Why All the Kissing? (From the Nov. 2012 Trinitarian)
We Orthodox kiss stuff. When we first come into church, we kiss icons. You will also notice that we kiss the chalice, we kiss the edge of the priest’s vestment as he passes by, the acolytes kiss his hand when they give him the censer, and we all line up to kiss the cross at the end of the service. When we talk about "venerating" something we usually mean crossing ourselves and kissing
An outsider might expect Orthodoxy to be stuffy, esoteric, and rigidly ritualistic. But once inside, it turns out to be a box full of Kissing Bugs. It reminds one of a little girl of three or four, barefoot in her white nightgown, going around at her parents' party to kiss all the guests goodnight. Someone might say, chortling, "She's a regular kissing bug!" There is an exuberance and generosity in the way we Orthodox scatter kisses around, cherishing the things and people that bear God to us. We feel such gratitude to God for saving us, such awe at His majesty, such joy in the fellowship of the Saints, that we respond from the heart. It is not superstition requiring us to relinquish formal, ritual kisses. We find ourselves in our true home in the Church, astonished and overjoyed to be welcomed at this glorious feast. Like a child in a nightgown, secure in her Father's house, we go scattering our kisses with simplicity and love. Presbyterians never kiss, at least not in church. Orthodox eagerness to do so probably looks obsessive--for, I must admit, we kiss a lot. We also kiss the Gospel Book, as if kissing Jesus Himself, kiss the chalice, as if kissing Jesus’ Precious Body, and we kiss each other, as if kissing living icons. (Only practical concerns, I'm sure, deter us from kissing the censer.) St. John Chrysostom makes the charming assertion that, because we receive the holy Eucharist through our lips, our lips are most blessed, and we honor them by giving kisses.
Once while taking seminarians to a display of Greek icons in a Chicago musem, I noticed that the glass covering them was full with overlapping marks of kisses and lipstick. The Orthodox couldn’t hold themselves back, because for us icons are primarily for prayer, not for show in a museum!
We kiss each other before we take communion: Greet one another with a kiss of love. (1 Peter 5:14). When Roman Catholics or high-church Protestants "pass the peace," they give a hug, handshake, or peck on the cheek; that’s how Westerners greet each other. In Orthodoxy different cultures are at play: Greeks and Arabs kiss on two cheeks, and Slavs come back again for a third. For new converts, just follow the lead of those around you and try not to bump your nose! The usual greeting is "Christ is in our midst" with the response, "He is and ever shall be." Don’t worry if you forget what to say. The greeting is not the one familiar to Episcopalians, "The peace of the Lord be with you." Nor is it "Hi, nice church you have here." Exchanging the kiss of peace is a liturgical act, a sign of mystical unity. Chatting and fellowship are for later.
When we Orthodox kiss each other we are kissing God in each other, a Holy Kiss: SALUTE ONE ANOTHER WITH A HOLY KISS! (Romans 16:16)