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The Song of Solomon in Jewish and Christian Liturgy
Carmine Di Sante
The Song of Solomon — or the Song of Songs — occupies a central position in Jewish Liturgy. In the Sephardic rite it is sung every Friday evening in order to welcome the Sabbath Bride and, at every Passover, at the end of the seven days' celebration. According to the Ashkenazi rite, it is read on the Sabbath which falls during Passover and, in certain communities, at the close of the Seder or Passover meal.
There are many reasons for this reading of the Song of Solomon, both with regard to the Sabbath and to Passover. First and foremost, the feast of Passover, falling as it does during Spring, calls to our minds spontaneously the youth and love of which the Song speaks. Then too, the Song refers to the Exodus, which the Passover commemorates, when it mentions Pharoah in Song 1:9. Moreover, the exchange of love between the lover and the beloved in the Song expresses and encloses, in vivid and sensual imagery, the love of God for Israel his Bride in the gift of his covenant to the Chosen People. Finally, the power, the wonder and the joy which the Song expresses so poetically, form the most perfect metaphors of the experience of Israel in passing from slavery to freedom, from exile to the Kingdom, from the finite to the infinite.
Read every Friday evening in oriental synagogues, it portrays in a marvellous way the movement from the created world to the uncreated and eternal repose of the Sabbath.
By contrast, the Song has a limited and marginal place in the Christian liturgy of the Roman Rite as reformed and enlarged by the Second Vatican Council. It is completely absent from the Lectionary for Sundays and Feast Days, appearing only once in that for Ferias: on December 21, Song 2:8-14 is read in conjunction with the marian passage, Lk. 1:39-45. In the Divine Office it is used once as the Short Lesson for the feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin (Song 6: 10); six times in the ritual for the Consecration of Virgins (twice as a biblical reading — Song 2:8-14 and 8:6,7 — and four times as antiphons — Song 3:1; 2:6; 2:14; 4:8); once only in the wedding ceremony (Song 2:8-16) and once only in the Common of Virgins (Song 8:7) as the short reading.
If we go back to the pre-conciliar liturgy we do not find substantial differences except for some feasts of the Blessed Virgin (for example, her Nativity and Assumption) and of a few saints, for instance, St. Mary Magdalen and St. Margaret of Cortona.
These different uses of the Song of Solomon in the two religious traditions give us food for thought. Firstof all, the Christian liturgy never uses the Song in its entirety. We can think what a pity it is to deprive the ecclesial community of this remarkable text which is not only one of the richest in the Bible, but also in the whole of the world's literature.
Secondly, the very few verses that have been chosen belong to marian and secondary feasts and to special ritual moments such as weddings and the Consecration of Virgins, while they are completely absent from Easter and Sunday liturgies which are
"the summit toward which the activity of the Church is directed; at the same time (it is) the fountain from which all her power flows." Con¬stitution of the Sacred Liturgy of Vatican II, no. 10.
That contrasts vividly with the manner in which the Jewish liturgy arranges it with regard to the celebration of Sabbath and of the Exodus.
Thirdly, in proportion as the Song is scarcely used in Christian liturgy, it is all the more profuse in the great mystical traditions (see, for example, St. Bernard of Clairvaux, who delivered no less than eighty-six sermons on the Song). This means that the Church prefers a mariological mystical interpretation to a lit¬urgical ecclesiological one which is reserved to a few or which belongs to a given moment rather than to the whole people of God.
Who, in fact, does not really think it inappropriate in a liturgical setting to hear such words as beloved, kiss, fragrance, scent, ointment, neck, necklace, breasts, bed, couch, lips, embraces, glances, etc.? In the Jewish liturgy, however, there is not the least uneasiness, and it is able to interpret it simply as an expression of the deep and indescribable love of God for his people.
Jewish liturgy, through its ability to cope with the reality of this imagery, is able to help the Christian liturgy become more corporeal and cosmic so that it does not feel uneasy at hearing phrases about its own flesh and its own history. Above all, it can help it to rediscover the Song of Solomon, not only as a metaphor for mariology and matrimony, but as a metaphor for the Passover event itself: a hymn of the love of the people, be it Jewish or Christian, which sings its own joy at being freed from slavery and death (Egypt/ Crucifixion) and at being led forth to freedom and life (Promised Land/Resurrection).
Carmine Di Sante, of the staff of SIDIC, is a liturgist