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God’s Song of Love

St. Bernard of Clairvaux reminds us of God’s passionate love for us.

God’s Song of Love: St. Bernard of Clairvaux reminds us of God’s passionate love for us.

How many times have we heard someone tell us that God loves us? Love is a powerful and profound experience and yet those words—“God loves you”—can be so easily forgotten amid the day-to-day routine of life.

We remember rules, and we tend to think of God as one who is watching constantly to record our faults. When we think of God as our Father, something in the back of our minds whispers: “Judge.” A “guilty” verdict often arises as we recall some of our daily acts. It’s no wonder, for we live in an extremely “legal” age.

We also live in a time of dizzying technological expansion as radio and television, compact discs, computer networks, and cellular phones compete with one another for every minute of our day. Sixty-hour work weeks, school and extra-curricular activities, homework, housework, yard work: We are so busy that it is easy for us to consign faith—and the love of God that is at its heart—to the mere practice of religious ritual.

The truth is that God created us to have a loving, personal relationship with him through his Son, Jesus Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit. God’s love for us stands at the heart of our faith—a love that moves us to love him in return and to love one another. This is our faith—that God loved the world so much that, rather than let it perish in sin and separation, he sent his only Son to die for us and rise again. Whoever believes in Jesus will have eternal life (John 3:16; 6:40). God loves us so profoundly that he committed himself irrevocably to making a way for us to be with him for all eternity. God loves us so dearly that he was willing to sacrifice his own Son in order to fulfill his promise of eternal life.

Come, Receive Love. God loves each of us individually and he loves us in a special way as his church—his people. God loves you. Do you believe it? Listen to what he says: “Behold, you are beautiful, my love” (Song of Songs 1:15). These words of the lover to his beloved speak to us of God’s vision of his people. He is speaking of us—of his church! He calls us his “love.” Despite what we think of ourselves because of our faults and failings, God sees us as beautiful. He created us out of love, and he loves us always (Wisdom 11:24-25). If he didn’t, he wouldn’t have created us in the first place, and he certainly wouldn’t have allowed his Son to suffer such agony in order to rescue us from sin. But he does love us and, through his Holy Spirit, he inspired the writing of this love song which so beautifully reflects his love and desire for us, even as it extols the joys of married love.

St. Bernard of Clairvaux said of the Song of Songs: “The title is not simply the word ‘Song,’ but ‘Song of Songs,’ a detail not without significance… . It was a special divine impulse that inspired these songs … that now celebrate the praises of Christ and his Church, the gift of holy love, the sacrament of endless union with God. The Song of Songs stands at a point where all the other songs in scripture culminate” (On the Song of Songs 1.7,8,11). This love song between Christ and his church, between God and each member of the body of Christ, is first and foremost among all songs. It is a song that God sings throughout the ages, a song that will find its ultimate fulfillment when Jesus returns and all creation celebrates the wedding feast of the Son and his church (Revelation 19:7).

The lover calls to his beloved: “Arise my love, my fair one, and come away; for lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone” (Song of Songs 2:10-11). Every day, the Lord calls to his bride: “Arise, come away.” These are not the words of a master to a slave, for the Lord calls us “my love” and “my fair one.” He calls us to arise from our bed of suffering, from the pain of separation from God, and believe in his Son. The gulf, the immeasurable abyss between God and his people that originated at the fall of our first parents has been bridged by Jesus’ death and resurrection. The possibility of a loving and personal relationship between God and us has been restored. We can arise from the barren backwater of indifference.

St. Bernard said that “the lukewarmness, the frigid unconcern of these miserable times,” was enough to move him to tears. How much more must it grieve God! And in this respect, our times are no different from the twelfth-century Europe in which Bernard lived. “All the more therefore do I pray with intense longing: ‘Let him kiss me with the kiss of his mouth’ ” (On the Song of Songs 1.2). How the Lord longs for his bride to cry out: “Let him kiss me with the kiss of his mouth!”

The Ravished Heart of God. Burning with love, the lover beckons his beloved: “Let me see your face, let me hear your voice, for your voice is sweet and your face is beautiful” (Song of Songs 2:14). God created us in his image and likeness (Genesis 1:26). We are uniquely formed to love, just as our Maker loves. God the Father created us with a will, that we might choose to love; with emotions, that we might experience love; with memory, that we might recall and stir up love.

