‘My love, how you delight me’
Note: New Jerusalem Bible translation used throughout.
My love affair, so to speak, with the Song of Songs began in the seminary during a retreat held about one month into my first theology year.
Prior to seminary, I was a teacher and Religion Department chairman for 12 years at a small Catholic school. These were perhaps the happiest years of my life. But the call to priesthood was always present, even if only in the background.
I had entered a religious order after high school, but after enduring six years of homophobia, I left. Upon attempting to enter the diocesan priesthood in my home state, I was thwarted repeatedly by my formed order for reasons never told to me. “Confidentiality” was the reason given. “Justice” was the virtue denied.
So began my 12-year sojourn, not in a desert, but in an oasis where the needs and struggles and joys of adolescence instructed me, challenged me, to grow in my theological and relational outlook. God became larger, breaking out of the narrow confines I had unknowingly secluded her in. Eventually, in 1996, through the intervention of my dear, departed bishop, the old file on me was destroyed, and I was accepted into the seminary.
Now, one month into the program, I found myself alone in the chapel, asking Jesus to help me love him as he desired to be loved by me. There, in the silence, a voice within me said to read the Song of Songs. I knew of the book, but I had never given this song of heterosexual love much thought.
So I flipped to the book and began to read and read and re-read, and I finally wept for joy. This is what I had been looking for. This book, with minor adjustments for gender consideration, contained the depth of intimacy that had been missing in my relationship with Jesus. Love had always been there, but herein my hands was a call, passionate and erotic, to an even deeper love.
I offer the following meditations out of a deeply humbling appreciation for the love and compassionate patience Jesus has shown me. May these words on the Song of Songs, in the end, be multiple ways of saying “I love you” to him whose passion for me, for all of us, fragile words can scarcely convey.
Relationship in the Song of Songs
Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mounth, for your love-making is sweeter than wine. (Song of Solomon 1:2)
A kiss. The most basic and universal expression of love, caring, friendship and passion. Here, the Beloved specifies that she wants the kisses of his mouth. She does not want safety. She does not want a sterile expression of affection. She desires to be sated only by his lips. This kiss will be the prelude to the symphony of love-making more intoxicating and delicious to know than the taste of the sweetest wine.
Jesus earnestly desires a relationship with us. For LGBTQ+ people, who live our lives constantly being told that the means by which we physically demonstrate our love and longing for another human being is “sick,” “immoral” or “disordered,” this revelation of divine intimate longing is at once both jarring and liberating.
It means that my sexuality is known and accepted by Jesus. It means that my sexuality poses no threat to him, no cause for anxiety, shame, guilt or fear. It means that through my sexuality, through what others deem “ungodly,” Jesus wishes to come into my life. Through my sexuality, he wants me to experience him, to know his tenderness, his caresses, his embrace.
“Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth.” The next line begins, “For your love-making …” Is the Beloved seeking permission from someone when she says “Let him”? And if so, from whom?
Perhaps she is speaking to herself, and this exclamation is a reminder for her, after a possible absence from her Lover, exactly why he is her Lover — because of the sweet, all-encompassing nature of his love. She is reminding — urging — herself to once again allow herself to be loved, to return and drink deeply of his love for her. Maybe the need for some kind of re-commitment to that love is necessary if their relationship is to remain as passionate and intimate as it has been. (How else would she know his love-making was sweeter than wine?)
Our relationship with Jesus must be entered into afresh daily, not started over from scratch, but consciously embraced each day so as to avoid the threat of the cold and the rote, the very real danger of taking Jesus for granted.
Delicate is the fragrance of your perfume, your name is an oil poured out. (Song of Solomon 1:3)
The name and person of Jesus, so often used to justify our oppression, is in truth a soothing, healing oil for our wounds — wounds most often inflicted by religion and society.
It is truly a blessing to be able to love another. And when someone has become an integral part of our lives, there is nothing about them that does not serve to stoke the flames of love: Their walk, the sound of their voice, their laughter, the gentleness of their breathing in sleep, even their scent. The smell of the Beloved can trigger memories and bring desire and comfort.
But this requires a willingness to be intimate and to allow the other access to our lives, our souls. It requires that we run the risk of being vulnerable. It is this access that Jesus needs and desires of us in order that the oil of his presence can calm, refresh and begin to heal the wounds of fear and internalized homophobia that can so easily and unknowingly find their way into even the seemingly most integrated heart.
Your name is [perfume] poured out. (Song of Solomon 1:3)
Just saying a lover’s name brings them to mind. Every movement of their body, every look, every memory. Their eyes glow brightly once more, their touch quivers the flesh with delight, their voice calms and excites, all because of the simple yet profound power of mentioning their name.
How much more so should it be with Jesus? Jesus, Yeshua, “God saves.” But how has he saved us? “The Word became flesh and lived among us.” He saves us by becoming us, in every way but that which renders us less than what we were called to be and created to be: Children of a loving, prodigal God. He becomes like us in all things but sin.
His becoming human and embracing our enfleshed reality has thus saved and sanctified us. The body is no longer a source of shame, disgrace or derision — for it is through a fragile, beautiful human body that God most intimately touched the world she called into being. Through footstep and spittle, through words and sighs, through the baptismal liquids of river water and carpenter’s blood. Both the earth and its inhabitants have been touched, hallowed, saved. And the mystery of it all is present to us whenever the name of Jesus is uttered with the affection of a Lover for their Beloved.
