Sermon by Professor Stephanie Paulsell, Interim Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church and the Susan Shallcross Swartz Professor of the Practice of Christian Studies in the Harvard Divinity School, before an empty sanctuary. (Photo by Jeffrey Blackwell/Memorial Church Communications)
The Song of Songs may not sound much like a Lenten text. Lent is a season of repentance and renunciation, a pilgrimage into the desert, including the deserts we carry inside us. The Song of Songs, on the other hand, is a journey into the lush, green spring, a poem that renounces nothing. As the passage Wes read for us plainly shows, it’s a song of two lovers who behold one another with awe when they are together, call out to one another across the distance when they are apart, and long, constantly, for each other.
Our Lenten pilgrimage has taken us more deeply into the desert than we could have ever imagined even a short time ago. But as I dialed into conference calls and joined meetings on Zoom this past week, my mind kept returning to this passage from the love poem at the heart of the Bible.
One lover stands outside his beloved’s house and calls to her through the gaps in the latticework of the wall that surrounds it: “Let me see your face,” he pleads, “let me hear your voice.” The lattice that divides them also affords them glimpses of each other, and even a partial glimpse brings them joy.
On Friday night my family gathered over Zoom — my parents in Kentucky, my sister and nephew in New Jersey, my husband, my daughter and myself here in Massachusetts — and it was a bit like peering through a lattice. The internet stuttered occasionally, the pictures froze and unfroze, and I couldn’t hear everything that was said — but it was the first time I’d seen all their faces since this crisis began, and it was such a relief that I could feel the muscles in my tensed-up shoulders start to loosen at the sight of them. I felt the same way during our first remote Memorial Church staff meeting last week. I loved the way everyone’s face shone out from the screen, and the way bits of our personal lives were visible in the background — our books and photos, our stuffed animals and knick-knacks. It was a very partial view, glimpsed through the lattice of the computer screen. But the very partialness of it made every little thing seem precious. We were all like the lover in the Song, trying to see each other clearly. And we were all also the beloved, beheld in bits and pieces.
Both the lover who stands outside and the lattice through which he looks have inspired the creativity of Jewish and Christian interpreters through the ages. For some readers, the gaps in the lattice evoked the spaces between the shoulders of worshippers standing to pray in the synagogue, or the gaps between their fingers when they prayed with their hands over their faces. The rabbis found something holy in those in-between spaces, a light that filled them.
There’s also a midrash on this passage in which the lover behind the wall evokes God standing behind the Western Wall in Jerusalem, looking out on the lives of human beings through the gaps where people today often tuck their prayers. Like the lover, God peers through the spaces in that ancient wall, keeping a watchful eye on God’s beloved creation, including the faithful who gather at the Wall to welcome the Sabbath by singing the Song of Songs.
Christian readers often followed the rabbis in finding God in the figure of the lover who looks through the lattice. For Bernard of Clairvaux, a 12th-century monk who wrote more than 80 sermons on the Song of Songs and barely got past the second chapter, the image of the lattice evoked Christ’s own body, and the bodily senses and feelings by which God experienced all our human needs. This was the mystery of the incarnation for Bernard: that Christ’s body opened another window for God onto human life, its pleasures and its pains. Looking through the lattice of the body, God saw us as we truly are: mortal, vulnerable — embodied, and yet more than our bodies. Sharing in our humanity, Bernard suggests, God experienced what a sacred mystery the body is.
Surely all our bodies are such a lattice, through which we experience the sacredness of our own vulnerability and from which we regard each other only partially. No matter how intimate we are with one another, there is so much about each other that we cannot see or know simply by looking. As the lovers in the Song of Songs know, even in the most intimate relationships, there are always distances to cross. At the same time, our bodies are the place from which we might cultivate a deeper solidarity with each other, for, in the midst of all the things that make us different from each other, the body is one thing we genuinely share. As St. Jerome wrote in the 4th century, we are all “formed from the self-same clay, compacted of the same elements. Whatever one suffers, we can all suffer.”
In our reading from the gospel of Mark this morning, Jesus crosses the distance between himself and another, a man with visible lesions on his body, a leper considered unclean by the community on whose margins he lives — a man required to live alone, socially distant, his uncleanness considered contagious. “If you choose,” he says to Jesus, “you can make me clean.” Jesus reaches out and touches this untouchable man, saying “I do choose. Be made clean!” And the leprosy leaves him, as if Jesus had driven out a demon.
This story appears in the gospels of Matthew and Luke as well, but only the gospel of Mark tries to describe Jesus’s feelings in the moment. Our translation reflects what some of the manuscripts say: that Jesus was moved by pity, by compassion. That he looks at the man and feels for him, suffers with him, and that experience of being moved by the plight of another causes him to touch the man and to say, emphatically, “I do choose” to heal you. I do choose to bring you back within the protection of the community. Be made clean.
