The first thing we do as we enter the world, we do through our mouths: we scream our lungs out. The next thing we do is breathe through them. Soon after we suckle with them. It’s said that infants think of the universe as an enormous teat just for them, and only gradually come to terms with the fact that there are rivals for the attention and resources of the cosmos, other people wanting to be fed! Some never seem to learn that lesson…
Soon infants put almost anything they can into their mouths. They giggle and babble, and yell like sirens at dinner time, changing time and especially homily time. Ultimately the noises become speech, that precious instrument of thought and communication. But their every sound matters to their parents especially that first mum-mum-mum and da-da. Eventually the child learns to use their mouth to eat solids, taste, make faces, sing and kiss. As time goes on speech, tastes and kisses become more discerning, sophisticated, powerful – and so mouths even more significant.
It was an important organ in the biblical world as well. Some ate and drank well but others too much or greedily. Some kissed those they should and others those they should not. Some were judged slow-tongued and others too quick to speak; some said too little and others too much. Some the Scriptures warned spoke with forked tongue or empty words; they flattered or defamed, murmured or lied; others uttered blasphemy, filth and curses.
St James thought that was why so few are called to be preachers or teachers. While the gift of speech can be used to speak to God or about God, he thought the tongue restless, poisonous, untameable, more often inclined to curse than bless. He called it “that small organ that makes great boasts”, that small spark that sets bushfires in people’s lives (Jas ch. 3). His assessment was rather bleak, but in an age of fake news and character assassination, it’s good to be reminded about people’s rights to reputation and to truth. James, for one, had heard too much gossip, whether about priests or by them, among Christians or against them.
The Bible is not always so biting. It counts some as people of clean lips, who praise God with their mouth or are moved by the Spirit’s gift of tongues: “I will bless the Lord at all times, his praise always on my lips”. Some speak truth and goodness, edifying words, words that reveal a noble heart within. God puts His words into some mouths that they might be His mouthpieces, revealing “every word that comes from the mouth of God”. “The Lord has given me a disciple’s tongue; so that I may know what to say to the weary, he provides me with speech” – so Isaiah declared at the beginning of Holy Week (Isa 50:4-7 Palm Sunday).
The mouth is in fact key to Holy Week. “Take this, eat; take this, drink” Jesus says, as He institutes His Eucharist and priesthood. After His portentous speech about receiving His broken Body and spilled Blood, they sing psalms and repair to the garden. More prayers are mouthed, now with deep sighs from our troubled Lord – and snoring from the newly-ordained. Then one appears and gives Jesus the kiss of death. As the story progresses we see all the uses and abuses of the tongue that James warned of. The authorities threaten. The witnesses lie. The crowd bays for blood. The soldiers spit. The by-standers jeer.
Jesus spoke little at this time. When He opened His mouth it was mostly to recite Psalms, praying His Divine Office. Psalm 22: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Psalm 31: “Into your hands I commend my spirit”. Psalm 69: “For my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink.” As man He thirsted for water, as His tongue cleaved to His mouth; as God He thirsted for souls, as He gave Himself up for our sake. And having taken the vinegar, the mouth of the man-God cried out “It is completed” and breathed its last.
Bishops, priests and deacons of Sydney: St James thought few were called to our ministry because the tongue is so unreliable. Through the Triduum we see what he means. Yet the Lord has given you disciples’ tongues, that you might speak to the weary. Your charge in today’s readings is to speak glad tidings to the down-hearted, healing words to the broken-hearted, liberating words to the heavy-hearted (Isa 61:1-9; Lk 4:16-21). So yours is a ministry of mouth to mouth.
At Baptism you bless the mouths of the little ones, as Christ did at the first Ephpheta (Mk 7:31-7). This the faithful renew each week when before the Gospel they sign their lips with the cross. Then they receive the Word of God from you. Before you proclaim it, however, you ask the Lord to cleanse your heart and lips. You kiss the Gospel book, kissing the One whose Word you give voice. Here in the Word of God, truth and love are perfectly united: the same worthy lips that proclaim Christ then kiss Him devoutly.
To maintain your People on their spiritual journey, you feed them Christ’s words but also His Body. To celebrate that sacrament of love, you go up to the altar of Christ, and kiss Him, not with the kiss of Judas but with that of the devout woman who anointed him. At Communion time you pass that affection for God and from God to His people in the Sign of Peace.
St Augustine, in an Easter sermon, explained that the Kiss of Peace testifies to the power of this sacrament to draw brothers and sisters in the Lord ever closer. That God would kiss you and your people could not be told more powerfully than when you place Him upon your tongue and theirs. As in the Word of God so here, in the Sacraments of God, love and truth are perfectly united: the same mouth that declares a Great Amen to His presence, devoutly receives His loving kiss in Holy Communion.
Lips and tongue have their place in every priestly ministry that our oils represent today: in mouthing readings, absolutions and blessings; in giving form to the matter of the sacraments; in preaching and praising, counselling and consoling; even speaking in parish meetings! In everything you must love truthfully, never offering less than the whole of Catholic truth, never tickling ears or compromising the faith for popularity sake, but making your words a foretaste of that beatific vision of divine truth to which we are called in heaven. And if in everything you must love truthfully, you must also communicate lovingly, never treating your sheep harshly, but always making your pastoral life an embrace from our affectionate God, an experience of that beatific union with divine love to which we are also called eternally.
With your mouths, dear brothers, always speak the truth in love.
This is the edited text of the homily by Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP for the Chrism Mass at St Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney, on 29 March 2018.