Kisses of the Mouth PDF Print E-mail
Written by Peter J. Leithart   
Friday, 28 October 2011 15:30

"Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth!” (Song of Songs 1:2)

As the Kama Sutra makes clear, there have long been many different sorts of kisses. In Scripture, kissing is usually a greeting without erotic or romantic overtones. Men kiss men, brothers and sisters and cousins kiss, as gestures of welcome. Apart from the Song of Songs, the only biblical passage where kissing has erotic overtones is in Proverb 7:13, where Lady Folly offers an illicit kiss. And the few instances that kissing with the mouth is mentioned outside the Song, it has to do with idolatry. Job says that he has not secretly thrown a kiss at the sun (31:26-27), and during the time of Ahab, Yahweh preserves 7000 pairs of knees that have not “bowed to Baal” and 7000 mouths “that have not kissed him” (1 Kings 19:18; cf. Hose 13:2).

The Bride who begins the Song longs for erotic kisses from the mouth of her Lover. What happens when two people exchange the kiss of the mouth? What does the kiss of the mouth mean?

Let’s begin with the mouth itself. We are porous beings. Our nose, eyes, ears, even our skin itself are involved in a constant exchange between inner and outer. But the mouth is the most obvious expression of the porosity of our existence. The mouth is the most intimate part of the face, the most intimate parts of the body normally exposed in public. Traditionally, the eyes are the window to the soul, but you can’t see into me in any real sense when I open my eyes. You might try to peer up my nostrils, or into my ear, but pretty quickly it gets too gloomy and dark to see much. When I open my mouth, though, there’s a yawning chasm in the middle of my head, and without too much trouble you can see well into my interior, if you should want to.

The mouth is of course the entry for food into our digestive tract, and thus the gateway for bringing nourishment to the whole body. We drink water through the mouth, and we can breathe through the mouth as well. The mouth is thus the main way we take the world into ourselves from outside, the main delivery system through which the world outside keeps us alive. The mouth is guarded by the lips, but the lips are backed up by teeth. The mouth is the most aggressive part of the face. Saliva, mucous, vomit, and other bodily fluids can escape through the mouth, but it is not only physical material that comes through our mouths. Ideas, aspirations, compliments, songs, prayers, laments, screams and shrieks, and many other expressions of our interior life move to the outside world through our mouth. Our words step through the doorway of the mouth and present themselves to the waiting public.

Without the mouth, our interior life would be much less precisely expressible. You can gesture and dance, but, for all their expressiveness, these modes of communication cannot express our desires or thoughts as articulately as the mouth. You can learn to write with the language you speak, and thus capture much of what can be spoken. Without voice, however, words lack the musical qualities of spoken language – timbre, pitch, volume – and many of the emotional qualities.

A kiss is a synaesthetic symphony. It is touch, lips against other lips, and it is touch on a highly sensitive part of the skin. Given the intimacy of the touch, it also involves taste and aroma. Not only is the kiss synaesthetic, but it is mutual synaesthesia. The taste and the smell of two breaths mingle into one. Each touches the other as intimately as he or she is touched. It is almost as if, in Derrida’s (typically) extreme phrase, touching myself touching another (se toucher toi).

All this means that a kiss, a touch of lip to lip or, more intimately, of tongue to tongue, is one of the most physically intimate actions we can conceive of. Holding hands, rubbing noses, hugging – all these are intimacies, but they don’t come close to the intimacy of the kisses of the mouth. A kiss is not sex; two people kissing are not one flesh. But they have drawn very close, and this is reason for being very, very cautious about bestowing or receiving the kisses of the mouth.

A kiss is also an exchange of breath. A man and woman cannot exchange the kiss of the mouth without breathing into one another. That hints at a wider theological dimension of kissing. Humanity comes alive by a kiss, when the Lord breathes into Adam’s nose the breath of life. Humanity comes to new life with the breath of Jesus, the Spirit, breathed out on Easter and poured out on Pentecost. Yahweh kisses the world when He breathes on the Red Sea and lays bare the foundations of the earth (Psalm 18:15). With the breath of His lips, the Messiah slays the wicked (Isaiah 11:4). Job speaks frequently about the breath of God: His breath kills (Job 4:9); it clears the heavens (26:13); it gives life to humans (27:3; 33:4); it gives understanding to humans (32:8); it freezes waters (37:10). A kiss recapitulates the Lord’s breath on Adam, the Lord’s breath on the sea, the breathing of the Spirit Breath that keeps everything animate. It’s no wonder that we can be refreshed and even revived from a kiss from our wife or husband. It’s no wonder a young woman’s world can turn upside down with one stolen kiss.

Though the Bride’s desire for the kiss of the mouth is erotic, Song of Songs 1:2 is set in a liturgical context. We might sum up the point with reference to the old Book of Common Prayer marriage vows: “with my body I thee worship.” The Song of Songs moves in the opposite direction – using erotic language to describe liturgy – but the overlap of the two zones of life is similar. If we take Song of Songs 1:2 in this liturgical sense, what desire does the Bride express?

The Bride wants to be face-to-face and mouth-to-mouth with her Lover. This has partly to do with speech. Yahweh gave dreams and visions to prophets, but in the Old Covenant, Yahweh spoke to Moses alone in this intimate way: “With him I speak mouth to mouth, even openly, and not in dark sayings, and he beholds the form of Yahweh” (Numbers 12:8). The Bride longs for the moment when her Lover will speak to her openly, as intimately as He did with Moses. She longs to speak to Him unveiled. She longs for the New Covenant.

A kiss is also a mutual consumption. We eat with our mouths, and when we kiss we are symbolically consuming one another. A long, erotic kiss closely resembles eating, complete with bites and nibbles and tastes. To kiss is to approach a one-flesh union, to become bone of bone, flesh of flesh, body of body. And this is the meaning of sacrifice. Sacrificial meat is the “bread of Yahweh,” and, since it represents the worshiper, sacrifice always involves the transfiguration and ascension of the worshiper into the glory-cloud of the Lord. Yahweh is a “consuming” fire, an “eating” fire, who consumes His Bride in the kiss of sacrifice. The Bride also wants to consume the Lover too, and this desire too is fulfilled in the New Covenant, when the Word becomes the flesh that He offers as food to His Bride.

In the light of other references to idolatrous kissing in Scripture, the fact that the Bride looks for the kiss from her Lover is important. In other passages, the worshiper kisses the god, but here the Bride, the beloved, longs for the Lover to kiss her. There is an arresting reciprocity here. Worship is the Bride kissing the Husband, but the worship that the Bride longs for includes the Husband’s homage to His Bride.

This also might deepen our grasp of what it means to exchange a kiss of peace. We are all Bride, but we are also all in Christ. Kissing one another in greeting is a way of offering homage to one another, but more profoundly it is to offer homage to the Christ who dwells in us and to the Bride whom Jesus Himself kisses. Reciprocity runs throughout the Song, reflecting the liturgical rites of Israel as fulfilled in the New Covenant: Yahweh “eats” the bridal food, but also shares food; in the Eucharist, we feed on Christ, but He also receives us in our praises, and feeds on the Bride.

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