may be made in some degree participants in the dialogue of the holy Bridegroom and the Bride, and so that what we read about may come to pass within us. For where is a question of the soul’s affections, one does not easily understand what is said unless one is touched by similar feelings. Turn us then to yourself, O holy Spirit, holy Paraclete, holy Comforter; comfort the poverty of our solitude, which seeks no solace apart from you; illumine and enliven the desire of the suppliant, that it may become delight. Come, that we may love in truth, that whatever we think or say may proceed out of the fount of your love. Let the Song of your love be so read by us that it may set fire to love itself within us, and let love itself be for us the interpreter of your Song. Amen.
In just a few days it will be the merry month of May—“each with his bonny lass upon the greeny grass.” What better time than this to embark upon a six-week series on the Biblical book called the Song of Songs?
When I arrived in college a few days ago I was told that someone who had observed my age and my clerical status had asked, dubiously, “Is she going to talk about sex?” Well, yes; she is. In spite of the fact that for about fifteen hundred years it was taught as an allegory about God and Israel, or Christ and his Church, the Song of Songs is about sex. That is generally recognized now; yet it would be a great mistake to ignore those fifteen hundred years. It is truly astonishing to realize that during the first thousand years of the life of the Christian Church there were more commentaries written about the Song of Songs than any other book of the Bible except Genesis and the Psalms. Our friend the Venerable Bede himself wrote several commentaries on it, more (if I am not mistaken) than he did on any other Biblical book. Since this extraordinary man of mighty intellect, profound learning and deep piety is buried over in the Cathedral, lets take a moment to see what he says about the Song. He writes that “this Song testifies...that it intends nothing fleshly or literal when it speaks, but wants to be understood spiritually and typically in its entirety.” We can scarcely imagine thinking such a thing and feel inclined to look elsewhere.
That would be a mistake, however. For instance, let’s look for a moment at what Bede has to say about a verse in chapter 8. In the verse, the bride speaks to the bridegroom as though he were present. She says, If I met you outside, I would kiss you.
About this, Bede writes, “The Beloved was truly within because in the beginning was the Word, and the word was with God and the Word was God (John 1:1) but in order that he might also be found outside, the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:14). So you see, in a one-sentence comment upon one-half of one verse of the Song of Songs, Bede manages to teach us about the Trinity, what it is within itself and what it is in going out from itself in the incarnation of Christ, to live “outside” with us mortal men and women. Amazing. And that is just one sentence. So we must not scorn the ancient allegorical interpreters, even though we think we know better.
In contrast, many modern interpretations put forward the Song purely as a series of highly erotic wedding poems, without any reference whatever to God or the spiritual realm. Well, indeed they are highly erotic wedding poems, but is that all they are? particularly in view of the long history of interpretation? and, even more important, in view of the place that the Song occupies in the canon of Scripture? After some weeks of intense study I have come to think that we need to hold both these interpretations in dialogue with one another.
As I have immersed myself in the Song of Songs these past few weeks, it has been a surprise and a delight to discover it everywhere I look. For example, from our Easter hymns; listen to these words:
Come away to the skies, my beloved, arise...
This joyful Eastertide, away with sin and sorrow,
My love, the Crucified, hath sprung to life this morrow.
And last Sunday at the Cathedral, the choir sang one of George Herbert’s lyrics, which concludes with this verse:
Come, my Joy, my Love, my Heart;
Such a Joy, as none can move;
Such a Love, as none can part;
Such a Heart, as joys in love.
That is recognizably the language of the Song of Songs. So I think that once you have taken delight in these derivations from that language as it appears in the Church’s songs of love to Jesus Christ the Beloved, you won’t want to make a strict separation between the sexual meaning and the spiritual meaning. Indeed, as the best commentators on the Hebrew text observe, a distinction between secular and sacred is utterly foreign to the Hebrew mind.
