Under the Banner of Love

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In 1571, Friar Luis de Leon, a theologian and professor, was brought before the Spanish Inquisition.
He was charged with moral corruption and sentenced to prison, where he spent the next four years.
His crime?  He had dared to translate the Old Testament book of Song of Songs into Spanish.  De Leon, in other words, had made it possible for a general audience to read one of the Bible’s most controversial books.
For centuries the Church had struggled to figure out exactly what to do with the Song of Songs (or Song of Solomon, as it’s sometimes called).  The book is overtly erotic.  A man and a woman, who are identified as the Lover and the Beloved, openly celebrate and enjoy each other’s bodies.
To put it simply: They’re in love.
Jewish and Christian commentators alike have wondered if the book was meant to be taken literally.  St. Bernard of Clairvaux, for instance, wrote 86 sermons on just its first two chapters, suggesting that all the details (even the woman’s hair and the man’s nose) are just allegories of God’s love.
The Song of Songs is certainly about God’s love.  But front and center it’s about God’s gift of the richness of romantic and married human love.  Even though this Hebrew poetry is 3,000 years old, it still feels remarkably fresh in the age of TMZ. 
For instance, the Lover and Beloved identify each other with highly personal “love names,” just as lovers have been doing for centuries.
Infant language, or baby talk, is the most tender kind of human conversation.  A strong love relationship creates a “culture of two” that typically generates intimate names, often involving food, animals, and body parts.  Think of Snuggle Bunny, Pumpkin, Lamb, and Angel Eyes. 
A friend of one of my acquaintances calls his wife Honey Pie Dew Melon Face.  This is perhaps a bridge too far. 
Lovers communicate to each other, through their words and their actions, “I will never give myself to anyone else the way I give myself to you.”
So what’s at the heart of a healthy romantic relationship?  The answer may be surprising.
According to marriage expert John Gottman, “The determining factor in whether wives feel satisfied with the sex, romance, and passion in their marriage, is, by 70%, the quality of the couple’s friendship.  For husbands, the determining factor in whether they feel satisfied with the sex, romance, and passion in their marriage is, by 70%, the quality of the couple’s friendship.”
In other words, it’s not the amazing dinner accompanied by perfect wine.  Or that dream vacation.  Or that one-of-a-kind fragrance that will drive him crazy.  Or Barry Manilow.  We can say with great certainty that it’s not Barry Manilow. 
A marital friendship, anchored on deep respect, provides the freedom for courageous love to flourish.
Such a friendship is also anchored on deep assurance. 
The Beloved says, “My lover is mine and I am his” (Song of Songs 2:16), and, “His banner over me is love” (2:4). 
The banner was a military metaphor.  Before the days of electronic communication, battles were inherently chaotic.  Soldiers were trained to look for the flag of their king.  Staying underneath the right banner meant security and survival. 
There is no way that two flawed people, no matter how earnest and hopeful they might be, can provide ultimate care for each other.
Yet under the banner of God’s love, even broken, frightened, selfish, and misunderstood human beings – and that would include all of us – can find the security we need to keep risking love for each other.
And that can even allow us to keep calling each other Sugar Pie, “as long as we both shall live.”