The Song of Songs has been interpreted in three ways in Christian exegesis: while the lover is consistently read as God or Christ, the beloved is read as the church, the individual soul or the Virgin Mary (these readings frequently overlap in religious commentary). While the sensuous imagery of the Song might seem a surprising choice for Hopkins, its patristic application makes it appropriate to Hopkins’s narrative of baptism, regeneration and mystical ascent. 1 From the time of the early church, the nuptial imagery of the Song of Songs has been understood in relation to the sacraments and the liturgy of initiation. The Song is interpreted in patristic exegesis as the epithalamion of the wedding of Christ and his church, a marriage inaugurated in the Incarnation (cf. Jn. 3.29) and fulfilled in the eschatological marriage (Mt. 25.1–3). Between inauguration and completion, this union is re-enacted in the sacraments. The early catechetical addresses of St Cyril of Jerusalem and St Ambrose, directed to the newly baptised, explicate the baptismal ritual as a ‘nuptial bath’ and the Eucharist as a wedding banquet. 2 In the New Testament, this sacramental interpretation of nuptial theology finds confirmation in the Epistle to the Ephesians (5.23–32), which presents baptism and the Eucharist as the realisation of the heavenly marriage:

Because the husband is the head of the wife, as Christ is the head of the church. He is the saviour of his body…Husbands, love your wives, as Christ also loved the Church, and delivered himself up for it: That He might sanctify it, cleansing it by the laver of water in the word of life…that it should be holy and without blemish…For no man ever hated his own flesh; but nourisheth and cherisheth it, as also Christ doth the Church. Because we are members of his body, of his flesh, and of his bones. For this cause shall a man leave his father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife, and they shall be two in one flesh. This is a great sacrament, but I speak in Christ and in the Church.

(Eph. 5.23–32)