A professor of algebra once declared he had figured out that “A kiss is two divided by nothing,” to which his geometry professor colleague replied: “I’ve always understood a kiss to be the shortest distance between two straight lines.” Yet, their other colleague, a professor of physics, shook her head and said that actually the closest definition of a kiss is a contraction of mouths due to the expansion of the hearts.
Quite a few kisses are planted in the Bible, but most are simple kisses of endearment among friends or family members, such as when the prodigal son returns home or when Joseph and his brothers are reunited in Egypt. The two kisses I’d like to focus on, however, are the ones that are remembered, the ones that are actually featured: Judas’s phony kiss ahead of time to be given to Jesus as the sign to the authorities whom they should arrest; and the famed opening kiss in the Song of Songs that is clearly talking about the real kind of kiss that sells tickets, an amorous and lingering kiss lips on lips.
“Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth! For your love is better than wine…”
I can promise you this, rarely will you ever hear a sermon in a Swedenborgian church focusing on passages from the Song of Songs, and I personally have no knowledge of one ever having been done, nor have I ever preached on the Song before today. Swedenborgian preachers much favor what is called the small canon, which are the books in the Judeo-Christian canon Swedenborg said were written in pure correspondences and that comprise the most direct access to divine wisdom, and the Song of Songs is not among the 34 biblical books in the Swedenborgian small canon.
The Song of Songs is the only book of the Bible that does not mention God, a textual fact frequently interpreted as a literary device: the love affair expressed in the Song is about a love of and for and by God and by not naming God it poetically expresses that it is about nothing other than God. There is no real agreement among Hebrew Bible scholars on the actual origins of this poem, but long ago in Jewish interpretation history the love relationship expounded in the Song of Songs was interpreted allegorically: the love affair is that between Yahweh and Israel. It was but a small shift for Christian interpreters to frame the love affair as that between Christ and the Church, and such did the early interpretation practice go until the high middle ages when mystics such as Bernard of Clairvaux, the legendary spiritual reformer of the 12th century, produced in 86 sermons what has become by far the best known and most beloved spiritual interpretation of the Song. He saw the love affair as one between God and the human soul, a love affair that turns into a story of the soul’s progressive growth into a completed love of goodness and knowledge through a relationship with God that is built over time through the thick and thin of living consciously in a difficult world.
Though Swedenborg never commented on the Song, he does explain the biblical correspondence of a kiss in numerous places, which he describes as the biblical symbol for a powerful spiritual love for uniting with that which is good. A kiss embodies what should be a passionate desire for union with God, one that leads to a desire to be in deep communion with all creation.
So, with this correspondence of a kiss, we can see that such love for a profound bond is a general concept and could be applied to the union between Yahweh and Israel, and/or to Christ and Church, and/or to the God of life and the human soul as recipient of that life.
But Bernard takes his legendary spiritual exploration into a striking addition of two more kisses—a total of three kisses that actually align perfectly with Swedenborg’s teachings on regeneration. Bernard says the one kiss implies a series of three kisses on the way to profound bonding with God—and these start with kisses on the feet, and move to kisses on the hand, that must precede the kiss on the mouth that is like a full blown love affair.
In the same way, Swedenborg teaches in so many places they can scarcely be counted that we have a three-stage journey on the way to a profound union with God: a stage of deep desire for change, for forgiveness, a stage he calls repentance; secondly there is a stage of working through changes in the ways that have been holding us at a distance from God, a stage he calls re-formation; and then finally a stage of competency in being deeply with God in our living, a stage that he calls regeneration. Each stage has its own kind of work, which carries its own kind of blessing when we do it, a divine kiss, if you will, on our sincere desires.
So, Bernard says of the famous kiss in the second verse of the Song of Songs that though it may also be about Christ and the Church, it should also be considered in a very personal way, and he makes a remark that is surely true—which is that very few people really are ready to say of the divine, “Let him kiss me with the kiss of his mouth.” Very few are ready for that, very few could handle that. But that that is okay, God already knows that, and Bernard suggests that we have to work up to such an intimacy with God, and he moves to the two important kisses that lead up to the great kiss that is the high vision of the Song.
