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Singing the Song of Songs | Blaise Armnijon, S.J. | The Introduction to
The Cantata of Love
Cantata of Love: A Verse by Verse Reading of The Song of Songs
by Blaise Arminjon, S.J.
What book of the Old or New Testament has generated the most commentaries
in the history of the Church? Not Johns Gospel, not Pauls
letter to the Romans, not the prophet Isaiah, no, it is the Song of Songs.
It is a book
that is unknown to many Catholics, and shocking to those who discover
it for the first time because of its descriptions of a lover and his belovedGod
is only mentioned once and that is at the very end.
And yet the greatest of the Fathers have commented on it. Origens
is the classic and St. Jerome says of it: Origen, having surpassed
all of the interpreters of all the books of Scripture, surpassed himself
in this interpretation of the Canticle. St. Bernard of Clairvaux,
St. Francis de Sales, St. John of the Cross, all have added to the great
tradition of interpreting this book for they see it as Gods love
for Israel and the Church, Christs love for Mary, for the Church,
and for each of us. The author draws on all these classics of Catholic
tradition to give us a verse by verse reading of the Song of Songs which
will deepen the spiritual lives of all of usa deepening rooted in
Gods word and the most profound Catholic tradition.
A marvelous book of inspiration. It will touch many a heart with
the message of Gods love that the Canticle brings. Reading it was
a revelation to me. It will do an enormous amount of good.
Bishop Patrick V. Ahern, Auxiliary Bishop Emeritus of New York
This work offers us whole treatise on the spiritual life. It was
slowly brought to maturity, lovingly polished and solidly built. The dramatic
realism will be a great help to all who might be tempted to give up somewhere
along the way. Henri
Cardinal de Lubac, S.J.
Title and Date of the Poem "Let me sing to my friend
The Song of Songs Shir HaShirim in Hebrew is the
poem of poems, the song above all other songs, as one says "wonder of
wonders", "king of kings", or to describe the feast of Easterthe
"solemnity of solemnities", as Israel used to call "Holy of Holies" what
was actually the holiest part of the Temple in Jerusalem. Moreover, Origen
himself, who, together with Hippolytus, was the first among the Fathers
of the Church to comment on the Song, stresses the comparison with the
Holy of Holies: "Happy", he writes, "is he who enters the Holy of Holies....
Likewise, happy is he who understands the songs [of the Bible] and sings
them .... but happier yet is he who sings the Song of Songs."
When was the Poem written? The style and vocabulary would suggest the
fifth or fourth century B.C. It is possible to suggest with some likelihood
the date which remains, of course, indicative only but easy to
memorize of 444, i.e., the time of Nehemiah, who, together with
Ezra, rebuilt Jerusalem and the Temple after the exile. The Song would
thus have been written shortly after the Book of Job, almost at the same
time as the final writing of the Book of Proverbs and of many psalms.
It would therefore belong to the great poetic epoch of the Bible. Sophocles
was composing Antigone and Oedipus Rex in Greece at about
the same time.
In spite of its title The Song of Songs, Which Is Solomon's
the book could obviously not have been written by the son of David,
who lived during the tenth century, i.e., at least five centuries earlier.
Naming Solomon as the author, a practice that was common until the nineteenth
century, can be explained by the fact that nothing could have been more
fitting than to credit the wisest and most glorious among the kings of
Israel, a poet himself (1 K 5:12), with the authorship of a poem seen
as the most beautiful of the whole Bible.
Moreover, it is not beyond imagination that, at a certain stage of its
composition or in one or another of its parts, the Song of Songs might
have originated with Solomon or even before his time. One could think
that before it even reached the polished and perfect form in which we
know it, the poem had started to evolve slowly and to mature in the hidden
heart of Israel. Such a hypothesis is, of course, beyond proof; but don't
we already have, for instance, a foreshadowing of the Song in the first
verses of Isaiah's famous eighth-century song of the vineyard?
he song of his love for his vineyard.
My friend had a vineyard . . . " (Is 5:1).
Interpretations of the Song
However, the date of the Song is far from provoking as many discussions
as do its interpretations. This very short text, one of the shortest in
the Bible (117 verses, 1,251 words, 5,148 letters), probably has been
not only the most commented on of all Holy Scripture but also the most
passionately disputed. The exegetes follow three main schools:
The Lay and Naturalistic Interpretation
Some of the so-called naturalistic school see the Song as a mere poem,
or better yet as a collection of poems, not inspired by religion at all
but purely secular if not indeed erotic. "The free sheaf of songs celebrates
only one thing: the splendid, radiant and terrifying glory of eros between
man and woman.... Eros itself vibrates without any other purpose than
natural love.... Eros is sufficient unto itself. The eros of the Song
is not the agape of God."  Especially in the celebration of the betrothal
and wedding, these verses sing the love between man and woman in terms
that though veiled by poetry are nonetheless extremely realistic and quite
frequently even very graphic. This thesis of a purely secular Song, held
almost only by Theodore of Mopsuestia in all of Christian antiquity, was
condemned by the Fifth Council of Constantinople in 553.
The Literal Interpretation
Other authors have a quite different bent: for them the Song has no other
purpose at the beginning but love between man and woman, without however
its being a secular love. The Song does indeed celebrate human love as
the most beautiful gift of the Creator to the heart of man. As the New
Jerusalem Bible puts it, in its introduction to the Song of Songs: "[It]
is a collection of songs celebrating the loyal and mutual love that leads
to marriage. [It] proclaims the lawfulness and exalts the value of human
love; and the subject is not only profane, since God has blessed marriage."
