The Scandal of A Kiss

by Maria Grizzetti

Paolo Veronese , Feast at The House of Simon | 1567-1570, Oil on Canvas, Pinacoteca di Brera, Milano

Paolo Veronese, Feast at The House of Simon | 1567-1570, Oil on Canvas, Pinacoteca di Brera, Milano

“Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much”

Gospel of St. Luke 7.47

The language of love speaks of union. Of all the gestures human beings are capable of, the kiss remains the immortal manifestation of love. Both physical and spiritual love are communicated in the tenderness of a kiss. In a culture that sees simply the physical, we have lost the spiritual significance of manifestations of love. Having lost the spiritual significance of these manifestations, we have also forsaken the theological realities they cling to and the deeper significance of divine communion they reveal.

The old dictum bears repeating: action follows being. In the case of a kiss, the action has meaning insofar as it reveals something of the being that offers it. Each human action reveals something of who we are, both physically and spiritually. We call truly human actions those that comport the full capacities of the human person. For a kiss to be an expression of love, an authentic manifestation of chaste affection, it must be a physical act that reveals a spiritual reality. It must emanate from both the body and the soul, and reflect the full truth of chaste human love. It must ascend to God, rather than cling to the limitations of human passion.

This bodily and spiritual unity of human action can easily be broken. Our passions claim possession of our will so that we at times do not do the good, and perpetuate the evil we wish not to. These faults, however, do not frame the order of reality. Human actions can be truly good, and accord with Truth itself, if we believe the human person is capable of knowing and loving God.

In the Christian life, the highest truth we can know the human person is that we are made for communion with God. True union is not made of closeness. It comprises, and requires oneness. Baptism is the first step in the direction of oneness, since Baptism marks the soul indelibly and through it God claims us for Himself. From this first step, all other human actions lead either to union or severance. We get closer or move farther away from God. The closer we come to holiness, the closer we are to being one with God. The telos of the Christian life is this final union, possible only after our death, and known as beatitude: the life of the blessed in heaven.

Against this background, we can look at one example of human communion: the example of the Magdalene, who is for the Christian the primordial vision of the extraordinary love that is possible when human love meets the Heart of Christ and is subsumed in it, loosing itself, and becoming one with His divine love.

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In the alienation of her sin, Mary Magdalene approaches Jesus. She seeks no permission. She comes. We are in the house of Simon, a Pharisee. Christ is dining there with Pharisees. 

“And behold, a woman of the city, who was a sinner, when she learned that he was sitting at table in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster flask of ointment, and standing behind him at his feet, weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears, and wiped them with the hair of her head, and kissed his feet, and anointed them with the ointment. Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw it, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, for she is a sinner.”

Gospel of St. Luke 7. 37-39

It is a truly public moment. She is caught in the act. Her gesture is considered an improper outpouring of lustful manipulation. Her touch is considered unclean, and her intentions at best questionable. Her past is widely known. They think her unchanged. In the house of Simon, she boldly enters uninvited; a marked woman of ill repute among men of the Law. There is no hiding her past or her presence, nor does she make any attempt at masking her affection.

But the woman they see is a different woman. Something has changed. Her heart is new and pure. The gaze of the Savior has marked her. She is a woman in love with truth, whose intentions are made pure by that contemplative vision that beholds in the man before her the Son of God. Incarnate in the flesh before her is the Savior. He is not like every other man she has known with her body. No longer does she offer her body to be used for the pleasure of another, pleasure she has long-lost sense of — for a thing often used becomes worn through, broken. Her soul, marked by countless acts of wasted love, of despair and failure, of hopeless attempts at belief, is now able still to offer itself, this time in renewal, having found rest and hope. She stands before derision and scorn, unafraid and at peace.

There is deep beauty and profound innocence in the lingering kisses she places on Christ’s blessed feet. We must know this, lest our hope be in vain. Modern eyes behold her lying there, exposed and enraptured, and see a twisted gesture void of grace — a waste of womanhood, a strange love drenched in lust. But Christ allows her access to His body, and even protects her, defending her in this moment of her outpouring.

But there were some who said to themselves indignantly, “Why was the ointment thus wasted? For this ointment might have been sold for more than three hundred denarii, and given to the poor.” And they reproached her. But Jesus said, “Let her alone; why do you trouble her? She has done a beautiful thing to me. For you always have the poor with you, and whenever you will, you can do good to them; but you will not always have me.”

Gospel of St. Mark 14. 4-7

“Let her alone; why do you trouble her? She has done a beautiful thing to me.”

