Friday, May 13, 2011

Jesus the Lover of Our Souls

Song of Solomon 3.2-5, 8.6-7, Revelation 1.12-18, John 20.11-18

There is something highly charged and emotional about the encounter between Mary Magdalene and Jesus in the garden near his tomb on Easter Day. Perhaps the way their meeting is described owes a literary debt, at least, to today’s verses from the Song of Solomon.

And yet the Song of Solomon is a love song. It isn’t describing a spiritual encounter. The young woman seeks the physical consummation of her love. For her, spiritual longing is not enough.

The setting for the poem is night time, not early morning as in John’s story. The woman has drifted off to sleep and when she wakes up she expects her lover to be close by. Perhaps she left him sitting on the couch catching up with some urgent paperwork or playing a game with his friends. She calls to him but he’s not there. He seems to have gone out of the house. When she has finished searching indoors she goes outside to look for him. Is he still with his mates? Or is he getting some fresh air?

The night watchmen want to know why she’s wandering about by herself in the middle of the night, so she asks them pretty much the same question which Mary poses to the gardener: ‘Have you see him whom my soul loves?’ Then, hurrying on, scarcely has the young woman passed the night watchmen when she finds her lover at last and she’s so overjoyed to see him that she holds him tight and won’t let him go.

In the same way, first Mary sees some sentinels standing at the tomb of Jesus; John calls them ‘angels’, ‘messengers from God’, although they don’t have much to say. Like the night watchmen in the poem, they ask her what is the matter but, although she tells them why she’s weeping, Mary doesn’t wait for their reply. Turning quickly away she speaks instead to the gardener and puts her urgent question to him. Whereupon Jesus says to her, ‘Mary!’ and she recognises him and - just like the young woman in the poem - tries to hold onto him, such is the intensity of her feelings.

Her love is just as emotional as the young woman’s, but it cannot be physical. Jesus may be the lover of our soul, but we can only fly to his bosom in a metaphorical, highly spiritualised sense.

In the poem the young woman warns her friends not to fall in love until they are sure they are ready for the intensity of feeling that it will bring. Are we ready to love Jesus with the same intensity shown by Mary Magdalene, or is he still just a casual acquaintance, or someone whom we want to keep at arms’ length? Are we afraid of letting him get under our guard?

What Mary had discovered was that though death may be strong, love is stronger. It can survive death and continue beyond it - most especially the strong love of God. Many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it. You can’t take your money with you when you go, but you can take love beyond the grave.

Paul discovered something similar when he encountered Jesus on the road to Damascus. He let Jesus get under his guard and found out that Jesus is still loving and caring for his people.When they are hurt, he feels persecuted too.

Revelation describes a different kind of encounter with the risen Jesus. Like Mary in the garden, the writer turns and like Paul - as well as Mary - he hears an insistent voice. But the figure he sees is ‘one like a Son of Man’, the figure from Daniel’s vision where a champion is sent by God to confront and overcome all the tyrants and oppressors of the earth and rule on God’s behalf.

Like Daniel’s leader, he wears a golden belt or sash as a symbol of his authority. I’m not sure how far ancient kings really went in for sashes. If anything, modern kings and their tailors seem to have mined the idea from the Book of Revelation. But I’m sure you get the picture. This is the risen Jesus depicted as supreme ruler rather than intimate lover.

More than that. The vision of Jesus mixes elements of the Son of Man with another figure in Daniel’s vision - an Ancient One with snow white hair sitting on a throne of fiery flames, who is none other than God. So the writer is making clear to us that he sees the risen Jesus as Son of God as well as Son of Man.

At first the two images - Jesus as lover and Jesus as Lord Almighty or king of all the earth - might seem diametrically opposed, but on closer inspection perhaps those first appearances are deceptive. Prince Wiliam expects one day to be king, not of all the earth but at least head of the British Commonwealth, and yet the latest set of Royal Mail stamps - available from your local post office as of last Thursday - depicts him as intimate lover. Perhaps you can be both lover and king!

Some ornamental lampstands stood in the Jerusalem Temple, to provide light but also as a symbol of perfection, and the writer of Revelation must surely be referring in some way to them. Jesus has replaced the worship of the Temple for, in his death and resurrection, he has become the new Temple not built with human hands.

However, the seven lampstands also symbolise the Church, and in particular seven churches which were especially close to the writer’s heart. So pastoral concern for ordinary Christians is still absolutely central to this image of Jesus as Lord of heaven and earth.

And, anyway, how is it that the Son of Man has become all powerful and all conquering? Not by fire and the sword, but by dying on a cross. So this image of the victorious Jesus is still a celebration of the triumph of self-giving love. Jesus is supreme because he was dead and now he is alive again for ever and ever. He represents the undying quality of true love, and that true kind of love is love divine love, a power which nothing can overcome.

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