Extrapolating from the second chapter of Genesis, the Song exalts human
love such as God has willed it to be since the beginning, a state of fervor
and innocence at the same time, which a couple who is faithful to God
should strive to achieve. Thus this book is quite appropriately part of
the Bible, and its divine origin is not disputed. There is no difficulty
either then in extending to the love of God and man, as many mystical
authors did, what can be applied literally only to human love. "The many
ecclesial commentators on the Song are at last right again when they interpret
[it] in terms of Christ and his bride 'without wrinkle or stain'. " 
We have a rather spirited expression of the literal interpretation in
Canon Osty's Bible: "The Song", he writes, "celebrates love, human love,
and only human love.... The tons of comments poured over this booklet
did not succeed in hiding the truth which is so clear to the eyes of the
unprepared reader: in its literal, first and direct meaning, the Song
deals with human love uniting man and woman in marriage." 
It must be admitted that such a stance, quite common today among the exegetes,
does not seem at first sight to lack impressive arguments. Here is a book
that has a feature unique in the entire Bible: God never intervenes in
it. There is not even the slightest reference to him. God is not even
named except once in passing and in a quite ambiguous way.
Moreover, properly speaking, there is not a single expression of religious
feeling in the whole Song. There is apparently no concern for theology,
apologetics, teaching or morality, contrary to all the other books of
the Bible and especially the Wisdom books, among which it is ordinarily
included. Moreover, the tone of the Song is so passionate, even so daring
here and there, and it makes such an appeal to the senses (to all the
senses), that it is difficult to see how it could be suitable to the expression
of God's love. The love of the Bridegroom and his Bride is that of beings
made of flesh and blood.
Lastly, is it not strange that there is not a single quotation from the
Song, not even a reference to one verse or another, in all of the New
Testament? Neither Jesus nor Paul seems to know it. As to the parallels
that people thought might be drawn with passages in the Old Testament,
they can also be found in the same ingenious way in the universal literature
of love. Interesting studies have been made for a long time that show,
in particular, strong similarities between the Song and poems of that
era from the Near and Middle East, especially from Egypt.
The Allegorical Interpretation
However, the arguments that have just been presented in favor of a purely
literal interpretation are quite far from being generally accepted. Traditional
Judaism and the Christian churches were quasi-unanimous almost until the
nineteenth century in giving a very different fundamental explanation
of the Song. Rather than making a celebration of human love, which would
then be permitted to extend to the love of God, the first and literal
meaning, this third school of interpretation on the contrary sees the
love of God as the first and direct object of the sacred author of the
Song, making it then legitimately applicable to love between man and woman
because, as Paul explains to the Ephesians, marriage's vocation is to
signify the union between Christ and the Church. 
We are naturally always more inclined to think that human love comes first.
"Therefore, when one reproaches mysticism", writes Bergson in an admirable
passage of Deux sources, "for expressing itself in the manner of
a loving passion, one forgets that it was love that plagiarized mysticism
and borrowed from it all its fervor, drive and ecstasy." 
In any event, it is striking that even though love expresses itself in
the freest way, nothing ever made Israel change her view of the Song as
the holiest of her books. "If all the Scriptures are indeed holy," the
celebrated Rabbi Aqiba said in the second century, "the Song, for its
part, is very holy to the extent that the whole world is not worth the
day when the Song was given to Israel." Would Rabbi Aqiba have spoken
in such a way had he not had the conviction, shared by all the pious men
of Israel, that the Poem of Poems celebrated not human love no
matter how wonderful and holy it may be but the very love of God
for his people and for mankind; if he had not recognized, in the Song,
the same language of tenderness already spoken by God to his bride, Israel:
"Your time had come, the time for love.... I bound myself by oath, I made
a covenant with you it is the Lord Yahweh who speaks and
you became mine" (Ezk 16:8)?
A son of the chosen people, André Chouraqui, says that today he
reads the Song like Rabbi Aqiba and all the long line of his ancestors
as well as like his own contemporaries: "I was born in a Jewish family
faithful to the traditions of Israel. Since early childhood, I heard the
Song of Songs chanted on the ancient rhythms that inspired the Gregorian.
While I was a child, I was imbued, every Friday night, with the fervor
that filled our beautiful synagogue of Ain-Temounchent during the evening
office as it started with the recitation of the Poem introducing the liturgies
of the Sabbath. Men, women, children were singing this text or listening
to it as if in ecstasy. It was indeed a sacred text, a transcendent song.
Nobody ever imagined that there could be in it anything obscene, trivial
or even carnal.... All sang lovingly this Poem of love, and it never occurred
to anybody to censure or expurgate it.... In all my life, I have never
heard from the mouth of those who live in the intimacy of the Poem a single
complaisant innuendo about its content. Being transparent, it was welcomed
in the transparency of pure hearts. It was understood in reference to
the Bible, to the love of Adonai for creation, for his people,
for each one of his creatures. We were too carried away by the great and
powerful current of Hebrew thought to see in the poem anything but the
song of absolute love, on the heights of the loftiest revelations. Strange
as it is, it remains true that for over two thousand years, the Jews never
saw in the Shulamite anything but a symbol, that of Israel; in the King,
anything but a reference to God; in the love uniting them, anything but
the revelation of the mystery of divine love." 
Read Part Two
of Introduction to the Song of Songs
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