Innocence triumphs in the embrace of God.

A weary soul finds peace.

Purity blossoms in the embrace of human flesh.

“Leave her alone. Let her be at prayer and at rest. Leave her come to me,” as once before He had said to children, “let her kiss be pure, and her anointing of love reveal who I am.”

“Let the nard be wasted, and let the scandal be entire. As entire as the scandal of the cross will be when My hour comes.”

The ageless aching words of Solomon were there fulfilled in the eyes of scandalized men. She had given them her lips countless times before. But this is new desire, a different banquet; prophesy fulfilled

“O that you would kiss me with the kisses of your mouth!

For your love is better than wine,

    your anointing oils are fragrant,

your name is oil poured out”

“While the king was on his couch,

    my nard gave forth its fragrance.

My beloved is to me a bag of myrrh,

    that lies between my breasts.”

“He brought me to the banqueting house,

    and his banner over me was love.

My beloved is mine and I am his,

    he pastures his flock among the lilies.”

Song of Solomon 1. 2-3, 12-13; 2. 4,16

She continues to offer every innocent grace of her feminine body, because He is worth nothing less than the total offering also of her soul. None of this remains on the level of the fleshly, of the sensual, of improper cheapened physical arousal. It all takes on divine significance, and reveals the mystery of incarnate love. The marvel that is a woman, made by God “to be as a helper fit for man” ( cf. Genesis, 2.18) now newly takes on divine import as she becomes the ‘helper’ of the God-Man. She has ushered the hour of Christ’s Passion with an act of anointing; her oblation rising like the evening sacrifice on the eve of His divine holocaust. 

Like the Virgin before her who had ushered at Cana the hour of Christ’s first miracle, Mary Magdalene also has a role in this drama of redemption. She is the guardian of His immolation — lying there prostrate between Him and the scorn of the world. He chose her for this moment; gave her much for her love.

The Magdalene now remains there, weeping, covering his feet with her tears, drying them with her hair.  At Cana, water had turned to wine; here, the tears of sin flow and turn to grace. Shattering the alabaster jar of her life, she pours forth priceless nard — the wages of sin that have cost her the truly scandalous waste of her flesh and blood — and anoints His feet with oil. Hers is the same gesture that He would soon offer to the Twelve He had called his own as the last testament of his earthly love — the same washing of feet that He first received from her; a gesture made sacred for all time. She had received much and loved much. “Do also as I have done for you…”

The Virgin and the meretrix now stand side by side as women in the life of the Christ, witnesses of His sacred priesthood, who both love His consecrated body, who witness the sacrifice of his life beneath the Cross. He comes from the immaculate womb of the Virgin who nurses Him at her breast. Now He is anointed by the kisses of a sinner who entwines her hair on his feet. Later both of them will stand beneath His bleeding body. They become the first chalices of His Precious Blood.

Somewhere, later, the Mother hears all this, and ponders even these things in her heart. Years had passed, and yet the Magdalen has now acted as the Virgin once had ordered the servants at that wedding feast in Cana: “Do whatever He tells you”.

The outpouring is complete — the crimson soul has met her Savior and now blushes with grace, nard flowing from alabaster like that finest wine from stone jars.

Indeed, she scandalizes. Her outpouring is oblation, a sacred form of altogether sensual, human, feminine love — ascending, contrite, purified, made holy. It is incarnate, and true love. She seeks the oneness of sacred love, not the pleasure of fleshly closeness. She yearns for oneness with God — for the coming of redemption. She has spent her whole life in fleshly union, now she yearns for the union of her soul with her Lord. Once her eyes only knew the glory of the body. Now, her heart has finally learned the glory of the contemplative gaze on the divine. 

Nothing remains here of her former self, except perhaps her broken flesh which has now risen from the darkness of her sin. She is wounded, yet whole; ill, yet healed; broken and offered, but living anew. She has found “Him whom her soul loves” (cf. Song of Solomon, 3). She has arrived at the rest of redemption, even while her flesh trembles still and breaks again.

It is the time of offering. She consecrates herself in tears. 

The Christ before her needs no purification, nor does he need her kissing. He is consecrated. Pure. Claimed from time eternal and entirely united with the Father: God Incarnate and Love itself. Yet, He receives this act of oblation from her. This is the humility of God, who comes in the flesh so that those who are in the flesh might touch Him, and intimately know how to love Him so fully.

Such a Love is scandalous.

“For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.”

