By Jackie Zuppe (now Sr. Maria Frassati, SV)
If you’ve read the Song of Songs and Tobit, then you’ll notice the lovers in both are in very different situations. The lovers in the Song of Songs are completely content in ecstasy with each other, and in Tobit they are facing a life-or-death situation (on the very first night of their marriage, no less).
In the Song of Songs, the lover (woman) says “Set me as a seal on your heart, as a seal upon your arm; for love is strong as death, jealousy is cruel as the grave. Its flashes of fire, a most vehement flame….(Song of Songs 8:6)
By being a seal on his heart, she means to say “Take me as a whole person, let your heart take on the characteristic of me so that it is mine”. To belong to him (hence, why we use seals to authorize documents and seal letters, so that when you saw the seal, you knew who it belonged to). The lovers are saying “All I am is yours, and all you are is mine”, a reciprocal self-giving.
And by saying “For love is strong as death”, it is a proclamation of love that says, "I am yours until the day I die, till death do us part, for better or for worse." In the Book of Tobit, this becomes a physical reality because Tobias and Sarah are in serious danger. There are two ways in which the words of the lovers in the Song of Songs are being manifested here:
First, “From the very first moment, Tobias’s love had to face the test of life or death. The words about love, “strong as death”, spoken by the spouses of the Song of Songs in the transport of their hearts, here take on the character of a real test” (TOB 114:7). Tobias is actually facing death here. Strictly speaking, if we were to just look at logics alone, he’s obviously got a really crappy shot of surviving his wedding night. On the night of his wedding, even Sarah’s father goes outside and starts digging his grave. And Sarah’s kind of a wreck too, since she starts crying believing he will just be one of many to die. While she may not face physical death, can you imagine the pain and suffering on top of the first 7 husbands she would go through? How frightened and heartbroken she would be?
But St. Raphael (incognito) gives Tobias words of comfort and promise. He tells Tobias to rouse out the demon by burning fish heart and liver on incense. But even more than that, he tells him that Sarah was meant for him:
“Now listen to me brother, for she will become your wife; and do not worry about the demon, for this very night she will be given to you in marriage. When you enter her bridal chamber, you shall take live ashes of incense and lay upon them some of the heart and liver of the fish so as to make a smoke. Then the demon will smell it, flee away, and will never again return. And when you approach her, rise up both of you, and cry out to the merciful God, and he will save you and have mercy on you. Do not be afraid, for she was destined for you from eternity…..” (Tobit 6:15-17).
After they are officially married, Tobias follows St. Raphael’s instructions: “When the door was shut and the two were alone, Tobias got up from the bed and said ‘Sister, get up, and let us pray and implore our Lord that he grant us mercy and safety.' And they began to say:
‘Blessed are you, oh God of our fathers,
And blessed be your holy and glorious name forever.
Let the heavens and all your creatures bless you.
You made Adam and gave him Eve his wife
As a helper and support.
From them the race of mankind has sprung.
You said ‘It is not good that the man should be alone’; let us make a helper for him like himself.’
And now, O Lord, I am not taking this sister of mine because of lust, but with sincerity.
Grant that I may find mercy and may grow old together with her.'
And they both said, 'Amen, Amen.' Then they both went to sleep for the night.” (Tobit 8:4-9) Tobias’s love for Sarah is much stronger than his fear, for he loves her “to the point of no longer being able to draw his heart away from her” (Tobit 6:19). His love finds its expression in the fact that he is willing to share in her lot, to remain with her even in the face of death, for better or for worse.
Besides the obvious connection to the lovers in the Song of Songs, it’s also a clear reflection of Christ’s love for the Church, for whom He suffered and died for. Again, love is strong as death, but here it was stronger than death, since Christ conquered it. He was with her until the end, and loved her completely regardless of the sacrifice it cost Him. Tobias and Sarah’s consummation of their marriage, in their trial, reminds us of Christ’s consummation of his marriage to the Church on the marriage bed that is the Cross. In fact, every marriage should be ordered towards living this marriage and make it a physical reality. St. John Paul II says “Could we even imagine human love without [Christ] the bridegroom and the love with which he first loved to the end?" (Letter to Families, 19).
Another part to discuss is that Tobias and Sarah are in a situation where when they unite as a husband and wife, “The powers of good and evil fight against each other and measure each other” (TOB 115:2). I don’t know about you, but I often struggle when I think about how God is calling me to love. When I end up reading Song of Songs, Tobit, TOB, Love and Responsibility, anything even related, I get caught up into thinking solely about the theoretical. This is how love between men and women is supposed to be like. This is what it could be like. But how do I actually live this and make it real?
We struggle to see our brothers and sisters as brothers and sisters first. We struggle to live and think chastely, to fight the lust that creeps into our hearts. The thing about the lovers in the song of songs is that the way they live and express themselves is as if they lived in a world that is ideal, as if the battle between good and evil, lust and love, does not exist. They love each other in the most pure form. Their words and actions fully correspond to what’s on their hearts. And their desire for each other is a holy desire that always points towards God.