God wants us to come to him so that he might see our face and hear our voice. He wants us to approach him so that he can lavish his love upon us. How do we come to God? In prayer and meditation, in the liturgy, by reading and digesting God’s word in scripture. As we approach the Lord in these ways, we turn our hearts, and lift our voice, not to an impenetrable void, not to an indifferent judge, but to the one who loves us intensely and completely.

God, who is love (1 John 4:16), tells his bride: “You have ravished my heart” (Song of Songs 4:9)—not because the bride offered him love, but because he first loved her. We don’t need to convince God to love us through our loyalty or faithfulness or hard work. He loved us first (1 John 4:10). He calls us to set aside our self-justification and simply accept that God loves us because he made us and intends for us to be his Son’s bride.

God wants us to know his embrace. He has brought us—his bride—to his feast and covered us with his love (Song of Songs 2:4). The Lord delights to reveal himself and to show us how much he loves us. This is the feast served at the Lord’s banqueting house, a feast we both rejoice in and prepare for every time we celebrate the Eucharist.

God is delighted when we accept what he offers—“his love [which] is better than wine” (1:2). God is not “returning love but freely offering it,” declared St. Bernard. “For who had given him anything first, that it should be returned to him? As St. John said: ‘Not that we had loved him, but that he first loved us.’ He loved us before we existed, and … he loved us when we resisted him” (On the Song of Songs 20.2).

The Voice of My Beloved! When we resisted him, when we were far from him, God came to us, “leaping upon the mountains, bounding over the hills” (Song of Songs 2:8). So great was his love that no obstacle could keep Jesus from coming to us. Neither time nor distance, failing nor sin, indifference nor outright hatred could deter him from coming to us and bringing us into his banquet house. He comes to us leaping and bounding, not struggling or trudging, not slowed by fatigue, apathy or disinterest. He moves with energy, springing forward to his bride, jumping over the mountains and hills that stand between him and his beloved.

The world would ask us: “What is your beloved, more than another beloved?” (Song of Songs 5:9). What is God to us, more than the myriad other things that entice us and clamor for our love? The world would say: “One love is as good as another.” And it offers us so many, many others! But when God touches us with his love, we cry out: “The voice of my beloved!” (2:8). In an instant, we turn from all else to the living God. When God reveals his love to us personally, our hearts are overwhelmed and we affirm contentedly: “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine” (6:3). Love flows between the lover and the beloved, between God and his people, between the bridegroom Jesus and his bride—the church.

God loves you. God loves us. God loves the entire church as his Son’s chosen bride. “God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ” (Ephesians 2:4-5). He “canceled the bond which stood against us with its legal demands; this he set aside, nailing it to the cross” (Colossians 2:13-14). God sent his Holy Spirit to guide us into all truth and tell us the things that are in the Father’s mind and heart (John 16:13-15). He did all of this out of love for his bride. At the heart of our faith is God’s love. He has made every provision for us to live out our lives surrounded by it, continually experiencing and being moved by it. We belong to him. We too can say, “I am my beloved’s and his desire is for me” (Song of Songs 7:10).

The Elevation of Love. The Song of Songs is perhaps one of the most confusing books of the Bible. With its graphic imagery and its only vague references to God, some may wonder why it is even included in sacred scripture at all!

It is unclear where the Song originated, but most theologians believe that it is either Egyptian or Syrian, and that it was written between the sixth and fifth centuries B.C. as a collection of love poems. Throughout the centuries, many attempts have been made to find one over-arching story line that holds these poems together, but it is probably better to look at them as independent but related poems of love and passion.

The Song of Songs was particularly popular in the Middle Ages, at a time when spirituality and a focus on personal experience flourished. In the time of St. Bernard (the twelfth century), there were at least thirty separate commentaries on the Song in circulation, all of them interpreting the Song in light of God’s passionate, unquenchable love for his bride, the church.

Even today, while we see the Song as a series of love poems, God still invites us to let these poems lift our hearts to consider how deeply he loves us. He wants to fill us with hope in the knowledge that we can experience a relationship with him as deep as the relationship between a husband and wife.