This is the third installment of a five-part series called, "5 Great Sermons from Church History." See the first here and the second here. This is not meant to indicate that these are the greatest or the best sermons, or even the five most important in the history of the church. However, these sermons were selected based on historical significance, content, accessibility (both good translations and comprehensibility), and each as exemplary of the particular era in which it occurred. Given the scope, the five sermons stretch over the entirety of church history. Extreme redaction is unavoidable with such a project. Each of the entries will take a similar approach, namely: Brief background on speaker and sermon, redacted block quote to capture the heart of sermon, and brief commentary on the whole sermon.
Bernard of Clairvaux On Song of Songs (ca. AD 1136)
Bernard of Clairvaux (1090–1153) was born in Burgundy, France, one of seven siblings, and in many ways he reinvigorated monastic theology. At twenty-three years of age, Bernard set off for newly founded monastery at Cîteaux, and, as a foreshadowing of his great influence to come, the young man convinced thirty of his companions to go along with him. In 1115, only two years after he arrived at Cîteaux, Bernard was sent to Clairvaux as abbot of a new monastery. From there, the story of Bernard’s life can be sketched through three controversial situations.
First, Pope Honorius II died in 1130, two men were declared to be the new pope, and Bernard was sent to investigate the schism. He supported Innocent II, and then traveled extensively promoting the cause. From the highest ranks of the church to the most common laity, Bernard’s influence became widespread.
Second, Bernard, along with others, took issue with the theology of Peter Abelard. A debate between the two was set to occur at the city of Sens in 1140, but when Abelard arrived he found that Bernard had preemptively instigated a meeting of the bishops and outlined accusations against Abelard. What was supposed to be a debate turned into a trial, and it was at this Council of Sens that Abelard’s condemnation was determined. This major historical moment further established Bernard’s influence.
Third, at the request of Pope Eugenius III, Bernard was called to preach the Second Crusade, which he did with vigor and full support, resulting in many new recruits. Despite the failure that came to define the Second Crusade, Bernard refused to blame God, and reflected instead upon his own inadequacies and those of the people.
These controversial accounts, however, should not stand alone in defining the theological legacy of the monk. Among his surviving work, his most monumental achievement was his collection of eighty-six sermons On the Song of Songs, “recognized as the masterpiece of the genre.” The combination of Bernard’s theological acumen, mystical insight, homiletical genius, and intellectual prowess were in full force in these sermons.
Excerpt (Primary Source)
On Song of Songs
Text of Scripture: Song of Solomon 1:2, “Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth!” (ESV)
 Today the text we are to study is the book of our own experience. You must therefore turn your attention inwards, each one must take note of his own particular awareness of the things I am about to discuss. I am attempting to discover if any of you has been privileged to say from his heart: “Let him kiss me with the kiss of his mouth.” Those to whom it is given to utter these words sincerely are comparatively few, but any one who has receive this mystical kiss from the mouth of Christ at least once, seeks again that intimate experience, and eagerly looks for its frequent renewal. I think that nobody can grasp what it is except the one who receives it.…
 I should like however to point out to persons like this [who are burdened with sins] that there is an appropriate place for them on the way of salvation. They may not rashly aspire to the lips of a most benign Bridegroom, but let them prostrate with me in fear at the feet of the most severe Lord.…All you who are conscious of sin, do not regard as unworthy and despicable that position where the holy sinner laid down her sins, and put on the garment of holiness.…It is up to you, wretched sinner, to humble yourself as this happy penitent did so that you may be rid of your wretchedness. Prostrate yourself on the ground, take hold of his feet, soothe them with kisses, sprinkle them with your tears and so wash not them but yourself.…
 Though you have made a beginning by kissing the feet, you may not presume to rise at once by impulse to kiss the mouth; there is a step to be surmounted in between, an intervening kiss on the hand for which I offer the following explanation.…Long did I lie in the slough of the marsh, filthy with all kinds of vices; if I return to it again I shall be worse than when I first wallowed in it. On top of that I recall that he who healed me said to me as he exercised his mercy: “Now you are well again, be sure not to sin anymore, or something worse may happen to you.” He, however, who gave me the grace to repent, must also give me the power to persevere.…
 I am now able to see what I must seek for and receive before I may hope to attain to a higher and holier state.…It is a long and formidable leap from the foot to the mouth, a manner of approach that is not commendable. Consider for a moment: still tarnished as you are with the dust of sin, would you dare touch those sacred lips? Yesterday you were lifted from the mud, today you wish to encounter the glory of his face? No, his hand must be your guide to that end.…On having received such a grace then, you must kiss his hand, that is, you must give glory to his name, not to yourself. First of all you must glorify him because he has forgiven your sins, secondly because he has adorned you with virtues.…
 Once you have had this twofold experience of God’s benevolence in these two kisses, you need no longer feel abashed in aspiring to a holier intimacy.…It is my belief that to a person so disposed, God will not refuse that most intimate kiss of all, a mystery of supreme generosity and ineffable sweetness. You have seen the way that we must follow, the order of procedure: first, we cast ourselves at his feet, we weep before the Lord who made us, deploring the evil we have done. Then we reach out for the hand that will lift us up, that will steady our trembling knees. And finally, when we shall have obtained these favors through many prayers and tears, we humbly dare to raise our eyes to his mouth, so divinely beautiful, not merely to gaze upon it, but I say it with fear and trembling—to receive its kiss. “Christ the Lord is a Spirit before our face,” and he who is joined to him in a holy kiss becomes through his good pleasure, one spirit with him.