Romans 8. 3-6

In this reversal of flesh and spirit, Mary Magdalene gives from what she has received. The kiss becomes an offering — the widow’s coin of which He had spoken is now placed upon the temple of his Body as a kiss upon His feet. All that she has she gives to Him: a return of thanksgiving for the lavishness of grace. All is renounced, nothing is held back. Love is entire, real, possible, pure; human yet divine.

He knew there would be another kiss. The scandalous innocence of her kiss would later contrast the betrayal of a kiss drenched in blood, encompassing the rejection of love. There remains the kiss of Judas. She had now done for Him what another whom He had loved and called in consecration to himself would not do. She had offered herself for love of Her Lord and Master, whereas he would seek silver coins to barter His Lord’s arrest and sell Him to his death.

The pharisees lounge there. They scorn and deride Him for allowing this scene of shameless indecency. This man, if he were if a prophet, would know surely who and what manner of woman this is that toucheth him, that she is a sinner(Luke 7. 39). The others bemoan the waste of ointment, reducing to the scattered coins of a hundred day’s wages the value of a priceless consecration, a boundless devotion, a reverence undefiled, a sacrifice acceptable and true.

She weeps and prays. Nard flows, and the intoxicating scent fills the room. We are in the temple. The incense rises. Perhaps her kiss is the world’s first confession.

Have mercy on me, O God, according to thy steadfast love;
according to thy abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.

Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
and cleanse me from my sin!

For I know my transgressions,
and my sin is ever before me.

Against thee, thee only, have I sinned,
and done that which is evil in thy sight,
so that thou art justified in thy sentence
and blameless in thy judgment.

Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity,
and in sin did my mother conceive me.

Behold, thou desirest truth in the inward being;
therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.

Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.

Fill me with joy and gladness;
let the bones which thou hast broken rejoice.

Hide thy face from my sins,
and blot out all my iniquities.

Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and put a new and right spirit within me.

Cast me not away from thy presence,
and take not thy holy Spirit from me.

Restore to me the joy of thy salvation,
and uphold me with a willing spirit.

O Lord, open thou my lips,

    and my mouth shall show forth thy praise.

For thou hast no delight in sacrifice;

    were I to give a burnt offering, thou wouldst not be pleased.

The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit;

    a broken and contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.

Psalm 51. 1-12, 15-17

Here, before them, redemption plays out its wonder.

He sees her heart, and He loves her.

He sees their hearts, their scorn, their scandal and self-righteousness, their calculations, their senseless cheapening of the eternal

And Jesus answering said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” And he answered, “What is it, Teacher?” “A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. When they could not pay, he forgave them both. Now which of them will love him more?”  Simon answered, “The one, I suppose, to whom he forgave more.” And he said to him, “You have judged rightly.” Then turning toward the woman he said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house, you gave me no water for my feet, but she has wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not ceased to kiss my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much; but he who is forgiven little, loves little.”And he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” Then those who were at table with him began to say among themselves, “Who is this, who even forgives sins?” And he said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”

Gospel of St. Luke 7. 41-50

“The poor you will have always with you.” The poor of love, that is; those who cannot see that beyond the vale of waste and despair and disgrace there is the capacity still for restitution, the purifying of the heart, the boundless power and truth of love undefiled.

“Truly I tell you, wherever this gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.”

Gospel of St. Matthew. 26.13

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He still waits for that kiss. The kiss that undoes the betrayal and the scorn of the world, its defilement and lust, its disbelief and derision, its scandalized deceit. He waits for the kiss of union and the kiss of thanksgiving. He waits for our fleshly, fully human adoration.

He let her have His feet. He received her kiss as worship, and now still offers us His Body.

“This is my flesh for the life of the world.”

“This is My Body.”

“This is My Blood.”

Unworthy, we come to His altar with open lips to receive His embrace; a communion that He meant to be eternal, for such a Love knows no limit.

“I sought him whom my soul loves;

I sought him, but found him not;

    I called him, but he gave no answer.

“I will rise now and go about the city,

    in the streets and in the squares;

I will seek him whom my soul loves.”

    I sought him, but found him not.

The watchmen found me,

    as they went about in the city.

“Have you seen him whom my soul loves?”

Scarcely had I passed them,

    when I found him whom my soul loves.

I held him, and would not let him go”

Song of Solomon 3. 1-4

Such is the scandal of her kiss.

Such is the scandal of sacred love, of union undefiled. 

The scandal continues.

O Lord, open thou my lips,

    and my mouth shall show forth thy praise.

We are left there. Alone. To kiss Him.

…May we love much. Hold Him, and not let Him go.

 

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