Draw me in your footsteps, let us run. The king has brought me into his rooms; you will be our joy and our gladness. We shall praise your love more than wine; how right it is to love you. (Song of Solomon 1:4)
In coming to truly know Jesus, the important thing is to allow oneself to be drawn by him; not so much to grasp the hand of Jesus Christ, but to have the courage to be grasped by him. The Beloved says to her Lover, “Let us run.” Yet all too often we spend our time running away from rather than with Jesus. I believe one reason for this is that we rarely are helped to believe that we are loved by him who wishes to be “our joy and our gladness.”
It is very difficult to hear the good news of love sweeter than wine while being constantly assailed by the cacophony of words dripping bitter gall. But Jesus assures us that he will never turn anyone away who comes to him. How can he? He still bears reminders of the depth of his love, even in his glorified body, reminders in his wrists, feet, side, and back. That is how far he is willing to go for our love. And those wounds should be enough for us to exclaim, “How right it is to love you.”
Refuge in the Song of Songs
In his delightful shade I sit, and his fruit is sweet to my taste. (Song of Solomon 2:3)
It may appear to be a strange question, but why do we sit in the shade? Because the sun at times is too much to deal with without protection, at least for awhile. Once refreshed, we leave the shade and continue on.
There are times when the pounding of the world’s heat can be as harsh and spirit-wilting as the summer sun. The common inconvenience of a bad day at work, or the mischief of lively children, or simply too much to do in too little time, are annoying. But then there are the blistering effects of stinging prejudice, the diagnosis of a terminal illness, the painful ending of a relationship, the searing cold of a loved one’s death. Alone, each of these is a challenge to handle at the very least. When they begin to cluster, they can be devastating. Where does one go for relief or even a modicum of refreshment?
In Verse 3, the Beloved is compared to “an apple tree among the trees of the wood.” He stands out because of his ability to give fruit, to nourish by his very presence and thus sustain life, whereas shade is all the other trees of the wood can offer. While shade from the sun is important, you eventually have to leave or you never get anywhere. With the fruit of the apple tree, your hunger and thirst are abated while you rest and restore your strength.
Jesus says in Matthew’s gospel:
Come to me, all you who labor and find life a burden, and I will refresh you. (Matthew 11:28)
Among all the “trees of the wood” that present themselves as having a method or technique to solve life’s problems and revive our souls, only Jesus offers himself, like the fruit of the apple tree, to provide the strength we need. His undying, unchanging love is there to shade us against the harshness of a society that has forgotten how to love. His body and blood are freely given to all who hunger and thirst. Not only is the shade given by Jesus “delightful,” but the refreshment of his love is sweet indeed.
His left arm is under my head, his right embraces me. (Song of Solomon 2:6)
Those of us blessed with ever having a lover in a sustained, committed relationship, free from the impersonal coldness of a one-night stand, know the joy of having one in whose eyes we find acceptance, love, compassion and gentleness. We know only too well how deeply comforting it is to lie in our beloved’s embrace. The world is shut out there, the hatred and phobias and ignorance are held at bay.
And so it can be with Jesus. To imagine yourself in the passionate embrace of Jesus, the embrace of him who is both friend and lover, can be jarring for some. We have centered so much on his divinity, with all the noble titles that accompany it, that we have failed to remember Jesus the Human, Jesus the Man.
Surely Jesus, too, needed to be loved as well as to love. That is why ingratitude and betrayal and religious bigotry hurt him deeply, and why faith and trust allowed him to reach deeply into people’s lives and raise a mirror to their eyes, revealing what potential was there for beauty and greatness.
This same Jesus still desires to hold us, to embrace his Beloved. In his arms we find freedom. In his arms we find protection and security. In the arms of Jesus we rediscover ourselves while looking into the eyes of him who loved us to the point of death, and who will allow no one and nothing to snatch us from his hands, let alone his arms, wrapped tightly around us.
I charge you… by all gazelles and wild does, do not rouse, do not wake my beloved before she pleases. (Song of Solomon 2:7)
It takes a great deal of effort at times to be other, to keep personal dignity and integrity intact in the face of so much opposition. It can be very draining and emotionally taxing. Where do we go to be renewed and refreshed? Where do we retreat when “the world is too much with us”? For some, solace is found in a bottle, for others it is the powder or a pill. Others search for fulfillment and comfort in anonymous sexual encounters — devoid of love, real passion or authentic humanity.
But there remains yet another source of refuge for us.
In the previous verse, we were surrounded by the arms of Jesus, our Beloved. Now he declares, “Do not wake my Beloved before she pleases.” When life presses down upon us, when our strength is spent and our spirits are stretched to the breaking point, we can turn to Jesus with all that burdens us. It is not our sexuality that is burdensome, but the hostility born of ignorance and fear. It is always easier when we suffer to approach for help someone who understands because they have been there.
Jesus has walked in our shoes. In a real sense he knows what it is like to be other. His understanding of himself and his mission was so misunderstood that his neighbors tried to throw him off a cliff. Many stopped walking with him. One who he considered a friend, a hand-picked companion, sold him to his enemies. Another publicly declared, one time for each year that he had walked with Jesus, that the Master had had no influence on his life at all.
Jesus’ remaining companions — all except one man and a handful of women — left him to face his enemies alone. And his enemies, spurred on by fear, jealousy and a myopic view of God and country, nailed his bashed and broken body to a cross and sighed with relief that orthodoxy was preserved, the nation saved, power maintained.
But then came Sunday morning. An empty tomb, discarded grave clothes, and greetings of “Peace be with you” for those who wept for him and felt lost and disillusioned.