But Tobias and Sarah? They live in a broken world, just like us. Where we’re broken, disconnected to each other, and where are ours are disordered towards our own pleasure. I’m sure I’m not shocking anyone if I say we struggle to love the opposite sex rightly!
One reason that I love Tobit is that it gives us a tremendous sense of hope, that we can overcome this with God’s help. Like us, Tobias and Sarah face lust as a threat. It’s interesting that when you physically state what’s going on, “There’s a demon in the bedroom of the couple”, it’s almost like that is a physical manifestation of a spiritual reality that is also taking place. Lust is that demon in the bedroom. Does it not threaten our ability to love, and cause death in the soul?
But Raphael’s most important instructions are to pray. Notice how Tobias says he takes Sarah “with sincerity” (or in some translations, with a noble purpose), and NOT out of lust. He makes the declaration that he WANTS to love her rightly.
“Precisely this prayer becomes the one and only word in virtue of which the new spouses meet the test, which is at the same time a test of good and evil, of a good or bad lot- in the dimension of life as a whole. They realize that the evil that threatens them on part of the demon can strike as suffering, as death, destruction of the life of one of them. But in order to repel the evil threatening to kill the body, one must prevent the evil spirit from having access to the soul, one must free oneself from his influence” (TOB 115:5).
How do we do that? How do we free ourselves from the hold of lust? It’s all in the prayer. In it, they pray for God’s mercy, recognize the importance and beauty of marriage as a reflection of the Creator from the very beginning, and also pray in thanksgiving. Their prayer in unison, allows them to pass the threat of evil and death “in as much as they open themselves totally in the unity of the two to the living God” (TOB 115:6).
Their prayer is a moment of purification, and they both see with eyes of faith the holiness of their vocation. “The new spouses in Tobit ask God that they may know how to respond to love” (TOB 116:5).
They show us that there is NOTHING in married life, no trial, not even in the face of death, that prayer cannot overcome (West, 147).
You see, we need God’s mercy and grace BADLY to live this out, to enable us to live His plan of life and love. Spouses can’t live their union truthfully “except through the powers that come from the Holy Spirit, who purifies, enlivens, strengthens, and perfects the powers of the human spirit” (West 148, quoting TOB 131:3).
We must pray, like Tobias and Sarah did, to love each other rightly. We need to be open for God’s love to enter out hearts, that we may love others with and through His love. For His love is perfect and casts out all fear.
“You have ravished my heart, my sister, my bride.”
Something else about Tobit that really strikes me is just how beautiful and pure Tobit’s love for Sarah is despite only having known her for a short time. In the Song of Songs, we hear the words “You have ravished my heart, my sister, my bride…”(4:9).
And “ how sweet is your love, my sister, my bride”(4:10)
And “A garden locked is my sister, my bride”(4:12)….The lover in the Song of Songs keeps calling his lover a SISTER first, bride afterwards. Why?
The entire book of the Song of Songs showcases the lovers and their mutual fascination with each other. And we can tell their love is not lustful, but real, because of how the lovers respect each other and are confident in the purity of their love - “If I met you outside, none would despise me” (Song of Songs 8:41 ).
The point is that even though she’s not his sister, he thinks of her as one, as someone who grew up in the same household. And he sees her as a person to be loved, and not an object. He loves her deeply as a sister first, and this becomes integrated in his view of her as his bride. We can see that his motivations are out of love, not lust, because one doesn’t lust after a sister or a brother. Their love is not tainted out of selfishness.
In Tobit, in the excerpt of the prayer I recently mentioned, Tobias says “Sister, get up….” and “O Lord, I am not taking this sister of mine because of lust, but with sincerity." He too has a love for Sarah so pure and noble, motivated by love, not lust. And in their prayer, he is also confident of the purity of their love.
In Christopher West’s Book “Heaven’s Song”, he notes that he always gets different reactions from men verses women. When talking about the sister as bride, women respond readily “as if such an idea confirms their deepest hopes for a relationship…'Gosh, I wish the men I knew would treat me first as a sister’" (60). It is a deep yearning in the feminine heart for a man that would treat us and love us as sisters, to protect us and our hearts!
And the men’s response? “Men on the other hand, often seem taken aback. To consider a potential “sex partner” as a “sister” cuts right at the heart of what men desire in a relationship. The look on many mens’ faces seem to say “Sister? C’mon! You don’t do that with a sister” (West, 60). That’s the whole point! A man finds the idea of indulging lust with a sister to be revolting! Therefore, he should also be revolted at the idea of indulging in lust with his bride! And aren’t brothers usually the first to protect their sisters from the lusts of men? (Ladies- If you have older brothers….maybe even younger….don’t they smell out the guy you’re dating?)
“When a man recognizes his beloved as sister, that same brotherly instinct impels him to protect her from the lusts of men including and especially, his own lusts” (West, 60). Reading this, I personally reflect on some of the great guy friends I have from college and how very protective and loving they were for us ladies, like walking us home from the Catholic Center even if it was extremely late…They really cared about us like sisters!
Jackie Zuppe was a leader of Pure in Heart in Boston before entering the Sisters of Life in 2014.
Heaven’s Song, by Christopher West (Ascension Press, 2008)
Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body by JPII (Pauline
Books and Media, 2006)