A very happy memory of my early ministry seems to me to illustrate the layered meaning of the Song of Songs perfectly. I need to set the stage for you. This was back in the 70s in my first parish position where for six years I was in charge of the high school ministry. As I look back on my life I think of that work as without doubt one of the high points of my thirty years in ordained ministry. At the peak we had about sixty young people, half boys and half girls. The amount of eros floating around was prodigious. We exploited that shamelessly, using every technique possible to get the boys to come to be with the girls (and vice versa), but we were very strict, too. I learned very early that when we took them for weekend retreats we had to keep them occupied every waking moment and every supposedly sleeping moment too. We would typically have fifteen adult counselors for the sixty students. None of us got much sleep—you have to be a very young adult to do youth ministry!
Now here’s the relevant part. We channeled all that physicality into very well-planned sports, relay races, competitive games, comedy skits—you get the idea. And in particular we channeled their erotic energy into exuberant song with clapping and stamping and the whole bag of tricks. We even had steel drums a couple of times. We raised the roof off the chapel. And one of the songs we sang was a direct quote from the Song of Songs. I can still see the faces of those young people belting it out:
He welcomes me to his banqueting table; his banner over me is love...
I am my beloved’s and he is mine; his banner over me is love.
I did not realize myself until years later that those words were from the Song of Songs. But it really puts a smile on my face to think about it all these years later. The way we sang it, it was a very energetic song with a great beat. I am quite sure the young people had no idea what it was all about, but I am sure of this: because they sang it in the context of the communion service, they had at least a clue that the banqueting table was the Lord’s Supper, and they certainly had some sense of Jesus as the Beloved, and the wonderful image of “the banner over me” as the Love of God was vivid to them as they sang. I am sure of that. So I think this little vignette beautifully illustrates how erotic energy can be channeled into passionate love of God, and the Song of Songs surely teaches us something about that.
Focusing now more directly upon the specifically sexual dimensions of the Song, one of the modern commentaries I looked at was written by the respected Roman Catholic scholar Roland Murphy. This celibate priest had a lot of understanding. He wrote as follows: “The literal sense [of the Song of Songs] seems to be a celebration of the fidelity and love between a man and woman...Such seems to be the obvious meaning of [the Song], from which we should not depart without a compelling reason...We should not ask, ‘How did profane poetry enter the canon?’ We should ask, ‘What does the Bible tell us about sexual attraction?’ A great part of the answer lies in [the Song of Songs].”
In the canon of Holy Scripture of the Church, the Song is included among the wisdom books. That seems a very odd place for it to be unless you consider the role of Hebrew wisdom. Wisdom is derived from Israel’s sages. Its purpose was to seek understanding, through reflection, on the nature of the world of human experience in relation to divine reality. It asks the question, “What does it mean to live wisely before God?”
Wisdom literature makes much use of erotic imagery. In Proverbs 9, Wisdom is personified as a noble woman who builds her house of seven pillars and invites her dinner guests to walk in the way of insight (Proverbs 9:6). Insight is a word I learned to cherish in the process of seven years of psychoanalysis and training. Seek insight, says holy Wisdom. This feminine figure in Proverbs is contrasted with the wanton woman, who ensnares the unwary man with her enticing words, Stolen water is sweet, and bread eaten in secret is pleasant. How very true this is, on the level of immediate gratification. Insight requires us to acknowledge the universal lure of the forbidden. Indeed, the very highest accolade that can be given today in the supposedly rarefied circles of the cultural elite is that a work of art or literature is transgressive. The Biblical authors are anything but naïve about such thinking; they lived in the middle of transgression. But the wisdom collection, and the Song in particular, show how, in the very midst of the highly eroticized religious cults of Canaan, holy wisdom is the only true partner who calls men to life. Bread eaten in secret is pleasant, says the seductress to the unwise man, and he yields to her:
But he does not know that the dead are there,
that her guests are in the depths of Sheol. (Proverbs 9:18)