But other manuscripts say something different. They say that Jesus was moved, not with pity, but with anger. And this reading is supported by a word that appears a few verses on. Our translation says “Jesus sternly warned” the man not to tell anyone what had happened. But the Greek word is the word used to describe the snorting of a horse, a sharp exhalation. It’s the sound of frustration, the sound of anger. Some scholars translate it as “growl.”
What might be making Jesus so angry that he growls at the man he is healing? Maybe he’s angry at the disease that has ravaged this man’s body, or at the demonic forces believed to impose such afflictions. Or maybe he’s angry at the society that has compounded the man’s suffering by isolating him from everyone else. Or maybe he’s angry because the man has put him on the spot before he’s ready to reveal his healing power.
We can’t know, from this distance, what the gospel writer was thinking. But if you are working from home while also homeschooling your children, or if you have lost your job, or if you feel cut off from the communities within which you created your life, or have found yourself on the receiving end of the xenophobia that is festering around this crisis, or are going to work in a grocery store or a clinic without the correct protective gear, or are waiting for your COVID-19 test results, or have a loved one in the ICU you can probably imagine being angry in all these ways and more. Angry at a disease that is moving invisibly among us and sickening the most vulnerable, angry about all the ways we have been caught unprepared, angry that the remedies have been slow in coming. Angry that life has utterly changed.
The story of Jesus healing the man with leprosy comes right after a story in which Jesus’s disciples come to fetch him from the desert, where he was praying, and to pull him back into towns. “Everyone is searching for you,” they tell him. And after he chooses to heal the man, he’s no longer able to go openly into a town. He stays outside, in the country, and the crowds come to him.
Maybe Jesus’s frustration shows in some of these manuscripts because he knows that choosing solidarity with this man, choosing to make the man’s concerns his own, choosing to heal him is going to radically change his own life. Maybe he wasn’t quite ready to head into town when Peter and the others came to get him in the desert. Maybe he could feel himself being overtaken by events. Maybe his situation felt to him uncomfortably out of his control.
If so, I think we can all probably identify with that anger, that anxious, out of control feeling that causes us to growl in frustration, even at those we love the most.
At first, when I began studying this passage, I preferred to think of Jesus having been moved by compassion to say, “I do choose. Be made clean.” But as I thought more about it, I decided that I liked thinking of Jesus as angry in this story. Because no matter how he was feeling, he chose mercy, he chose solidarity. Maybe that emphatic “I do choose” was addressed as much to himself as to the man who had asked to be healed. Jesus is at the very beginning of his ministry in this story; he’s only just called his disciples. Here, at the beginning of his journey, maybe Jesus needed to remind himself that, even as more and more people asked for his help, even as he was asked to give up more and more, that he was committed to remaining turned toward love. That’s the commitment of this season of Lent — that’s the road we are traveling with Jesus. The pilgrimage road on which we learn to see how interconnected our lives are, how much we need one another, how the lives of others make a claim on our own. “I do choose,” Jesus said. He will have to choose, not once, but again and again and again. And, in the weeks and months ahead, so will we.
We can’t choose for things to suddenly go back to the way they were. But we can choose how we move through the reality we’re in. We can choose to listen to the doctors and nurses and other health care workers who are calling to us from the center of the storm, asking us to make the choices — to stay home, to stay apart — that will allow them to say “I do choose” to all who need their help. We can choose to seek ways to support those who are being made disproportionately vulnerable by this crisis. We can choose to resist xenophobia, to reverence the dignity of every single person’s humanity. We can choose to stay connected. We can choose to pray for one another, and so open ourselves to one another’s needs.
But like Jesus, we’ll have to make these choices, not once but many times. When we’re feeling compassionate, and when we’re feeling angry. When we feel a desire to support the common good, and when we’re just trying to get from one end of the day to the other. When we’re feeling confident that our choices will do some good, and when we worry that they might not. The philosopher Simone Weil once wrote about the struggle to stay turned toward love in the midst of affliction. Sometimes all we can do, she says, is to go on wanting to love, even with only an infinitesimal part of ourselves. I pray that we will want to go on wanting to love, even on those days when we are swamped by other feelings.
One thing we can’t choose is whether or not we’re all in this together. We manifestly are, no matter how we feel about it.
This tells us something about God, I think, something we can glimpse through the lattice of our fragile bodies. That through our shared vulnerability, God has placed us in each other’s care. What tender responsibility. What joy. What pain.
Thanks be to God.