Jesus is not simply some kindly, dead Jewish prophet, a “nice guy” who ran afoul of authority. Jesus is very much alive. He has walked through the darkness LGBTQ+ people know only too well. And when we find it too difficult to carry on and are tempted to give in to the voices of emptiness and death, he is more than willing to once more take his Beloved into his strong arms and carry them, hold them, and breathe back into their tired souls the breath of life, carried on “the kisses of his mouth.”
Longing in the Song of Songs
I hear my love. See how he comes leaping on the mountains, bounding over the hills. My love is like a gazelle, like a young stag. (Song of Solomon 2:8)
In the ancient world, the gazelle and the stag were animals known for great sexual desire. The Beloved describes her Lover as one like these sexually charged animals as he crosses the mountains and hills to be with her. He longs to be with his Beloved with an eagerness no obstacle can impede. She can hear him and calls attention to him.
Jesus longs for us with just such an impassioned desire. Yet even in his desiring of an intimate relationship with us, there are still mountains and hills that can separate us. There are, of course, the all-too-familiar mountains of hostility that surround us, erected by a fearful and misinformed society. But what of the hills — the hills of poor self-image, the hills of reacting to the pain of homophobia in self-destructive ways?
There are hills we raise to protect ourselves from further abuse, keeping real and deep relationships at arms length while settling for the transitory joys of sex without commitment. The hills of hardness of heart that strive to push God further and further away because both the image and the word of God have been used to bludgeon and curse us rather than to comfort, heal and challenge us to love and growth.
My love lifts up his voice, he says to me, “Come then, my beloved, my lovely one, come. For see, winter is past, the rains are over and gone.” (Song of Solomon 2:10)
Now our Lover speaks to us and bids us to come with him. But it is to no impersonal individual that the request is made. We are addressed as “My Beloved, My Lovely One.” This is enough to make one stand in muted awe. The Son of God calls me “Beloved.” The Savior of the World sees me as his “lovely one.”
The author of Psalm 8 asks:
What are human beings that you spare a thought for them, or the children of Adam that you care for them?
When faced with the offer of such unbelievable love, we too may ask the same question: Who am I that you should love me with such intensity? We know we are sinners, broken and bruised, breakers and bruisers.
How often do we oppress each other through “outing” or looking down our collective noses at the still-closeted? How often do we allow homophobia around us to lead us into hating and distrusting? Do we use others to satisfy our needs, with no thought to their humanity, their uniqueness? We believe in our sins easily enough. Yet it is just as true to say we are also the Beloved of Jesus Christ, and it is the balance between our blessedness and our brokenness that must be struck.
Jesus says to each of us, “My lovely one, come to me. The time of winter waiting is at an end. The rains that have scalded you with depression and blinded your eyes to the beauty I see in you, are over. Let my love warm your wintery soul, unleashing the flowers of new life I long to give you. Come then, my Beloved, come close and see how I love you in your weakness, your strength, your potential and your beauty. All of your being is carved forever in my hands and upon my heart. You are mine… forever.”
My dove… show me your face, let me hear your voice; for your voice is sweet and your face is lovely. (Song of Solomon 2:14)
Such tenderness is almost overwhelming, yet we long for more, much like the act of love-making can grow so intense we don’t want it to end, still thirsty for the intimacy it provides. I do not know anyone who ever tires of being told they are loved. Here love is fanned, not by an action, but simply by being. To look at the face of the Beloved, to listen to their voice speaking of love and devotion… What could be sweeter?
Jesus asks us to show him our face, to turn to him and speak to him, because the sound of our voice is sweet to his ears. In short, he wants us to pray. And what is prayer? Simply put, it is loving conversation between two friends. The key here is “conversation” — one speaks while the other listens, then the speaker listens for the reply. The strange thing about prayer is that unfortunately, we have the first part of the equation down well enough but it is the second we struggle with. So our prayer time often degenerates into “monologue time.”
Can you imagine how frustrating it would be to love someone intensely, and every time you tried to tell them how deeply you loved them, they either turned away or began talking over you? We would not stand for it very long. But Jesus is patient. Eventually the more time we spend with him, the more comfortable with him we become, and the more comfortable and nourishing are the silences wherein he speaks.
But this plea of Jesus is his Beloved’s plea also. We want him to show us his face and allow us to hear the sweet tones of his voice. And he readily obliges, yet we do not take notice. We have a Cecil B. DeMille mentality — looking for lightning and thunder and deep booming voices from overcast skies. Thus we miss noticing the face of Jesus mirrored in the nurses and doctors who lovingly care for people with AIDS, the face of Jesus found in a lover’s face, the faces of family and friends who accept us, the look of forgiveness from one we have hurt.
The voice of Jesus is heard in every word of support and encouragement, in every word of love and desire, in every pet name, in every challenge to grow and become all that God intends us to be.
The voice of Jesus calmed the raging storm that threatened to swamp his apostles’ boat. He can calm the many storms that try to drag us under also. His voice raised the dead and calls us to exit our tombs. The sweetness of his voice was recognized in his Easter greeting of shalom to his friends’ anguished souls. His voice also cried out from the Cross in abandonment and grief, and it echoes today in the strangled pleas of the frightened, the lonely, the battered and confused.
Listen closely. He speaks to you now.