What then is the proper role of eros in a life lived before God? The two principal places to look for that in the Bible are Genesis 2 and the Song of Songs. These two portions of Scripture are unique and they are closely linked. In the Creation story in Genesis and in the Song of Songs, we see man and woman (Adam and Eve) delighting in one another physically without any reference to procreation. There is no other extended discussion of the male-female partnership in Scripture where this is so except in the Song. Everywhere else it is set explicitly into the context of marriage and family, and Jesus Christ himself gives an unequivocal teaching about that when he says, quoting from the Old Testament:
From the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two but one flesh. (Mark 10:6-8)
Our Lord is quoting here from the Genesis 1 creation story. It is of great importance that the imago Dei (the image of God) is a phrase from that passage:
So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them. (RSV)
So God created humankind in his image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them. (NRSV)
In other words there is something about the complementarity of male and female that is itself the image of God. I am convinced that this interpretation of the imago Dei (an interpretation associated with Karl Barth) is the right one, based as it is on the Genesis text itself and on Jesus’ emphatic reference to it in Mark’s Gospel. The inner life of the Godhead, the blessed Trinity, is imaged among us by when a person goes out to the one who is the other. And so we find ourselves back with the Venerable Bede once more and his description of the God who goes out from himself toward the other, outside—in other words, seeking us outside the Godhead.
So we can see that the rapturous love celebrated in the Song of Songs is intended by God for us in the way that the bride and the bridegroom assertively and confidently seek one another, and especially the bride who is depicted as the equal of the man in every way. Quite apart from any metaphorical resemblance to God and his people, or to Christ and the individual soul, we can see that sexual ecstasy is part of God’s plan for man and woman.
But now let us note that word ecstasy. Its literal meaning is to stand outside oneself. Doesn’t this once again suggest the stepping outside of himself that God accomplished in the Incarnation? There is an analogy here to human love which reaches out beyond itself. It has been noted that in the Song of Songs, there is much more seeking and longing than there is realization. This is surely true of human life in general. The fulfilment, the consummation, indeed the transfiguration of our hopes lies beyond us in the future of God. What we experience in this world is only a hint, an adumbration of what will some day be. The Song of Songs strongly suggests the future restoration of all things by God. The imagery in the poems is that of a restored earth in balance with itself and with its human inhabitants. Ellen Davis, one of the most eloquent modern interpreters of the Song, writes:
The theological importance of the song is that it represents the reversal of that primordial exile from Eden...the lover’s garden is subtly but consistently represented as the garden of delight that Eden was meant to be, the place where life may be lived fully in the presence of God.”
So I now want to address you younger people here tonight who might be seeking to learn something about how to live such a full life before God (and also you who are parents of younger people). I don’t need to tell you that living a godly life is not what society is promoting. Unbridled sexual activity is what our society is promoting. I have a cutting here from The New York Times about a group of Princeton University students who have banded together to support one another in presenting an alternative voice on that high-status campus. They call themselves the Anscombe Society after the Cambridge Anglo-Catholic Elizabeth Anscombe. One young Princeton woman said that she was deeply offended, as a new student, when she went to a study break in her residential adviser’s suite and there on the table “with the soda and the chips was a bowl of flavored condoms.” A young man who served as the group’s spokesman said, “We think the proper human relationship should be one of respect and love, and we think promiscuity and random hook-ups are completely destructive of respect and love. Dignity itself is a moral standard.”  It takes courage to talk like that at an Ivy League school in the States. But then the moral life has always required courage.
I am going to speak to you now as a person verging on elderly who has been married to the same man for forty-five years. The Song of Songs is about young love. I remember that young love very well. The intensity of it does not last, and it cannot. There is a sadness in that, but there is also something fitting in it. As Ellen Davis writes, “The sadness in our world stems from what happened in the Garden of Eden.” That is why the note of longing predominates in the Song. It strains forward toward what is not yet, toward that which is not yet consummated. “Love always pushes toward transcendence,” Davis writes.