 To you, Lord Jesus, how truly my heart has said: “My face looks to you. Lord, I do seek your face.” In the dawn you brought me proof of your love, in my first approach to kiss your revered feet you forgave my evil ways as I lay in the dust. With the advancement of the day you gave your servant reason to rejoice when, in the kiss of the hand, you imparted the grace to live rightly. And now what remains, O good Jesus, except that suffused as I am with the fullness of your light, and while my spirit is fervent, you would graciously bestow on me the kiss of your mouth, and give me unbounded joy in your presence.
First, to state the obvious, Bernard explained this text as directly about Jesus Christ. While this basic observation may seem superfluous to note, it must be stated because this is also the most significant part of Bernard’s interpretation. Certainly, Bernard was a theologian of experience. However, he did not mean for experience to override the Bible. At the end of Sermon Thirteen, Barnard admitted that some may be accusing him, “What you say is good, but your words ought to be relevant to your theme.” Nevertheless, Bernard believed his remarks about the text were relevant, and a true meaning of the passage. He understood his task to be expositional in nature, and his aim was to draw out true and important theological content as intended by the text itself. A fair reader of Bernard may disagree with his allegorical interpretation, which was not uncommon of Christianity in the Medieval era, but a fair reader must not accuse him of forsaking the Scripture for experience. His aim was exposition, and his methodology was Christi-centric.
The “kisses of the mouth” (SOS 1:2) of Christ were, for Bernard, indications of intimacy with the Lord. Due to the nature of a kiss, Bernard considered this a personal and individual encounter with Jesus Christ. However, a kiss on the mouth was also the highest level of relationship, and therefore it could not be the first experience with Jesus. So, Bernard described what he believed must precede an experience like this with Jesus Christ, which is a process aimed at this type of encounter.
First, a person must be forgiven of sin, and, drawing from the story of the woman who anointed and washed Jesus’s feet (Matt. 26:6–13 and parallels), Bernard combined the images of kissing and of washing feet to show that falling at the feet of Jesus is the only way that one is forgiven of his or her sin. This, for Bernard, is the first kiss of the feet.
Second, the person who has been forgiven, or “made well,” must “Stop sinning or something worse may happen to you” (John 5:14). For Bernard, this meant making Christ the Lord and King of one’s life, and therefore was to kiss the hand of the King. Bernard acknowledged that to live a life that honored Jesus Christ was as dependent on his grace as much as forgiveness of sin. Nevertheless, this was the next experiential step in learning to follow Jesus.
Third, having fallen at the feet of the Savior, and called him Lord, the person may have the most intimate experience with Jesus, which is called a “kiss of his mouth.” This moment was, as Bernard described it, rightly filled with awe and trembling, and only approached in the greatest of humility. Knowing Jesus Christ in this most intimate way was the fullest extent of the grace of God, and a glorious gift to the Christian.
The reader may himself or herself evaluate Bernard’s interpretation. However, it is historically significant to see this Christ-centered reading of Scripture occurring in the twelfth century. Moreover, Bernard himself understood that his reading of Scripture was a true and appropriate interpretation of Scripture, understood canonically. Finally, while the mysticism that pervaded this hermeneutic may raise suspensions, and rightly so, the reader must be moved by a man who felt the weight of sin, fell at the feet of Jesus Christ for forgiveness, meant for his life to come under the lordship of his Savior and King, and longed for relationship with Jesus, who is the “the image of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15). For these things at least, Bernard is commended.
To purchase the recommended translation of this work, click here: Buy the Book
Also, see this previous post on Bernard by Mark Fugitt, Bernard Of Clairvaux And His Song Of Songs Sermon Series: An Introduction To The First 20
C. H. Lawrence concluded that Bernard was “The most widely read and influential ascetical theologian of the Middle Ages.” Clifford Hugh Lawrence, Medieval Monasticism: Forms of Religious Life in Western Europe in the Middle Ages, Third Edition (London: Pearson Education Limited, 2001), 180.
Gillian Rosemary Evans, The Medieval Theologians: An Introduction to Theology in the Medieval Period (Oxford: Blackwell, 2008), 131.
 A copy of this except can be found online at https://archive.org/details/St.BernardOnTheSongOfSongs