My love is mine and I am his. (Song of Solomon 2:16)
Jesus did not come and walk among us because he needed a change of scenery. He came because we were in need. We had lost our way, we were settling for less than we were created for. So “the Word became flesh and lived among us.” And Jesus lives among us still. He is ours and we are his, regardless of what some of us would believe. We belong to Jesus because we are bought and paid for with his sweat and tears and precious blood. As St. Paul reminds us:
You have been bought at a price. (1 Corinthians 7:23)
My Lover is mine because I needed him to show me who I really am. I am his because I still need his direction, his guidance and his love to remain truly his Beloved. He is mine because in him I have life and undying, unchanging love. I am his because my existence is proof that I am not a simple fluke of nature, nor am I some mere mistake, aberration or disordered being in the universe.
I am a beloved gay man, whose existence was longed for and planned for with a purpose in mind. At the very least, I am here because it pleases my Beloved Jesus and gives him great delight. And that is enough for me — and the same can be said for each of you.
The truth is, we are very dear to the heart of God. Isaiah the prophet declared in God’s name:
I shall not forget you. Look, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands. (Isaiah 49:16)
This poetic description of God’s love became a living, breathing reality when the nails of the executioners were plunged into the hands of Jesus, our Lover. Now and forever, his love for us is engraved into his glorified body. He offered these signs of love to Thomas to examine for himself, as if proof of the resurrection is proclaimed in every wound that assaulted his body.
These very wounds cry out to every LGBTQ+ child of God to rise up and, with open minds and hearts, greet the one who bounds over all obstacles in order to express his undying love for them. They cry out for us to come and examine them, and therein to find ourselves.
Beauty in the Song of Songs
How beautiful you are, my beloved, how beautiful you are! (Song of Solomon 4:15)
There is perhaps no more thrilling a sound that the voice of a loved one telling us how much we are loved by them. Perhaps this is most important to LGBTQ+ people. In a world where angry words are hurled at us with self-righteous abandon, chipping away at our sense of self, to hear our lover’s words of desire for us, to feel their touch, their longing for our beauty, is a much needed balm.
Beauty, however, is a tricky word. When we describe someone as beautiful, what exactly do we mean? Physical beauty only? Certainly the sight of a beautiful body is a joy, a God-given blessing. Yet how often do the images in skin magazines or videos color our perception of what real beauty should be. If my pecs do not bulge or my abs are not as rippling as they once were (as if they ever were), if my sexual endowment and prowess seems dwarfed by the glossy paper models, and as my folically challenged state increases daily, does all this mean I am not beautiful?
Certainly we are all attracted to our preferred types, and physical attractiveness and attraction are no vices. But if it remains on that level only, then every vital, complex, lovable human being created from the mind and hand of a variety-loving God is reduced to a collection of body parts — parts that will one day, no matter how many trips to the gym or bottles of Rogaine or Viagra, break down and eventually turn to dust.
I have been privileged to meet many beautiful people for whom lack of apparent physical attractiveness was overshadowed by a deep beauty of soul. I regularly brought Holy Communion to a little Scottish woman named Bea. Severe arthritis had left her hands gnarled and her body wheelchair-bound. Yet when I entered her tiny apartment, she would be working at a crossword puzzle or watching a PBS cooking show or knitting winter caps for the charitable outreach program of a local church.
It did not matter what denomination you belonged to; if you were in need, Bea was there doing whatever she could. And I looked forward to meeting with her each week because though her body had been ravaged, her mind was sharp, her wit quick, and her ever-present smile infectious. She truly was one of the most beautiful people I have ever been blessed to know.
Ravishment in the Song of Songs
We must expand our understanding of beauty. We must clarify our vision of our own beauty, realizing that it does not reside only in the body, but in the heart and spirit that, once ravished by the Beloved, must go out and share that love through word and action.
You ravish my heart… you ravish my heart with a single one of your glances. (Song of Solomon 4:9)
What a terrific word to describe how a lover’s love affects us: Ravish, defined by Webster as “to overcome with emotion.” It is part of the non-verbal communication between lovers that is so delicious. With just a look you know how your lover feels: Amorous, sad, joyous, contemplative, troubled. To look deeply into another’s eyes and want to not just swim in them but to be totally engulfed by them. And when that longing is fulfilled, friend, you have indeed been ravished.
Jesus says to us, “You have ravished my heart, my brother, my sister, with your eyes. You have captured my heart with words only eyes can truthfully speak.” When do we do such a wonderful thing as to ravish the heart of the Son of God? I believe it is when we finally trust him and in his care for us.
“Thy will be done” is a thought all too often voiced as a form of “I give up.” But if I believe, truly believe, that Jesus loves me, that I have been chosen to be his Lover, then trust must flow from that, or else any relationship will be superficial. How can you spend your days with someone who does not trust you when you declare your love? How can you relate to someone who doubts what you say or questions your motives? You cannot.
In Mark’s gospel, a father approaches Jesus and begs him to heal his demon-possessed son. In his grief he says, “If you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.” Jesus’ reply is quite direct: “If you can? Everything is possible for one who believes.” Then in one last gasp of hope the father responds, “I do believe, help my unbelief.” (Mark 9:17-24)
Trust and belief are never easy to hold onto. It is hard at times to trust someone in whose name so many have mocked and harassed and even killed us. It is hard to believe that any good can come from a loved one’s death, the break-up of a relationship, or the loss of a job, or of family support, or of friendship. With all the homophobic rhetoric, it is hard to believe that Jesus could really love me.
