“Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth, for your love is sweeter than wine,” begins the Song of Songs, attesting to the ancient beauty of the kiss in Scripture.
As a man who loves men, kisses exchanged between members of my gender hold a particular fascination. In other cultures, I am told, these can be simple gestures of courtesy and platonic affection but this is not the custom of our islands. Maltese men do not, as a rule, kiss one another on the mouth.
Not so in the Classical world, and not so in the place where Jesus was born.
There is only one kiss, recorded in all three Synoptic Gospels, exchanged between the Messiah and a human being.
In the words of Matthew (26:49), “And immediately coming up to Jesus, Judas said, Hail, Rabbi! and covered him with kisses”, from the Greek κατεφίλησεν (katephilēsen), to kiss repeatedly. A shower of kisses, covering the face, the forehead, the eyes, the cheeks, and the mouth of God.
One can surmise that other intimate kisses took place in Christ’s life. Kisses between the Blessed Mother and her son, kisses received from devoted followers like the penitent woman (Luke 7:38), and kisses shared with the beloved disciple, “whom Jesus loved” beyond all reckoning (John 12:23).
However, the only definitive and indisputable kiss happens to be the one that initiates the Passion drama and culminates in murder, in mourning, and in resurrection.
Following the scripturally derived Via Crucis, approved by the Pope Emeritus in 2007, this moment immediately follows Jesus’ most private agony in Gethsemane and precedes his very public condemnation. It is in the garden, when Our Lord was still smeared in the blood of his agony, foreshadowing the blood of his passion, that the mouth of Judas meets the mouth of Jesus.
Yet the mouth has always been a pathway into another world.
Of all the orifices of the human body, the mouth is the most comprehensively human. It achieves this distinction by its use for the articulation of words. It is the place from which thoughts are expelled, in a fantastic dance of glottal, labial, and lingual dexterity. It is the medium in which thoughts are suspended, like fish wriggling through water. It is in the world of words that minds reach out, to embrace other minds.
On the day before the Passion, the mouth had been revealed as a portal into yet another, very special, kind of mind. It opened a channel of communication into the heart of the mysterious Triune God, prefiguring the paschal transformation and pierced heart of the World’s Saviour.
In Maundy Thursday’s institution of the Eucharist, words are the form by which matter is transformed. Both of these alchemical transubstantiations take place within the locus conclusus, the enclosed space, of the mouth. The mouth is agape, hanging open in wonder, with ἀγάπη (agápē), which is the festal fulfilment of love.
The mouth of Judas and the mouth of Jesus, the union of betrayer and betrayed, oppressor and oppressed, join together in the hidden intimacy of that dark and perplexing place.
“I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof” (under the roof of my mouth) “but only say the word and my soul shall be healed” (Matthew 8:8).
It is interesting to note that this fervent prayer was spoken by a Roman centurion appealing for the life of his beloved παῖς (pais), the young man who served him. Some exegetes claim, and these include the Moderator of the international Metropolitan Community Church, Nancy Wilson, that this young man was the centurion’s lover.
It is beautiful to remember that Christ not only healed the young man but went further. Jesus commended the centurion for the loving gesture of his faith, greater than all the faith of Israel (Matthew 8:10). The unworthy mouth that dared to ask for healing is that same mouth, the words from which are blessed for their unrivalled faithfulness.
Bread and wine enter the mouth and journey through the body. Nutrients are absorbed and waste is expelled. But that which is divine within the mundane nexus of ethanol and gluten, peppered with vitamins and minerals, achieves a sacred resonance as it passes through the fleshy intimacy of guts and intestines.
It is, mystical experiences notwithstanding, the closest that any faithful Christian will come to physical intimacy with the Lord.
Which brings us back to the moment of intense connection shared between Judas and Jesus. Let us remember that it is an exchange that culminates in the death of them both. We are reminded of the two faces of love; one which gives itself utterly, even unto death, and one which is driven mad by envy, doubt, and disappointment.
Surely Judas was not motivated by the mere love of money. One wonders what the wretched man felt, listening as Simon Peter was granted the Saviour’s promise of leadership, or watching the Beloved Disciple receive the Lord’s caresses. What must it have meant to this zealous believer, such that it deformed his love to a point of red-hot hate?
The line between loving and hating shimmers in the darkest places of the mind. It balances on the tips of our tongues. But for the grace of God we would fall, lost and flailing, in the disorienting labyrinths of love.
Judas succumbs to an anxious sickness of misguided intensity, just as the love of Jesus ignites a flame that shines so brightly, even death cannot contain it.
We are left with two love stories, both of which find solemn echoes in the miracle of the liturgy. We are brought to a place where words fail us, as we take the Lord into our mouths. What can we do except pray, alongside the councillors of Nicaea, that “He will come again… in Glory.”