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Saturday, July 25, 2015

A Toast to Love

The following is the last in a series of guest posts for
Sacramental Saturday.
This post was written by Dr. Eric Severson
whom I met through the GTOE program at NNU,
when I took his course, "Philosophical Foundations of Ministry".
I have never worked so hard or learned so much in one class!
Eric shared this wedding ceremony with my cohort, during that class,
and it was widely agreed that this was the most profound
writing about love within marriage that any of us had come across.
He has graciously agreed to allow me to share his work here,
for which I am very thankful.
I have redacted the names of the reader, bride, and groom
for the sake of protecting their privacy.

Song of Songs 2:

"I am a rose of Sharon, a lily of the valleys. As a lily among brambles, so is my love among maidens. As an apple tree among the trees of the wood, so is my beloved among young men. With great delight I sat in his shadow, and his fruit was sweet to my taste.  He brought me to the banqueting house, and his intention toward me was love.  Sustain me with raisins, refresh me with apples; for I am faint with love.  O that his left hand were under my head, and that his right hand embraced me!  I adjure you, O daughters of Jerusalem, by the gazelles or the wild does: do not stir up or awaken love until it is ready!  The voice of my beloved! Look, he comes, leaping upon the mountains, bounding over the hills.  My beloved is like a gazelle or a young stag. Look, there he stands behind our wall, gazing in at the windows, looking through the lattice.  My beloved speaks and says to me: "Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away; for now the winter is past, the rain is over and gone.  The flowers appear on the earth; the time of singing has come, and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land. The fig tree puts forth its figs, and the vines are in blossom; they give forth fragrance. Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away. O my dove, in the clefts of the rock, in the covert of the cliff, let me see your face, let me hear your voice; for your voice is sweet, and your face is lovely. Catch us the foxes, the little foxes, that ruin the vineyards-- for our vineyards are in blossom." My beloved is mine and I am his; he pastures his flock among the lilies. Until the day breathes and the shadows flee, turn, my beloved, be like a gazelle or a young stag on the cleft mountains." 

Few ideas have captivated human imagination as intensely and repeatedly as the concept of love. Songs, sonnets, treatises, poems and books have been repeatedly dedicated to the experience and practice of love. The passage read by [reader] from the Song of Songs is a glorious example of this – and I will come back to that passage in a moment. As I reflect momentarily on love, and particularly on a delightful occasion and incarnation of love in the relationship between [Bride and Groom], I am also reminded of a banquet narrated by Plato in his dialogue Symposium – a philosophical classic to which I regularly subject my students.

The context for Plato’s Symposium is a banquet held in honor of love.  Rather than spend the night in heavy drinking, or being entertained by musicians, a group of friends gather around a table and decide that they will take turns raising their glasses and making toasts to love.  The night becomes a contest of speeches, as each philosopher attempts to outdo the others in a description of perfect love.

One toast proposes that the highest form of love is the sacrificial love between soldiers, whose selfless care for one another intermixes with intense pride and commitment.  Phaedra, one of the first to raise his glass, proposes this as the height of love: a soldier who stands fast to the death for his companion on the battlefield.  Other toasts follow, praising the virtues of love between a student and a teacher, the love of a doctor for a patient, and even the tragedy of love eternally unrequited.  One after another, the sages of Athens toast to one or another manifestation of love.

I cannot help but think of this scene at weddings, where people often raise glasses to toast the beauty of love on display in the intense and wonderful moment in which two lives become one.  We frequently read St. Paul’s toast to love, a rousing and poetic passage in First Corinthians in which he proposes that without love we are nothing, and that among the greatest of human endeavors – faith, hope and love – love is most certainly the greatest.

But these toasts – Plato’s and perhaps even Paul’s – are poor fits for this occasion.  A wedding celebrates quite specifically an event between two people; a promise and covenant that instantly stretches across the spans of both lifetimes, from birth to death, and envelops both partners in an identity irrevocably bound together.  A wedding is an act of worship, as two lives turn themselves over to an unknown future that stretches ahead of them.  For Plato, and perhaps even Paul, marital love is not the highest love.  No toast presented at the table of Athens, to the love between spouses, is given much credence, and Paul is notoriously skeptical about marriage in general.

When we come to weddings, to this wedding, do we mark and celebrate an inferior form of love? Is the love shared between this man and this woman a shadow of something much more perfect and beautiful, concealed by the flesh and blood to which we are confined?  Or is there for this occasion an even higher toast to love, nominated by neither Plato nor Paul?

This is the brazen nature of my reflections on marriage today – to raise the glass one more time, alongside infinite poets and priests and princes, and hazard a toast.  For my resource I turn to the poetry of a woman who lived three thousand years ago, a Shulamite woman whose toast to love is immortalized in the Song of Songs.  This toast, as ancient as any that we have on record, is also remarkably unique.  The Shulamite woman toasts not to a beloved that she possesses, or to an experience she grasps and seizes in the present.  Her toast is to a love that burns like a fire that does not consume, a love that has its principle focus on a future that is given over to her beloved. The Shulamite woman, in her erotic and poetic testament to love, speaks of a love that is not the satiation of a need, or the achievement of an emotion.  In its highest form, love is not generated out of lack or need but out of abundance and overflow; it is a love that is greater than any lack or need that either spouse can generate, a love whose source can therefore only be thought of as grace.