But once you have allowed yourself to look deeply into his eyes as I have done (though not often enough) and been ravished by him, your belief in his love and your trust in his care for you will begin to grow. For in our trust, in our belief, no matter how fragile or small, we ravish the heart of Jesus Christ. And who could be indifferent to that?
Garden imagery in the Song of Songs
[My love] is a garden enclosed… a sealed fountain. Your shoots form an orchard of pomegranate trees, bearing most exquisite fruit: nard and saffron, calamus and cinnamon, with all the incense-bearing trees; myrrh and aloes, with the subtlest odors. Fountain of the garden, well of living water, streams flowing down from Lebanon! (Song of Solomon 4:12-15)
Here the Lover speaks of his Beloved in imagery far removed from the most of us. Fountains and lush gardens filled with fruits and aromatic herbs are not part of our everyday lives. Yet all those beautiful images are ways of saying that the life and love of his Beloved are all his.
Each one of us is like a garden that must be well-tended. We are filled with life and potential and are jealously possessed by a loving God. It’s ironic that for years gay people have been put down with the “fruit” epithet when you consider what fruit we are actually empowered to bear.
We have choices for the yield of our inner garden. We can allow the weeds of hatred and anger to choke back fruitfulness. We can nurture the thorns that spring from the roots of homophobic talk that plunge deeply into our already wounded hearts, making the soil of the soul bitter and foul. We can block up the fountain of life-giving water with stones and gravel of selfishness and superficiality and resentment. Thus we can stand amid the rubble that we, not those who misunderstand us, have created.
Or we can nurture the fruit of forgiveness toward those who hate us. We can choose to prune our lives with self-discipline so as to truly love not only our lovers, but also family and friends and those with whom God will enrich our lives. We can choose to allow the fountain of life-giving water, which has its source in the wounded heart of Jesus, to burst forth and show the world that LGBTQ+ lovers of Jesus Christ know how to live and love and nurture both love and life.
We belong to Jesus — that is the bottom line. But before we can walk with him in the world, we must be comfortable lying with him in the garden of our heart. Is your garden a place of peaceful respite with your Beloved? Or is a little gardening in order?
I sleep, but my heart is awake. I hear my love knocking, “open to me… my beloved, my dove, my perfect one, for my head is wet with dew, my hair with the drops of night.”
— “I have taken off my tunic, am I to put it on again?”
My love thrusts his hand through the hole in the door; I trembled to the core of my being. (Song of Solomon 5:2-3)
Her lover now stands outside her door and pleads, with bedewed hair, for admittance. For some reason she decides to play games with him. She coyly announces that she has removed her tunic (hence she is ready for love). Her feet have been washed (feet being a Hebrew euphemism for genitals). So here she lies, prepared and longing for love-making. The sight of his hand causes her to tremble with desire. But she does not let him in.
In the Book of Revelation, Jesus says:
Look, I am standing at the door, knocking. If one of you hears me calling and opens the door, I will come in and share a meal at that person’s side. (Revelation 3:20)
Our Lover stands at the door of our heart, like a gentleman, unwilling to force himself and his love upon his Beloved. He stands there, his hair wet with the moisture of longing and desire. Yet so often we keep him waiting, playing games with our frustrated Lover. But unlike the Lover in the Song, it is not a matter of being ready for his love-making. We keep him waiting because we are afraid or too hurt or too consumed with self to open the door.
Whenever I read the Revelation passage, I am reminded of my 16-year-old self, too battered and blind to even find the door so as to allow Jesus entrance. I did not allow myself to be ravished because I believed the lie that I was not worthy. But my Lover was oh-so-patient. Though I eventually opened the door for all the wrong reasons, he came in, dressed his table, kissed me “with the kisses of his mouth,” and has remained by my side ever since.
Jesus remains at the door, pleading with us to open. His love is nothing to play games with. In a world where true love is in short supply, none of us can afford to let he who is Love itself stay outside, bathed in the dew of our indifference.
What makes your lover better than other lovers? (Song of Solomon 5:9)
The old adage says love is blind. If you look around at couples you can see the truth of this observation. I have watched people in malls and restaurants and have asked myself what some of these folks see in each other. Physically there does not seem to be much that would attract one to another. Then I have to catch myself, remembering one man in my life who found the likes of me quite to his liking and remained with me on and off for five years.
There is some “thing” within us that, once captured by another, colors all aspects of our humanity in their eyes: Physical, spiritual, emotional, making us desirable to them and acceptable to ourselves.
So what is there about Jesus Christ that would cause LGBTQ+ people to throw our lot in with him? What is there about this man that would cause those oppressed in his name to search him out and cling to him? Two words: His love.
His love impelled him to come to us in the first place. St. Paul tells us:
Though in the form of God, Jesus did not count equality with God something to be grasped. But he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, becoming as human beings are. (Philippians 2:6-7)
Jesus did not cling to his position as Son of God in the face of the need of his sisters and brothers. So he came to us in the fragile, non-threatening flesh of an infant. He grew from child to gangly adolescent and underwent all the accompanying changes and feelings and drives. He worked with his back and hands, wiped sweat from his brow, enjoyed food and friends, gazed in wonder at the evening skies, suffered a parent’s death, and knew there was more to do than remain in the safety of his hometown.
Thus he was baptized into the human condition of the poor and outcast, the struggling and the labeled. Jesus saw beneath labels on people and simply saw people. He fearlessly spoke out against injustice, confronting those who used God as a cudgel, while tenderly speaking to the broken and searching.
