“Greet One Another with a Holy Kiss”: the Historical Meaning of the “Holy Kiss”

Next in this commentary series on the Divine Liturgy I would like examine the Peace and the Creed. The liturgical exchange of the Peace (or “the holy Kiss” to use more ancient terminology) goes back to the very earliest possible time. St. Paul ends both of his epistles to the Corinthians by telling them to “Greet one another with a holy kiss” (1 Corinthians 16:20, 2 Corinthians 13:12), as he also does in his first epistle to the Thessalonians (1 Thessalonians 5:26). This kiss was not simply epistolary convention, but a liturgical action—since Paul’s letters would have been read to the churches during their liturgical assembly (probably at the conclusion of their readings from Scripture—compare the pairing of Paul’s letters with Scripture readings in 2 Peter 3:16), the holy kiss he bids them offer also formed part of their liturgical assembly.

In fact it formed an integral part of every celebration of the Eucharist, and the earliest extant account of the Eucharist from the second century pen of St. Justin Martyr tells us that “having ended the prayers [i.e. the prayers of intercession] we salute one another with a kiss” (from his Apology, chapter 65). During the time when the church congregations were small enough to be intimate and close-knit, the holy Kiss was exchanged even across the gender divide (thus Tertullian in his To His Wife, 2, 4), and on the mouth (the custom being mentioned in Sophronius’ account of the Life of St. Mary of Egypt). It was not long until this custom was felt to be problematic, and the Kiss was later restricted according to gender. But however given, the Kiss of Peace is still retained in our Liturgy, as the deacon bids the faithful every Sunday “Let us love one another!” He is not here inculcating an internal attitude, but giving liturgical directive — a directive which is followed by the clergy when two or more of them concelebrate. It is tragic that the laity do not follow suit and exchange the Kiss among those standing next to them. St. Justin Martyr would wonder, as would Chrysostom, why the people were not doing what they were told.

The Kiss of Peace is not simply an expression of socialization, a kind of liturgical “hello there, nice to see you”. Rather it functions to seal the intercessory prayers of the people which (as we see from Justin’s description) it immediately followed. In this exchange each communicant recognizes his fellow-communicant as a fellow-member of Christ’s Body — that is, flesh of his own flesh, blood of his own blood, as intimately a part of himself as one member of a human body is to another. That is why the Kiss was never exchanged with the catechumens, for they were not yet members of that one Body (or, in the words of Hippolytus’ Apostolic Tradition, “their kiss is not yet holy”). Far less would it be exchanged with a heretic, as St. John reveals when he forbids the faithful to give the heretic any greeting — i.e. any liturgical greeting (2 John 10).

The Peace serves to express the mutual love and seal the unity which all enjoy as members of the one Body of Christ. Without this unity, our intercessory prayers remain unsealed, ineffective, unheard, for they are only sealed through love. Christ teaches this when He says that if we refuse our brother forgiveness, we ourselves will not be forgiven. St. Peter taps into the same principle when he insists that a man must honour his wife as a joint heir of the grace of life, lest his own prayers be hindered (Matthew 7:14-15, 1 Peter 3:7). A person trained in the western church’s concern for legality will look only to the question of whether or not a Eucharist is “valid”. But validity is not the issue; the power that comes from love is. In the Didache (ca. 100 A.D.) it says “let no one who has a quarrel with a companion join you until they have been reconciled, so that your sacrifice [i.e. the Eucharist] may not be defiled” (Сhapter 14).

This leads to another function of the Peace in the Liturgy, that of sacramental preparation. The mutual recognition and acceptance of one another as fellow-members of the same Body allows for reconciliation before the weekly reception of Holy Communion. The Church has always applied to its own Eucharistic worship Christ’s words in Matthew 5:23f: “If you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother and then come and offer your gift.” Christ originally intended this counsel to show how essential forgiveness was to worship, and He said it was so crucial that even if it was at the last moment before the sacrificial knife fell upon the neck of the sacrificial animal that one remembered a need for reconciliation, even then one must call a halt to the offering and go first to be reconciled. Our sacrifice is the Eucharist, and the weekly Kiss allows for a weekly opportunity for reconciliation and peace. That was why it was exchanged after the intercessions and before the Eucharist. It sealed the former and prepared for the latter.

The Kiss of Peace is followed immediately by the Creed. The Creed was not originally a part of the Eucharist, but of baptism. It constituted an expression of the faith into which the candidate was baptized, and if he or she could not confess that faith, then baptism was not possible. In Constantinople it was first inserted into the Liturgy around the end of the fifth century. And of course once it found a place in the Liturgy, no bishop wanted to be known as one who removed it from the Liturgy as if he disagreed with its contents. So, the Creed became a fixture in the Eucharist.

Whether through accident or providence, it is fortunate that it did, for it expresses the inseparable link of love and belief, of our interior disposition and our outer confession of faith. We need both to be truly Orthodox, for love without faith and faith without love are equally unavailing. The Peace and the Creed are joined in a kind of liturgical symbiosis: “Let us love one another that with one mind we may confess Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the Trinity one in essence and undivided”. To offer a pure sacrifice we need both love in our hearts, and the true faith on our lips. Both lovelessness and heresy would contaminate our offering; we need to love one another and confess the true faith.

The presence of the Creed reveals that it matters what we believe, and that mere sincerity is not enough to participate in the Church’s offering. And we must also embrace not just the words of the Creed, but the meaning of those words as intended by their authors. In some circles it is enough to simply say the words, apart from their original meaning and intent. Thus one could say the words about Christ being raised from the dead and still believe that His body was never physically raised. “By ‘the Resurrection’” this person might say, “I only mean that Christ’s spirit and values will always be triumphant. By the words ‘He was born of the Virgin Mary’, I only mean that Christ was morally unique among all the rest of humankind.” One could fill a bibliography with people saying such things. But anyone with a shred of historical integrity and any loyalty to the Fathers will renounce such sophistry. We must say the words and mean by them what they originally meant. When we say that He was raised from the dead, we mean that His glorified physical flesh and bones emerged from the empty tomb, leaving only the grave-clothes behind. When we say that He was born of the Virgin Mary, we mean that He had no physical father. One can play games with history, the Creed, and the Fathers, but God is not mocked. The creed of one saying this is not ours, and we cannot in conscience give him the Kiss of peace, “for he who greets him shares his wicked work” (2 John 11).

The Peace and the Creed thus form both an expression of and a foundation for unity. As soon as the Kiss is exchanged and the Creed is chanted, it is time to stand aright, to stand with fear. The time for the sacrifice of praise is then at hand.

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