What Jesus gets—and scientists might miss—about the meaning of the mouth

Photo by Lesly Juarez on Unsplash

If an absent-minded biologist or an alien scientist were to study the human mouth, without paying attention to human experience, he could easily conclude that these mandibles, teeth and tongue were functionally equivalent to the mouth of any other animal: an orifice for ingesting in order to digest. Such a scientist would be quite surprised when the jaw then moved and the tongue protruded to put forth into the world speech.

Eating takes in, breaks down and assimilates; speaking puts forth thoughts to be received by hearing. These acts are strikingly different, and yet they occur thanks to the same mouth. Perhaps stranger still is that this same mouth that can say, “I love you,” can express that love by remaining silent, puckering up and delivering a kiss.

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But the mouth is for other unusual things, too. The mouth is a gallery in which we partake of the edible works of human artists, those dishes that chefs serve up to us in many delightful blends of flavor. Once food is swallowed, its role goes into the biological background; the mouth is the place for the human element of eating: savoring.

The lips that can speak of the whole universe close in silence to pay homage to the person who is here present.

In speaking, mouths voice our thoughts so that they may be heard with the ears of others. This possibility is specifically human insofar as we are not dealing with screams and cries but speech that represents the world together with one another. When someone says, “I still cannot get over how delicious those tacos were last night,” our thoughts turn not to the speaker’s mouth but to the deliciousness of the tacos.

In kissing, we do not engage in thoughts about the world, but we pay homage to the bodily presence of a loved one: “I am glad you are, and I am glad you are here with me.” It is true that dogs and other animals kiss, but human kissing is interwoven with speech and thus takes on a different complexion. The lips that can speak of the whole universe close in silence to pay homage to the person who is here present.

•••

Jesus shows a profound appreciation for these three unique functions of the human mouth. First, he tells his disciples to be the salt of the earth. If there is significance in this metaphor, it is that it is good that salt enhances the flavor of our food and enables us to savor it all the more (Mt 5:13). Moreover, Jesus made wine that we know was delicious and cooked fish, we can surmise, that was tasty.

Second, he points out it is not what we put into our mouths (our food) but what comes out of us, the words from our mouths (our speech) that can make us unclean (Mk 7:18-23).

Jesus shows a profound appreciation for these three unique functions of the human mouth.

Third, he calls attention to the paradoxical action of Judas: “Judas, would you betray the Son of Man with a kiss?” (Lk 22:48). The person who understood kisses was the woman who anointed his feet with them, for unlike the owner of the house, she received him lovingly with many kisses (Lk 7:45-47).

But there is a fourth dimension that the Lord introduces. Jesus says, “Take, eat; this is my body.” In doing so, he no doubt is mindful of the other functions of the human mouth—savoring, speaking and kissing: “By chewing on this body, you will receive the life of love in you. By your ‘Amen’ you acknowledge that I am the origin of all that is here present for your reception. By receiving me with a kiss under the roof of your mouth you may savor the salt of the salt, the love that makes this world glorious. This is the food that satisfies the deepest hunger; it is the love I laboriously but gladly offer that fortifies life.”

Mouths express our mood, they reveal our playfulness, and they bear witness to our quest for joy.

Before such an offer, we do well to open our mouths and speak, “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.” Saying the centurion’s words in this context transfigures their meaning. Here we are not praying for healing so that Christ need not come to us; we are praying that he heal us from afar so that we might approach. Not simply that he might come to our home but that he might come to the home that is our self. Not that he might come under the roof of our house but that he might come under the roof of our mouths. Not so that he might heal a servant but that he might heal our very selves. Not so that we might be restored to mortal life but so that we might be grafted into his eternal life.

Then, having said “Amen” and having opened our mouths to receive him, we do well to savor in silence as we recall our Lord’s words: “From the time I came in she has not ceased to kiss my feet” (Lk 7:45).

•••

That the mouth should serve this fourth function, to receive the eucharistic Lord, is startling. But if we are mindful of the surprising variety of things our mouths are for, we will realize that as strange as this is, it is not unnatural. Instead, it weaves together in a surprising new way the elements of the natural: savoring, speaking and kissing.

Haven’t I left something out? Mouths do even more: singing, laughing and smiling. They express our mood, they reveal our playfulness, and they bear witness to our quest for joy. When that joy comes, undiluted, concentrated and without end, our mouths will erupt gladly and spontaneously with praise; the joy of laughter will ring out. What we receive in the Eucharist is a foretaste of that heavenly happening.

To the extent to which we lose sight of the human and become absent-minded biologists or alien scientists, to the extent to which the truth of our bodies is identified with physiology, to that extent we will be unable to understand not only the meaning of Christian life but also the meaning of human life in general. In this way, meditating on all the dimensions of the Eucharist can lead us to restore our appreciation for all the functions of the human mouth and thus give us a richer sense of what it means to be the kind of beings that we are.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Elissa Roper
3 months 3 weeks ago

Thank you Chad Engelland for such an insightful and lovely article. Much food for thought.

Elissa Roper
3 months 3 weeks ago

Don’t bag scientists too much - we sorely need some science-philosophy dialogue!

JOSEPH D'ANNA
3 months 3 weeks ago

This article is about spirituality and didn't need any reference to "science", except to say the mouth serves several functions. Analysis doesn't, necessarily, exclude compassion, so why play on stereotypes?

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