How do you “measure” a kiss?
How much does an embrace weigh?
The question seems somewhat absurd. We could see a kiss. We can experience an embrace. Nevertheless, the experience of those two signs of affection contain aspects that go way beyond anything of the physical realm. One scripture scholar writes, “If anyone were to write a four hundred page book entitled, The Metaphysics of a Kiss, it would not deserve a readership. Kisses just work, their inner dynamics need no metaphysical elaboration.”
He goes on to tell an ancient Jewish story:
There was a young Jewish boy named Mordecai who refused to go to school. When he was six years old, his mother took him there, but he cried and protested all the way and, immediately after she left, ran back home. She brought him back to school and this scenario played itself out for several days. He refused to stay in school. His parents tried to reason with him, arguing that he, like all children, must now go to school. To no avail. His parents then tried the age-old trick of applying an appropriate combination of bribes and threats.
This too had no effect.
Finally, in desperation they went to their Rabbi and explained the situation to him. For his part, the Rabbi simply said: “If the boy won’t listen to words, bring him to me.” They brought him into the Rabbi’s study. The Rabbi said not a word. He simply picked up the boy and held him to his heart for a long time. Then, still without a word, he set him down. What words couldn’t accomplish, a silent embrace did. Mordecai not only began willingly to go to school, he went on to become a great scholar and a Rabbi.
This year my classmates and I are celebrating the 25th anniversary of our ordination. The first funeral mass that one of my classmates celebrated was for his father. It happened almost a week after we were ordained. As you can imagine it was a rough week. By the heels of all the celebration and the euphoria we suddenly got the message that we were going to bury the parents of one of our classmates.
I remember vividly being in one of the rooms of the rectory where we were preparing investing for the funeral mass. There was the normal idle chatter but at one point the room fell silent. All eyes turned towards my classmate. At that moment he asked, “How do I do this?” One of the old wise sages gathered there said, “You go up, you kiss the altar, you make the sign of the cross, and you let the rite carry you.“
””There comes a point, even with God, when words aren’t enough.” The Eucharist is God’s kiss. Even though thousands of books have been published, millions of words written, it needs no explanation because ultimately it has no explanation.
Jesus understood this. That scripture scholar writes further:
For most of his ministry, he used words. Through words, he tried to bring us God’s consolation, challenge, and strength. His words, like all words, had a certain power. Indeed, his words stirred hearts, healed people, and affected conversions.
But at a time, powerful though they were, they too became inadequate. Something more was needed. So on the night before his death, having exhausted what he could do with words, Jesus went beyond them. He gave us the Eucharist, his physical embrace, his kiss, a ritual within which he holds us to his heart.
The parable (and the story of my classmate) wonderfully express how the Eucharist works. In it, God physically embraces us. Indeed that is what all sacraments are, God’s physical embrace. Words, as we know, have a relative power. In critical situations they often fail us. When this happens, we have still another language, the language of ritual. The most ancient and primal ritual of all is the ritual of physical embrace. It can say and do what words cannot.
GK Chesterton once wrote: “There comes a time, usually late in the afternoon, when the little child tires of playing cops and robbers. It’s then that he begins to torment the cat!”
Mothers, with young children, are only too familiar with this late afternoon hour and its particular dynamic. There comes an hour, usually just before supper, when a child’s energy is low, when it is tired and whining, and when the mother has exhausted both her patience and her repertoire of warnings: “Leave that alone! Don’t do that!” The child, tense and miserable, is clinging to her leg. At that point, she knows what to do. She picks up the child. Touch, not word, is what’s needed. In her arms, the child grows calm and tension leaves its body.
That’s an image for the Eucharist. We are that tense, over-wrought child, perennially tormenting the cat. There comes a point, even with God, when words aren’t enough. God has to pick us up …
… when physical embrace is what’s needed.
… like a mother embracing her child,
… when a Rabbi holds a scared boy,
…. when the rite carries us,
God knows that. It’s why Jesus gave us the Eucharist.