In refrain, the wisdom of the Song of Songs repeats: “do not awaken love until it so desires.”  Love is not grasping or holding or seizing or owning.  Love is patience extraordinaire, patience to the point of absurdity.  The Shulamite woman delights in a love that flourishes even as she waits, calls for him to make haste, but delights even in the desire that flourishes in waiting.  She writes: “Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm; for love is strong as death, passion fierce as the grave. Its flashes are flashes of fire, a raging flame. Many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it.”

Love, as I read of it in the Song of Songs, is not just confined to what we know or expect from those we call beloved.  Love, defined here in the poetry of early history, is a commitment to the infinite mystery of what one's beloved may become.  Such love does not constrain the beloved but thrives on the liberating loss of self-interest. Such love is unhinged from the central need to bind the other to the self.  In other words, love is the joyful forfeiture of the future.  If I were to toast to love, I would toast to that which dances out into a future that is no longer constrained by knowledge or predication or anticipation. Love, in its highest form, is a release of any vision for what my beloved may be, and a deep trust in whatever this unforeseeable, impossible future may hold.

Love, in this sense, redeems time.  Locked in a present that is wounded and crippled by selfish desire and lack, love is no more than a brief respite in an economy of struggle and possession.  But true love turns upside down the past and the future, or more precisely, forfeits these modalities of time.  Love is forgiveness.  Love is hope in the impossible.  By releasing the past and future from my possession and my knowledge, love heals and makes the impossible come to pass.  To love truly is to give away my time – not pieces of it, but the whole.

As I reflect on love in light of this wedding, this marriage, the union of two of my dearest friends, I am stirred by how these two lives already bear testament to the love celebrated by the Shulamite woman and her beloved.  These two people stand before us in a profound forfeiture of any vision for what their new spouse may become. Their love is already a wonder, an impossibility, a glimpse at something that transforms time itself.  In this moment, as they wed, the past and future are transformed.  Their yesterdays, full of pains and joys, are now the past that deliver them to this holy union.  The future is now a future given over to this marriage.  The present is a beautiful dance of waiting and hoping and believing in something that cannot be contained by any expectation.  And for this reason love is holy, the very embodiment of holiness, the appearance of that which is greatest among all events in human existence.

Love, I suggest, is asymmetrical. True love stumbles over itself to give more than it receives, to love more than it is loved, to forgive more than it is forgiven.  Love, in its highest form, is embodied in persons such as these – [Bride and Groom] – whose lives are given over into a mutual dance of selfless commitment and persistent sacrifice and forgiveness.

So in these moments, in the holy moment of marriage, may your past be transformed and healed and your future radically opened. May you stumble over one another always in a dance that is never about breaking even, or fairness, or equality.May you wait, may you flourish even in waiting, and may you thrive in the awkward and unpredictable dance that we dare to call love.


  1. Wow - this is *so* good - and because I know it's Eric who wrote this, it is not surprising, at all. I'm going to comment some anyway, but it's tough, because really, there isn't anything else that needs to be said!

    I do love the emphasis on the openness of the future of love in marriage - yet this is something that we must consciously choose. We can hold tightly to our script, or we can let go. Which action is the most loving? I think we know.

    Love in marriage seeks to set the other free to be who God desires for them to be. What we thought would be as love blossoms may not be what actually happens - what we desire when we are young is not the same as what we desire when we are older, particularly if our lives are being transformed more and more into the image of Christ. As love evolves, we need to evolve with it. Maybe it's only coincidence that the word love can be easily found in the word evolve...

    Lines about love that simply stand on their own:

    "Love is not grasping or holding or seizing or owning. Love is patience extraordinaire, patience to the point of absurdity."

    " a commitment to the infinite mystery of what one's beloved may become"

    "Love, in its highest form, is a release of any vision for what my beloved may be, and a deep trust in whatever this unforeseeable, impossible future may hold."

    "Love is forgiveness. Love is hope in the impossible. By releasing the past and future from my possession and my knowledge, love heals and makes the impossible come to pass. To love truly is to give away my time – not pieces of it, but the whole."

    What if marriages in the body of Christ looked like this? What if the body of Christ herself looked like this? What if my own marriage and the marriages I have the ability to speak into looked increasingly like this, transformed more and more each day? Can you imagine the impact of this kind of love and marriage in our world? This is marriage, this is a sacrament, this is holiness, this is good, this is love, and this is what all those who covenant together with another in the sacrament of marriage should become. May it be so.

    1. Great additional thoughts, Phil, about freedom and evolution. The quotes you reiterated are also among my favorites from this post!