He was humbler yet, even to accepting death, death on a cross. (Philippians 2: 8)
Opposition to him rose to a fevered pitch, corrupting one friend into selling him out to his enemies and another into denying that Jesus touched his life at all, and scattering the rest in a fearful search for safety. Jesus was taken, beaten to shreds, pushed and prodded to the place of execution, stripped naked and alone before hate-filled eyes, and tacked up like a bloodied rag. Jesus never “fell” in love with us. It was a decision, lived each day of his life and ratified with blood and nails and rough-hewn boards.
His empty tomb trumpets the joyful news that this passionate man, the love of God, in human flesh, is with us and for us still. This is why he is better than all other lovers. His love never waxes or wanes. Its searing heat still warms, still comforts, still breathes life and calls us to greatness. That is my Lover, our Lover, Jesus.
Friendship in the Song of Songs
My love is fresh and ruddy… His head is golden… his locks are palm fronds and black as the raven. His eyes are like doves… His cheeks are beds of spices… His lips are lilies… His hands are golden… His belly a block of ivory… His legs are alabaster columns… His conversation is sweetness itself, he is altogether lovable. Such is my love, such is my friend. (Song of Solomon 5:10-16)
While it is true that physical beauty should not become the be-all and end-all we have made it out to be, the physical attractiveness of another human being is something to be enjoyed and appreciated. The temptation is always to objectify and thus use the individual we are attracted to. But to be able to look upon another’s physical grace with thankful eyes and a gracious heart is a grace in and of itself.
The woman in the poem lists all the attributes of her lover that make him attractive to her. His physicality is a concrete representation of her desire for him and the reality of his love for her. It is his lips that have kissed her, his legs that carried him to her, and in his arms that she has rested and received his passionate, undying love. Even his conversation is sweet, a conversation that, as with all lovers, does not necessarily have to be deep and thought-provoking. Through all this, he is not only a lovable lover but a friend as well.
While on my January retreat, my retreat director suggested making two lists: One for all the things I loved about Jesus and one for all the things I did not like about him. I spent the entire day praying and contemplating this list and finally came up with 51 items on the positive side and only one on the negative.
In the plus column were such things as his love for me, his willingness to forgive, et cetera. But it also included things like Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, the 1812 Overture, and Barber’s Adagio for Strings. I love Jesus for the color blue, for putting nerve-endings in all the right places, for dogs, for star-bloated skies, for loving family and friends.
When it came to the negative side, the solitary entry was that Jesus, at times, can be a real pain. Why? Because he does not allow me to judge or hold grudges against those who hurt me. He does not let me sit and wallow in self-pity. He is constantly at me about things like growth, and conversion, and service. All very annoying. Yet if it were not for these very things that I find annoying, I do not believe I could truly enjoy the other 51 I find so wonderfully appealing about “my Love… my friend,” my Jesus.
I belong to my love, and my love to me. (Song of Solomon 6:3)
There was once a small boy who decided to build a toy boat. He found the choicest piece of wood and lovingly carved and hollowed out the hull and sanded it smooth. He next fashioned a mast, attached a fine sail, painted the boat the most beautiful color he could find, then went down to the river to test his new creation.
Squatting down, the boy gently placed the boat on the water and gave it a slight tap. The wind caught the sail and it billowed out, sending the boat gliding across the face of the water. The sight filled the boy with delight. But a smile of joy turned to a look of dismay as he watched the boat sail farther and farther away from him. He had failed to attach a line to the boat, so there was no way to bring it back. Heartbroken, the boy wept and returned home.
A few days later, while passing a used toy store, the boy looked in the window. There, in the back, almost hidden by other toys, was his boat. With great excitement the boy entered the store and asked the owner to give him the boat in the window because it belonged to him. The man calmly said he would gladly sell him the boat, but he could not simply give his merchandise away.
So the boy began to work, and the money he earned went toward retrieving his prized toy. When at last he had accumulated enough money, he returned to the store and bought his boat back. Upon leaving, the boy was heard to say, “You’re mine, you’re twice my boat. You’re mine once because I made you and mine once because I paid for you.”
There are many people who reach out to us. Some want our time, others want our money. Still others desire us as a means to satisfy them physically or emotionally. But only Jesus desires us because he made us out of love and paid for us with his blood, shed for love of us. “I belong to my Love, and my Love belongs to me.” The truth of this remains today. The one to whom I give my love and time and energy and life has a claim on me. And if the one who receives my love gives me his love and time and energy and life in return, then we truly possess each other.
With Jesus, the possession is not a controlling or clinging, ultimately destructive possession. He has proven worthy of my love and trust. He has proven himself reliable. When you belong to Jesus, he enables you to see yourself as you are, to claim both the light and shadows of your existence. Jesus enables you to be whole — hence, holy.
Uniqueness in the Song of Songs
Turn your eyes away from me, they take me by assault! (Song of Solomon 6:5)
This verse is interesting for the fact that the Beloved’s eyes are simply depicted rather than described or compared to anything else, as with the other verses. In her translation, the poet Chiana Bloch renders Verse 5 as, “Your eyes! Turn them away for they dazzle me.” But why? Why does the gaze from the Beloved’s eyes “dazzle” enough to “assault,” “torment,” “overwhelm” the Lover?
Could it be that, in peering into the eyes of one committed to us and to our well-being, the eyes of one who knows us — and who loves us because of and in spite of this same knowing, we glimpse (if but for a moment) God gazing back at us? That there is more than a little of the Divine involved in the love between two people? That it takes courage to love another and allow ourselves to be vulnerable enough to be loved by them? I firmly believe the answer to all these questions is a resounding yes.
