“Set me as a seal on your heart…” (Song of Songs 8:6)
Large portions of the beautiful Old Testament book the Song of Songs are written in the form of a dialogue between two people in love. The phrase quoted at the top of this letter is spoken by one of these people to their beloved. While it may seem to be nothing more than a nice sounding romantic phrase, there is a profound depth to it that goes far beyond what we might realize at first glance.
The idea of the importance of the “seal” has been substantially lost in our modern society, but in the ancient and medieval worlds, seals were extremely significant. Authority figures like kings and princes, and even many more “normal” people, would have a signet ring that they wore on their finger. If they were sending a message to someone, the letter would be folded over or rolled up, and then the edge of the paper/parchment would be dripped with liquid wax, and as the wax hardened, the sender would press his ring into the soft wax. Once the wax completely hardened, that letter was clearly and permanently identifiable as belonging to the sender. Or if a king issued a decree, the decree would be written up and then hot wax dripped at the bottom of the page, into which the king pressed his ring, so that when the decree was posted in the public square the king’s seal was proof that the proclamation in question did, indeed, represent the authority of the king.
So when we read that passage from the Song of Songs in the context of romantic love (and, speaking now in the standpoint of faith, the sacrament of marriage) we are saying that, in marriage, each of the spouses’ hearts is like the soft wax into which the other spouse is pressed, marking each other clearly and permanently as belonging to each other and each other alone. That beautiful moment in the Catholic wedding ceremony when the bride & groom exchange their vows is the moment when this “pressing” into the wax of each other’s hearts takes place. As winter gives way to spring, our parish will be seeing many such “sealings” in our two churches over the months ahead.
While the image of the wax seal is a beautiful one, its application in the Catholic sacramental world is not restricted just to marriage. For those who were able to attend the Easter Vigil just a few weeks ago, where we had a total of 12 adults receive the Sacrament of Confirmation, you might have noticed the exact wording used at the moment the sacred chrism oil is applied to each candidate’s head: “Be sealed with the gift of the Holy Spirit.” This coming Tuesday, some of the teens in our parish will be receiving that very same sealing from Archbishop Blair.
In the Sacrament of Confirmation, it is a case of our soul being the “soft wax” into which God Himself places His seal. In this sense, the two sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation working together convey the full sense of the ancient/medieval wax seal. In Baptism, our soul is marked/sealed as belonging to God and God alone; we are sealed for the sake of being claimed. And then in Confirmation, the “soft wax” of our soul is again sealed by God, this time so that, like those decrees of the kings of old posted in the public square, our lives might be a living witness to God, and His seal upon our souls is the testimony that what we say and do publicly is meant to always faithfully convey the wishes of the King of Kings.
We are sealed. What a joy and what a responsibility! May all of us faithfully live out the varied ways in which our hearts and souls have been sealed.
Fr. John Paul