Proper 17: Song of Solomon 2.8-13; Psalm 45.1-2, 6-9 (or 1-7); James 1.17-end; Mark 7.1-8, 14-15, 21-23
Almighty God, who called your Church to bear witness that you were in Christ reconciling the world to yourself: help us to proclaim the good news of your love, that all who hear it may be drawn to you; through him who was lifted up on the cross, and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
WHAT is the attractiveness of religious practice? What does faith have to look like, if it is to be a good advertisement for itself? Most people would say that it must be genuine in its enactment of its own principles, practising what it preaches. They might add that it should be sensible and consistent, maintaining a proper relationship between essentials and externals. It should also be practical in a way that allows observers to see what it is about.
Less accessible, but nevertheless important, is the requirement for faith to refrain from pre-empting God’s action, particularly in the matter of making judgements. Righteous anger, as the Letter of James points out, is not God-given (James 1.20). In fact, the whole letter offers a working guide to being a Christian in the world, and although Luther might have regarded it as unhelpful to a proper understanding of justification, it contains much reassurance for those who want to know how to live their faith, and what a Christian ethic might look like.
James advises his readers to “welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls” (James 1.21). God dwells in us. We need to take our direction from that impulse, being listeners and not just hearers; doers and not just commentators.
Jesus’s harsh assessment of the Pharisees and Scribes is perhaps to be seen in the light of the measured principles that James establishes (Mark 7.1-8, 14-15, 21-23). They are obeying a law that had evolved with ever greater precision to preserve the distinction between God’s holy people and the potential for contamination in their contact with a world outside this distinctive relationship.
What Jesus sees in their ritual enforcements is imbalance. They over-emphasise external customs, and neglect the real devotion of heart and mind — not necessarily because they are hypocrites, but because they are faulty interpreters.
The Law that they so zealously defend directs its adherents to the law-giving but also life-giving word of God dwelling in them (Deuteronomy 30.11-20, especially 30.14). Without these secure compass points, it is easy to fall into the trap that James warns against: judging others, and trying officiously to do the work that properly belongs to God. The effect of all of this is to sever people from God rather than to bring them closer; to create in their minds an exacting disciplinarian, and displace the God who always sets obedience side by side with love.
It is in response to this latter God that the Church has been happy to allow erotic poetry to erupt into its regime of reading scripture. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) saw in the Song of Solomon an allegory of Christ and the Church. We might be even more direct than this, approaching God as if drawn irresistibly and personally by great beauty.
The mystics of the Christian tradition have shown through their writings and visions that it is entirely possible to fall in love with God. They have risked the most dangerous of human emotions in seeking the nearest possible apprehension of the God who called them into such close relationship as they prayed and meditated. The most truthful of our human feelings can be our teachers in approaching the God who came close to us in flesh and blood.
The collect this week reminds us that God is prepared to use all means to draw us closer and to reconcile us to him (2 Corinthians 5.19) — and to make us a new creation (2 Corinthians 5.17), capable of proclaiming a Kingdom that opens its doors to all who are drawn to its message.
Newly baptised Christians in fourth-century Milan heard this more vividly from Ambrose, as he reminded them of their anointing. He mentioned Psalm 133, but went on to say:
This is the oil of which Solomon said: Your name is like fragrant anointing oils poured out; that is why the maidens love you and draw you to them” (Song of Songs 1.2). How many souls made new today have loved you, O Lord God, saying, “Draw us after you. We run after the scent of your garments” (Song 1.3), so that they may drink in the fragrance of the resurrection?
On The Mysteries, VI