Four times in his letters, Paul counsels the early Christians to “greet one another with a holy kiss” (Romans 16:16, 1 Corinthians 16:20, 2 Corinthians 13:12, and 1 Thessalonians 5:26). Likewise, Peter urges, “Greet one another with a kiss of love” (1 Peter 5:14). This ancient form of Christian greeting has been formalized as part of the eucharistic liturgy since at least the 2nd century, and in our current practice, it occurs at the end of the liturgy of the word as a gesture of reconciliation when the celebrant intones, “May the peace of the Lord be always with you,” and we respond, “And also with you.”
We then share handshakes, hugs, high-fives, peace signs, and sometimes kisses of peace. Unfortunately, these forms of greeting are often perfunctory and sometimes even followed by the surreptitious use of hand sanitizer.
On his blog Desiring God, John Piper suggests that Paul and Peter had much more in mind than these token and detached signs of community. They were saying, he posits, the following:
- Take the physical, familial expression of endearment and use it in a way that is holy to express your love for one another.
- Take [the ordinary kiss] from the world and sanctify it. Make it holy. Devote it to God. Make it say something about the Holy One. Include God in your hearts and in your thoughts when you greet one another with this ordinary, culturally common greeting.
- “Having purified your souls by obedience to the truth for a sincere brotherly love, love one another earnestly from a pure heart” (1 Peter 1:22). . . . He is calling for Christians to really have changes of heart so that when we approach another Christian, our hearts are drawn out in words like this.
At St. Christopher’s, the tiny and intimate parish where I found my home in the Episcopal Church, passing the peace was indeed such a time of sharing holy love. We left the confines of our pews and usually managed to share an individual and personal greeting with every other person in the congregation. Hugs were far more abundant than handshakes, and there were even several kisses. We called each other by name, perhaps made a personal comment of welcome or condolence or congratulation, and had to be herded like cats back to our seats to continue wth the service. However, the larger the parish, I have found, the less ardent these greetings.
My prayer for today is that we may learn better ways to feel and express our love for one another–beginning with the greetings we exchange at the passing of the peace. The beauty of ritual is that it provides a framework for doing the Lord’s will even when that will is not our own. Bowing, kneeling, making the sign of the cross–these are outward and visible signs of spiritual states of reverence and submission that we may or may not feel at the moment when we perform them. The holy kiss, handshake, or high-five signifies obedience to the commandment “love one another.” May performing these ritual acts enable us to experience the inward and spiritual grace they represent.
And may we remember with Andre Dubus that “ritual allows those who cannot will themselves out of the secular to perform the spiritual, as dancing allows the tongue-tied man a ceremony of love.”