Now, this “yes” opens up a new set of questions. Do we have the courage to love and be loved by Jesus? To look into his eyes so as to truthfully see ourselves mirrored in the vision of one who intimately knows us and loves us because of, and in spite of, what he sees? Are we willing to be vulnerable enough to look into the eyes of God and accept what we find? What we will find there is a human being, talented and broken, strong and fragile, sacred and scared, blessed and filled with potential for life and love and growth.
In short, we will find the Beloved of Jesus Christ.
My dove is my only one, perfect and mine. (Song of Solomon 6:9)
The male lover proclaims that his lover is unique and uniquely his, a proclamation that Jesus makes regarding each one of us.
Consider the following: In the entire history of this planet, there has never been, nor ever will be, another like you. No one has ever viewed the world like you do, no one has ever been given your particular talents and insights. No one has been given your job to accomplish in this life. And should you fail, no one will come behind you and complete the task.
The very fact that you exist at all comes from a choice made by God. Your being here is no accident, no afterthought, no spur-of-the-moment whim. From the beginning, even before time, God chose to create you. God chose to give you all that you possess, including your sexuality, out of undying love. That has always been part of her plan for the universe.
The love Jesus bears for you is also unique, never before seen on the earth. His passion for you burns with an intensity that can only be fulfilled by your decision to freely and intensely love him in return.
To belong to another, to have a lover claim that I belong to him and he belongs to me, is something truly sweet to hear — especially when such claims are rooted in mutual respect, free from possessiveness and control. Jesus desires to possess us, but this is because of the truth St. Augustine said: “Our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”
Jesus, my Lover, is the source of rest and fulfillment. He is the source of my joy and the destination of my wandering, stumbling steps. The love I give him can be given by no one else but me. And he has been waiting for my love, and yours, since before the world began. Isn’t it about time the wait was over?
Solitude in the Song of Songs
Come, my love, let us go to the fields… Then I shall give you the gift of my love. (Song of Solomon 7:12-13)
It seems to me that “the fields” reference here has a double meaning, one flowing from the other.
The fields are a place of seclusion, away from the noise and activity of the city. The fields are a place of solitude and silence into which the Lover is leading his Beloved. There, together, far from prying eyes, and in freedom of expression, he will bestow the gift of his love.
The gift of his love. Jesus’ love is not something owed to any of us. It is an expression of deliberate choice to love us and to enfold us in that love. Here he gives a gentle but firm command to “Come, my Love.” Again, our Lover is impatient with desire, as all lovers grow impatient when they wish to be with their beloved — to ravish them. In the fields of peaceful solitude we are ravished, for in that solitude we finally hear the words of love Jesus wishes to speak.
Yet solitude is no easy commodity. Like anything worthwhile it must come from effort. We spend our days in noise and commotion, not all of our making, but enough of it self-made that we have some control over it. For our Lover to be heard, we must learn to be comfortable with silence which itself speaks.
Silence commands us to “be still and know I am God.” Silence reminds us that there is much we have to learn and much we will never fully understand. Silence teaches us that we are not in control of all things, and it helps us to know the difference between what can and cannot be changed. Silence is where Jesus waits to meet us, if only we allow it. That much is in our hands. We can choose to clutter and clog our lives, or we can choose to “let him enter, the King of Glory.”
But no one can stay in the field of silence. There is also the field of the human condition, the field of human need of which we are all a part. If lovers remain in bed and never allow their closeness to bear fruit in the world beyond the bedroom, all they have participated in is sexual gymnastics. If we are loved by our Lover Jesus and fail to have that love bear fruit in service to those in need, we are a barren tree, content with imagining it has beautiful green leaves and luscious fruit. Adapting St. James, “Love, without works, is dead.”
We have known bliss. What are we doing to alleviate the gloom? We have been stung by prejudice. What are we doing to educate? We have known the kiss of the Beloved. How has our love and concern kissed those left by the wayside of society’s thoughts? It is not enough to receive the Lover’s gifts of love. We must become his gift of love to the world.
Ah, why are you not my brother, nursed at my mother’s breast! Then if I met you out of doors, I could kiss you without people thinking ill of me. (Song of Solomon 8:1)
Hiding: The need for the appearance of propriety, of “normalcy.” We LGBTQ+ folk know all too well the art of hiding, of “passing,” of putting up a good front. We are taught from the time we are very young that there is something odd about us. Our relationships are rarely displayed on billboards or in the print media. A gay person murdered becomes “a homosexual murder.” (What was the last “heterosexual” murder you read about?) If a heterosexual couple holds hands in public a smile is evoked over expressed love, while a gay or lesbian couple doing likewise are accused of “flaunting.”
How many marriages and lives have been shattered because marriage was the normative thing to do and the best way for a gay person to hide from themselves and others? And this need to fit in eventually spills over into one’s relationship with God.
It took me years before I had the insight and courage enough to relate to God as a gay man. I had built up a false self, a snug and secure image of who I was expected to be, having little if anything to do with who I really am. I presented a mask to God to love because to one degree or another I had bought into the homophobia I was inundated with. But then the breakthrough occurred, a breakthrough initiated by Jesus himself, since I was too weak and too blind to see what I was doing. I could thank God for my being gay but not truly love him as a gay man.
I could say Jesus loved me, but the real me remained buried under illusion and false expectations. One can waste a great deal of time wishing for this or that, wondering how life would be “if only …” Ultimately we can “if only” ourselves to a spiritual death that robs Jesus of a lover and deprives the world of a unique expression of his love.
