GSC – 3rd March 2019
Did you ever have your mouth washed out as a child? Really? It strikes me as a disgusting process, and rather a perverse punishment.
The significance of what we say is thrust to the forefront by our first reading this evening from Ecclesiasticus. This is one of those books from the Deuterocanonical section of the Old Testament, meaning in this instance it wasn’t included in the Jewish collection of sacred writings but was included in the Church’s Bible. Because of this discrepancy, and rather controversially, some Protestants ended up removing it from their Bibles. Anyway, it was written about two hundred years before Jesus was born by someone called Sirach and is often used by the Church in the readings at Mass.
The words that are uttered, Sirach affirms, reveal something of the calibre of the person. Remember also Jesus’ teaching: “there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile” (Mark 7:15). The temptation all too often is to think that we are perfect and that it’s everything outside us which is wrong, which leads to a culture of blame and criticism, and a slight paranoia about the outside world, which might pollute us. The teaching of our Lord, conversely, reminds us that evil begins with intentions and desires within us. St Augustine asserted that evil was not a substantial thing, but rather the absence of good, and I think this is helpful for us to remember because it teaches us to have a healthy wariness of our own decisions. This awareness we see in St Paul when he writes, “I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin” (Romans 7:22-23). This is not to encourage us to indecisiveness or self-doubt but to make us aware that we are sometimes our own worse enemies.
This is why then what we say is important, that it reveals are inner selves, that realm where moral decisions are made either for good or for bad. We heard our Lord expound this in this evening’s Gospel: “A good man draws what is good from the store of goodness in his heart; a bad man draws what is bad from the store of badness. For a man’s words flow out of what fills his heart.” What are our lips, our mouths to do then?
Our lips reveal the freedom that we have. In a couple of times in the Scriptures, we have this image of the bridle and bit, the pieces of leather that are strapped round a horse’s mouth so as to be able to control where it goes. In Psalm 32, we are exhorted: “Do not be like a horse or a mule, without understanding whose temper must be curbed with bit and bridle, else it will not stay near you.” Similarly, St James wrote to the Christians of old, “Anyone who makes no mistakes in speaking is perfect able to keep the whole body in check with a bridle. If we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we guide their whole bodies” (James 3:2-3). Declarations of freedom are pronounced so often from the mouth and therefore whatever we say we are to realise we do so freely.
It is the spoken word with which God creates in the beginning. As early as the third verse of the whole Bible, we read, “Then God said, ‘Let there be light”; and there was light … God called the light Day.” God did not sit there and think or simply will or wave a magic wand or point a divine finger, He spoke and it came to be. When, especially at Christmas time, we hear of the Word made Flesh, we are talking about Jesus being the Word of God, the perfect communication of who the eternal God is. From out of God’s self He speaks the world into being.
These mouths are to praise the Lord, my brothers and sisters. One of the psalms the Church has long said in the morning has the verse, “My soul is satisfied as with a rich feast and my mouth praises you with joyful lips” (Psalm 63:5). We do this in song, we do this through reading the word of God in the assembly, in the presence of our fellow citizens of Heaven, we do this by having episodes of our life which we can share with others of when God has been particularly present in our life, of when we have experienced the healing streams of life through the sacrament of the Mass, the Lord’s Body and Blood. Here at the altar the priest, who stands in the stead of Christ for us, utters the words of our Lord Himself, “This is my Body … This is my Blood” and through those words and the will of the Church and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit they become the life-blood of our fellowship as Christians as we do this in memory of Him.
The Confessional is also a place where the power of the spoken word is known. When we make our confession we often don’t really communicate by gestures or words because normally we’re not looking at the priest because there’s a grill in the way or because we’re looking at Crucifix that is provided. The person making the confession, after all, isn’t really speaking to the priest, but is speaking to God and having to articulate to Him what they have done wrong and where they have failed to do that which is right. The priest then speaks words of absolution: “Through the ministry of the Church may God give you pardon and peace and I absolve you from your sins.” The forgiveness of God is communicated through words. And for you to hear those words all you need to do is say to a priest, “Can I make a confession?” and you arrange a time to do it and that would be a very good thing to do in Lent especially.
As we approach Lent, we will also be thinking increasingly about other things done with our lips. It is with a kiss, of course, that Judas betrays Jesus so that the soldiers know which one to arrest (Luke 22:47). This is in stark contrast with the woman who had anointed Jesus in Luke 7. She was a notorious sinner, in other words just like the rest of us, and St Luke doesn’t tell us her name, but we do know that “She stood behind [Jesus] at His feet, weeping, and began to bathe His feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair. Then she continued kissing His feet and anointing them.” Many criticise Jesus for receiving such affection and devotion from a sinner, but Jesus praises her love: “She has bathed my feet with her tears… You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet” (Luke 7:36-50). Kissing feet in a world where everyone wore sandals was a mucky business but what else could she do with her lips when she met the Saviour? On Good Friday, when we remember the death of Jesus for the world, we will come forward to kiss a crucifix to show our love for the Saviour who died for us.
So, let’s use these lips better, they can share in God’s creativity, they can sing His praises, they can kiss out of devotion. May they never be instruments of lies or gossips, of taking the Lord’s name in vain, or echo chambers of pride and our own glory. Amen.