The Song of Songs
and the Christian tradition

            “No book of the Old Testament is more difficult to interpret than the Song of Songs,” writes scripture scholar Dianne Bergant, CSA.  “It is clearly a collection of love poems full of sensuous imagery.  It promotes no apparent theological or moral values, and it never even mentions God.”  The poem has been subject to a huge range of interpretations over the centuries.  For some, it is simply a celebration of human love in splendid poetry.  For others, it is an allegory of the love of God for the human soul.  For still others, it is a cultic poem, with imagery drawn from the fertility rites of the ancient Middle East.  In spite of this multiplicity of views and interpretations, the Song of Songs has remained firmly ensconced in the Biblical canon for Jews and Christians, both Catholics and Protestants.

            The Song of Songs is a poem—or, rather, a collection of poems—attributed to Solomon, but probably actually dating from some time after the end of the Babylonian exile (538 BC).  It is a dramatic poem, in which different voices are heard—the bride and the bridegroom, with the daughters of Jerusalem acting as chorus.  The book moves from longing, to union, to loss, to discovery, as bride and bridegroom alternately sing of the beauty of the beloved, of the delights of love, and of the glory of chastity.

            In the Catholic tradition, the Song of Songs has frequently been read as an allegory of the union of Christ and the Church.  This interpretation was assumed by St. Augustine as early as the fourth century, when in a sermon he speaks of the Church as “His Beloved, His Spouse, His Fair One, but by Him made fair, before by sin deformed, beautiful afterward through pardon and grace” (Sermon 88, 5).  In Catholic tradition, the Song of Songs has also been associated with the life of consecrated virginity.  Augustine’s teacher Ambrose included an extended commentary on the poem in his Concerning Virgins.  “To work, then, O Virgin, and if you wish your garden to be sweet after this sort, that you, too, may be able to say: I found Him Whom my soul loved, I held Him and would not let him go. My beloved came down into His garden to eat the fruit of His trees. For it is fitting, O Virgin, that you should fully know Him Whom you love, and should recognize in Him all the mystery of His Divine Nature and the Body which He has assumed” (307).

            These traditional Catholic views of the Song of Songs are evident in the use of the Song in the liturgy.  Passages are read only seldom, and never on Sunday.  But the moments when the book is read are telling.  It is associated with religious women – passages are suggested for the feasts of St. Mary Magdalene and St. Scholastica, for the memorials of Religious and for the rite of Religious Profession.  In the liturgy, the Song of Songs is especially associated with the Blessed Virgin Mary.  This is evident each year when the second chapter of the Song of Songs is read alongside with the gospel of Mary’s visit to Elizabeth in the Advent Season.

Corinna Laughlin

 

Detail of South Transept Stained Glass Window, St. James Cathedral. Charles Connick, 1916-1917.