(Part 3) This is the third feature article in a ten-part series in Liturgy and Ministry Magazine, April 2015. This series reflects my ministry of celebrating Eucharist in Portland, Oregon. I am very grateful to Ada Simpson, editor for her willingness to publish these reflections.
Kisses of betrayal and mercy
“…She has not stopped kissing my feet since the time I entered.” Luke 7
I approach the altar with a profound bow. I make my way up the two dark-stained wooden steps of the sanctuary. I lean over the altar and kiss the place of sacrifice and of celebration from where we shall eat our daily bread. With the altar I begin the Eucharist with a sacred moment of intimacy. This kiss is far reaching, it is not just a kiss on wood or cloth or stone or mosaic or tapestry. This kiss is public witness that my life as a priest is either authentic – or not. My life must become and remain a vessel for God’s faithfulness to fill every relationship and every human encounter.
My public kiss begins in my private prayer. My lips on the altar may turn into a kiss of duplicity if I do not find my true life in Christ Jesus. My vocation is to make this kiss real and genuine. I am called to find Christ in my silence, in the intimate moments of my life struggle and in my own pain and suffering and on-going questions. If I avoid the truth of my life, my lips will become chapped kissing wood and cloth. My kiss is formed from years of prayer, a lifetime of struggles with personal intimacy, discovering a generative life and a healthy sexuality. This kiss is a public witness that I have found intimacy with God and especially within the Eucharist itself. This kiss goes public at every Mass.
I also admit my infidelity in this kiss of the altar. This kiss is the truth I stand upon when I cannot stand up for myself in our staff discussions or when I am made fun of because I work among God’s poor. This kiss comes on days when I would rather not be public with the doubt and guilt I feel in my heart or when I am just too tired to really care. I know this kiss can wake me up from going through the motions at Mass and it also reminds me that I pray in public on behalf of others. This kiss is not just a kiss.
I am unfaithful in my kiss when I do not take seriously the pain of others or skirt their requests or even not return their emails or phone messages. This betrayal comes when I would rather waste time and energy than be accountable to a life of prayer and reflection. This betrayal shows itself when I misuse my resources, make unfortunate decisions, betray the secrets of others with my lips or remain silent when others speak derisively about others, rather than claim my affinity with those they despise. My betrayal becomes a public spectacle when my ego becomes over-stated. My kiss shadows Judas on days when I turn away from grace in order to hoard the gifts God gives me.
The kiss on the altar is a gesture also of how I hope my life will be lived. This kiss echoes the greetings of Mary and Elizabeth when I greet people I love and offer God’s fidelity. This kiss encourages me to live like the healed leper coming back to Jesus in gratitude. This kiss gives me the courage to offer my other cheek in forgiveness to another person. This kiss embraces the lost, the stray, the lonely and the forgotten. This kiss continues the sentiments of the person cured of demons that wanted to speak to everyone about who Jesus was or the woman at the well who told her villagers that God is among his people. This kiss forms my lips that long to preach with fidelity that the Kingdom of God is about love in our lives, actions and events.
A few years ago, a support network for women caught in human trafficking offered a group for women and their children in our basement on Saturday evenings. Women along the Interstate 5 corridor from Canada to Mexico are falsely promised self-esteem, money, a sense of belonging, food, intimacy, a boyfriend, drugs and jewelry and a place to live in exchange for a life of prostitution. The only thing they are not promised is a kiss from a trick that is about real intimacy.
On those Saturday evenings, as I approached the altar at the beginning of the Vigil Mass, I often would hear the women setting up for the meeting just below the altar in the basement. I felt their desire for new life and healing on my lips and within my heart as I kissed the altar in the sanctuary. My public kiss to begin Mass becomes a real desire for God in the secret recesses of the hearts from women in the basement just underneath the altar. I connect my altar-kiss to the heartbreaking lives of women who live in the slavery of human trafficking, addictions. These women are struggling for freedom in ways I cannot imagine. My kiss is my prayer for their future relationship with Christ Jesus that will bring freedom to all people.
I am reminded to be faithful to this act of reverence on the altar when I view Jean in the front pew of the church. She covers her thin, aging lips with bright red lipstick believing that makeup will cover her addiction to alcohol. She believes that her thick, caked makeup will not only mask her aging but her loneliness on the weekends binging booze again. She reeks with alcohol as she kisses a women friend also wearing too much rouge. She prays that no one else will notice her pain during the Kiss of Peace.
I see my kiss on behalf of the community when a new widow bends over the casket of her beloved to give him one more kiss goodbye. I notice my kiss when a mother buttons up her kindergartener at the bus stop and kisses his head for blessing just before he jumps on the school bus. I see my kiss when the girls’ soccer team wins the game and the team members hug in victory. I see my kiss on the cold altar when I see a young wife drop off her husband at work and he reaches over to her with a goodbye kiss before his hops out of the car. My kiss and my commitment come to my mind and heart as I listen in the confessional to businessman speak of his affair with a woman who is not his wife, a person he has been kissing over the years in secret, in darkness and in infidelity. I see the kiss in a hospital when a family rejoices with a kiss because their teenager is being healed from cancer. I see my kiss on the altar of God on Sunday morning when I become aware of all the lonely people who wait for intimacy in our neighborhood on Saturday evenings.
The altar-kiss is more than a quick moment of rubric assigned to the priest. The altar-kiss by the priest speaks about everyone’s place at the table. The altar table is the center of the worship space, the place on which the offering of bread and wine takes place. The ancient altars were built upon the relics of the martyrs. Most altars today have a relic of a saint imbedded on the surface of the tabletop. The kiss also represents our gratitude for our ancestors who died for their faith. The kiss is an act of profound intimacy for the entire community from the gesture of the priest.
This kiss connects the desire for true intimacy of the entire People of God to the solid center of the community, the altar. I pray to invite people back to the Church. We fumble our efforts to welcome people. We stumble to support people their quest for genuine intimacy. This kiss may very well become a moment of true and lasting evangelization, a gesture of forgiveness, for so many souls lost in our pews. People ache for true intimacy. People also wait for the Church to admit the sins and crimes of the clergy and all the ways in which we have been unfaithful to the love God outpours in our lives. This kiss reveals publicly to all who struggle to believe that the Church is sorry for the sins of the past and those who wait for a new redemptive love in their lives in the present.
In the midst of poverty, I now see the kiss on my lips and the infidelity in my heart as the place where healing begins for us all. For so many of us, my kiss represents the fact that we do not know where else to turn but the table of Eucharist for the healing, the love and the salvation we all desire so desperately.