In the meantime, no earthly phenomenon speaks more clearly of the unconditional love of God than a long faithful marriage. I remember when my husband and I were young and could barely contain ourselves till we were together. That is only a memory now, but it is a binding memory. It is transmuted into a companionship that can be a blessing not only to the couple but also to others. The famous movie star Jane Fonda has recently published her autobiography, full of explicit detail. (One reviewer said that there were a lot of things in it that we never wanted to know about Jane Fonda.) But I heard her on a television talk show and that was a different story. She spoke about how she had become a Christian through getting to know the former US president Jimmy Carter and his wife Rosalynn. She said she loved being with people who had been married for four and five decades. She spoke about how much she wished she had found a lifelong companion.
A lifelong marriage must survive many trials. I don’t mean to romanticize it. It is “love against the odds,” indeed. But marriages are sustained in certain ineffable ways. Marriage is sustained, in part, by that happy, binding memory of the “wife [husband] of your youth,” as the book of Proverbs says.
Drink water from your own cistern,
flowing water from your own well...
Let [it] be for yourself alone,
and not for strangers with you.
Let your fountain be blessed,
and rejoice in the wife of your youth...
Let her affection fill you at all times with delight...
No human relationship is perfect in this life. If anyone here feels uneasy about what is past, let us state without qualification that the grace of God is retroactive. But since God’s love is perfect and will be perfected in the saints, we can affirm the message of the Song of Songs: human love that is both passionate and faithful is an image of the covenant God has made with us. It is a covenant distinguished above all for its unconditional nature—for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health—and then, in the unimaginable word that comes to us from beyond death, God is faithful to us, beyond our deserving, even unto the Resurrection to eternal life, for “my Love, the Crucified, is raised to life this morrow.”
He welcomes you to his banqueting table; his banner over you is love.
(NOTE: There are a very few slight alterations in this written text. For this version which will be posted on the Internet I have omitted a personal reference.)
 For those who might not know, the Venerable Bede is buried in Durham Cathedral across the street from St. John’s College where this sermon was delivered.
 The quotation from Bede, the prayer of St. William of Thierry and other references from the early centuries of the Church are taken from Richard A. Norris’ magnificent compilation of commentary from the first thousand years in his volume The Song of Songs, part of the series called The Church’s Bible (Eerdmans). Professor Norris, who died two weeks ago, was one of my thesis advisors in 1975 and I am deeply grateful to God that his compendium, with translations exemplifying his mastery not only of the ancient languages but also of the English language, should have been ready to hand when I was assigned to write a sermon on The Song of Songs.
 Roland Murphy, “Canticle of Canticles,” in The Jerome Biblical Commentary.
 Brevard Childs, Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture, chapter on the Song of Songs (571-9)
 Highly recommended is Karl Barth’s wonderful appreciation of the Song of Songs which appears in several places in the Church Dogmatics. I have taken some of these ideas from his discussion, but this little condensation does not even begin to convey the depth and charm of his writing on the subject. See especially Vol. III/1.
 Vernard Eller, in a sophisticated analysis of the way English translations work, has argued (convincingly in my judgment) that the KJV and RSV versions render the complexity of the Hebrew best. Vernard Eller, The Language of Canaan and the Grammar of Feminism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982), 22-32 and passim.
 This point is emphasized by Ellen Davis in Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and the Song of Songs (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2000).
 Ellen Davis, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and the Song of Songs, (Louisville: WJK, 2000), 232.
 Iver Peterson, “Princeton Students Who Say ‘No’ and Mean ‘Entirely No’”, The New York Times, April 18, 2005.
 The title was assigned to me. This sermon was the first in a series of six to be delivered by various preachers at St. John’s College.
 This word “retroactive” used to describe the grace of God is taken from an American novel filled with Christian ideas, Freedomland, by Richard Price.
 Some Old Testament scholars have insisted that the wisdom literature makes no reference to the covenant. I have chosen to go with the larger theological context as Barth does.