What do people think of me? In the long run it does not make any difference, particularly in the spiritual life. What matters is to enter into what God thinks about you: “And God looked at everything he had made, and saw that it was very good.” There are instances where coming out fully can do more damage than good.
But an LGBTQ+ person must come out to themselves and acknowledge that self before the God who bestowed the gift in the first place. Then we can embrace our Lover as the gay and lesbian lovers he desires. Irenaeus said that “the glory of God is human beings fully alive.” Coming out to ourselves and to God is the most important step we take, for it is not only a coming out of the tomb of the closet, but a stepping into the truth.
Possession in the Song of Songs
Set me as a seal on your heart, like a seal on your arm. For love is strong as death, passion as relentless as Sheol… Love no flood can quench, no torrents drown. Were a man to offer all his family wealth to buy love, contempt is all that he would gain. (Song of Solomon 8:6-7)
The seal spoken of here is a sign of ownership, of possession. Here the Lover wishes to be set upon the heart and arm of the Beloved as a sign to all to whom it is she belongs.
Heart and arm, love and strength, possessed by both. To be owned by Jesus is to be the possession of Love itself, not simply love, but a love “strong as death” and a “passion relentless as Sheol,” the place of the dead that beckons to all. It is love that called you into being and keeps you alive. It is love that opened its hands to receive nails, bared its body to whips and spittle, and crushed death and fear into the dust.
Jesus is a passionate Lover who can never cease loving us, no matter how deep the flood of self-hatred nor imposing the torrent of prejudice. His is a love that cannot be won or purchased, because his love has already been spent — for you. You do not have to impress Jesus or try to put on a mask. You cannot play games with him. You can try, but emptiness and contempt are the only prizes gained.
“Set me like a seal on your heart, like a seal on your arm” can also be Jesus’ call to us. In a real sense he wants to be possessed by us, to find a place in our heart and in our arms, fragile though they are. Possession yes, but in the end it is more a question of union, one with the other. When we are fixed securely upon the heart of Jesus, when he is within the depths of our hearts, then truly his left arm is under our heads and we are embraced with his right. We are surrounded by his love, forever warmed and strengthened.
Even the power of death cannot change his love. Not just physical death, but the death we choose when we wander off, looking to lie in the beds of other lovers and find comfort in another’s embrace: The embrace of greed, lust, selfishness, self-pity , anger and hatred. But their seals are those of Sheol, of emptiness, of nothing. Only our Lover Jesus, by kissing us with the kisses of his mouth, can give us what we desire most: Wholeness, completeness, meaning and purpose, and the knowledge that there is one in whose eyes we are beautiful and to whom we give delight.
Sexuality in the Song of Songs
But I tend my own vineyard myself. (Song of Solomon 8:12)
The vineyard here refers to the Lover’s selfhood, superficially her sexuality. The vineyard, which she earlier failed to guard, is now in the hands of her Beloved. Both lovers have referred to the vineyard as theirs. Here the metaphor provides a sense of closure.
In a sense, we have been given our very self to cultivate and tend like a vineyard ripe with the possibility of refreshing wine.
The feeling behind “I tend my own vineyard” has the feel of good ol’ American self-reliance about it. Chiana Bloch translates this verse as “My vineyard is my own” — that is, it must be protected and nurtured.
When I give a gift to someone, I know that deep down, since it is now theirs, they are free to treat the gift any way they wish — although I will be more pleased if I see them enjoying it through the proper use and care. We are gifted in so many ways, but the most difficult to embrace for gay and lesbian folks is our sexuality since it is under constant attack by those who do not, or refuse to, understand us.
We can respond to the attacks in two ways. We can adopt a childish “I’ll-show-you” attitude where everything and anything goes, thus ultimately and dangerously selling ourselves cheaply: “Who are they to label me as disordered, my affections unnatural, my sexuality as second-rate, something that falls short?” There is such a thing as righteous anger, and it is perfectly “normal” to feel angry when a God-given gift is belittled or misunderstood. But anger alone does little good. It can in fact act like a leech, sapping strength and vision from us.
So what other option do we have? The option that has been held out throughout these reflections: Jesus. After all, he is the one who has gifted us with our sexuality. Who better to help us use it in a life-giving, life-affirming, responsible manner? He knows what it is like to be misunderstood, to be put down. He has tasted the injustice of others, therefore he can do more than sympathize with his wounded LGBTQ+ siblings.
He can help us through the anger and fear so as to claim our full personhood. He can, and will, walk with us through our pain and participate in our joys. He can, and will, cradle us in our loneliness, caress us in our need. He can, and will, heal our wounds and increase our courage and strength. He can broaden our vision and enlarge our hearts to embrace not only our fellow outcasts, but also to return love and mercy to those who hate us, who lie about us, who are blinded by their fear of us.
To truly be lovers of Jesus we must conduct ourselves as lovers of Jesus, as those who have experienced his love, been drawn in his footsteps, and have been called “beautiful,” “my delight,” my love,” and “my friend” by him whose body forever bears the marks of his passionate love for us.
Tom Yeshua is the pen name of Thomas E.L. Cloutier OFS, a transitional deacon who taught theology for 30 years at Nashua (N.H.) Catholic Regional Junior High School. He earned a bachelor’s degree from Don Bosco College in Newton, N.J., and a master’s in divinity and theology from St. John’s Seminary in Brighton, Mass.