Bernard evokes the scene in Luke’s gospel where the woman who was in need of forgiveness crashes a dinner party for Jesus being held in a Pharisee’s house, the Lukan story where she bathes his feet in ointment and kisses Jesus’ feet. This is the stage of repentance, the heartfelt need of a deep change in some way, and it is tantamount to a kiss of the Lord’s feet so that our feet that gain the power to turn around from their current direction that is not leading—in whatever matter is at-hand for repentance and forgiveness—so that they will begin moving toward the real spiritual life, toward a true relationship with God in all we do until you hear the sweet voice, “Your sins are forgiven.”
But just because we have given a first kiss to the feet when we make this turning of our feet and have placed ourselves on a path toward God, we should not presume we are ready to rise all the way for a kiss on the mouth, says Bernard. We are only ready to come toward such a full and close union with God, but we are still in an intermediate way and need a second kiss on the hands. This is the way of our doing the new things, the stage Swedenborg calls re-formation. This is the hands-on truly re-forming that is often hard work. And so to be successful in this challenging re-making, we must reach for the hand that will lift us up, the same hand prophet Isaiah describes as the hand of the Lord that is extended to us to lift us up from our knees, says Bernard. When we make the move to kiss God’s hand in gratefulness, we find God kissing our hands in the empowerment of them to do the work of our re-formation.
And what a long work it often seems to be. Our first birth takes place in less than a day, but our second birth seems to take a lifetime. We can be re-forming for what seems like the longest time. On a cultural level, though I tend towards optimism generally I have been overwhelmed in the past several months by a greater sense of trouble in the world and in our own society than I can remember feeling. I’m finishing my 15th year at a seminary known for its progressive style, one that even still today is the only seminary in the country that has an official center for lesbian and gay studies and works 24/7 for social justice issues in race and ethnic diversity issues. We have many students and a few faculty members who have participated in the recent protests and who have been arrested. The PSR campus is a place where these social justice issues are front-and-center every single week, yet I have recently been experiencing the most weighty feeling that the conversation is as hard as it has ever been in our culture. The same seems true in the international arena with troubles between nations and religious hatred as ugly as ever. And at times it can seem as if our personal spiritual re-formation work involves working away at the same issues for the longest time and sometimes we can get very down on ourselves because it seems that for every sweet kiss of gain we achieve, there is a setback right around the corner.
But it is right here that I feel Swedenborg is immensely helpful, and we see it in the passage selected from his beautiful book, Divine Providence, where he says so plaintively that we must go through the process of evils, because unless they are experienced they cannot be dealt with and cannot be removed. In a way that might seem ironic, when evil is at its worst there is great hope because God has judged that we are able to withstand it and thus reject it. I love this teaching because it does provide me with strength and perspective when I remember it: it is as if the realization of that trust and hope extends that helping hand, that lifting hand that I am so eager to take and kiss.
Because it is very easy not to take that hand; it is permissible to not resist evil. It is in fact all too common to go through the motions even as we might not like to admit it and thus rather fake it in our spiritual living. And that faking it is a kind of kiss: it is the kiss of our second Bible reading, the kiss of our potential betrayal to our spiritual life and to our God. Judas is the emblematic figure among the disciples for turning away, the figure who represents the temptation to quit trying and to turn our backs on our spiritual goals. Swedenborg says Judas represents letting evil have its way, and such a way can only lead to our isolation and separation from the living loving web of divine life.
The way that Jesus offers in the Last Supper and in our everyday life in every moment is one of deep union in good and truth. It is a self-transcendent affair through the New Commandment to love others just as one would want to be loved. In that life of love one finds oneself in community with God and others of like-spirited hearts. Such a “way” is constructive relationship with others, with creation, with the Creator, but to reject the New Commandment of Jesus is to turn one’s moment-to-moment energy of life away from others (including God) and toward oneself exclusively. Quite literally, this first separates and then isolates. Without a committed, skilled growing into the life of mutual love, there is no other “way” possible than a destination of living in a minuscule “room” of personal ego.
Thus, the scriptures present two iconic kisses: one is a kiss of death, and one is a kiss of life. The kiss of life goes with the deep desire for union, for a destiny in which there is no end to the joyous mystery of union, of a bonding into the web of real life together with God and with each other.
Rev. Dr. James F. Lawrence has been an ordained minister in the Swedenborgian Church of North America for several decades, and has served in a variety of ministries. He currently serves as president of the denomination, after many years as dean of the Center for Swedenborgian Studies at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, CA.