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Things we do in Church - Kissing
12-07-2010, 07:11 AM,
Things we do in Church - Kissing

Continuing our series on what we do in our worship and why we do it, we turn to kissing – yes, you read that right: kissing. What I wrote about bowing, that some “people who are not used to bowing in worship can find this practice odd or unusual” certainly applies to kissing too! “In Orthodoxy the kiss is also how the faithful receive a blessing, either from a priest, an icon or a relic. Unfortunately Anglo Saxons, especially men, have a problem with kissing generally, unlike Middle Eastern men or indeed those just across the Channel. We need to overcome this, and our clergy similarly must try to get round their feelings of unworthiness or embarrassment. I'm not suggesting that we…should adopt the custom of other Orthodox Churches where adult men greet each other with a kiss on the cheek - that would be a step too far for us inhibited northerners, but the liturgical kiss on the handcross, on the hand of the priest, the icon, the relic and so on, should be seen as not only normal but the source of great blessing and something to be encouraged.” (Subdeacon Michael Kennedy)

What do we kiss? We kiss the cross, the Gospel Book, the back of the bishop’s hand or priest’s hand, we kiss icons, relics of saints, we kiss the altar curtain, those ordained and within the altar kiss the corners of the holy table… But is this really so very strange or odd to go round kissing objects like this? After all, only recently across the newspapers, television and internet was the image of Roger Federer kissing the Wimbledon tennis trophy he had just won back after losing the final the previous year. (This was written in 2009 - I am told by one television spectator that rather than kissing the trophy, she thought this year's winner appeared to bite it - a practice I would prefer not to encourage, especially when kissing the priest's hand!)

If Gospel, bishop or priest, the saints and their icons and relics, the altar curtain and other holy things meant as much to us as that trophy so clearly does to Roger Federer then maybe it wouldn’t seem so strange to kiss them. Indeed if Christ Who it is that we encounter and experience in and through Gospel, bishop, priest, the saints’ icons and relics and all these other holy things meant as much to us, it wouldn’t seem so strange to kiss them. There is, in passing, a further parable to be drawn from the tennis champion: he didn’t get to be as good as he is by mere chance – just think of the long hours, days, weeks, years of practice, of dedication and hard work he’s put it and presumably keeps putting in… “Know ye not that they which run in a race run all, but one receiveth the prize? So run, that ye may obtain. And every man that striveth for the mastery is temperate in all things. Now they do it to obtain a corruptible crown; but we an incorruptible. I therefore so run, not as uncertainly; so fight I, not as one that beateth the air: But I keep under my body, and bring it into subjection: lest that by any means, when I have preached to others, I myself should be a castaway.” (1Corinthians 9:24-27)

Why do we kiss? Perhaps I have just answered that… but I will offer also a recent exchange which throws further light on this. Someone asked me why we kiss icons – they apparently found this a bizarre practice. Since my wife was present and clearly enthusiastic to answer I deferred to her while she beautifully and patiently explained to the enquirer that we kiss other members of our family, parents kiss children, children kiss parents, siblings kiss… and that in Church we are visibly surrounded by members of our spiritual family, our Church family, in the icons all around us on the walls, for this is what the saints are, our brothers and sisters in Christ, our Christian family so of course we kiss them. It’s the most natural thing in the world to do. It’s called love.

It’s probably worth repeating a paragraph from my consideration of how we enter Church: “I remember…joining the monks for worship in the early hours of the morning in the monastery of the Holy Virgin (Al Muharraq). As each monk arrived in the Church he would go to the front, stand in prayer a moment, bow down and kiss the altar curtain, then turn and kiss the bishop’s hand-cross and hand – then he went around the Church greeting everyone there. He would greet a fellow monk, then an icon on the wall of a saint who had departed this life perhaps a century before, then another monk, then another monk, then the icon of a saint from the first century, then another monk… And it dawned on me that it made no difference whether it was a flesh and blood monastic companion or the icon of one who had departed however recently or long ago; this was one family, this was the communion of the saints – and not just as an expression, declared as words in the Creed but as a living reality before my very eyes.”

That quote leads us into others things we kiss – the bishop’s hand-cross and hand or the priest’s hand-cross and hand. This kiss is both an act of respect and reverence for “them that have the rule over you” and of submission “for they watch for your souls, as they that must give account, that they may do it with joy, and not with grief: for that is unprofitable for you.” (Hebrews 13:17) It is also an expression of love towards bishop or priest. Some get uptight with us over this as though we were offending God somehow by kissing the hand of bishop or priest – and indeed some of us priests (and some bishops too) struggle with having our hands kissed. I remember being in Egypt in 2004 and visiting a convent and the abbess, a devout and deeply spiritual person if ever I met one in all my life, went to kiss the back of my hand and I managed to do what I had seen Coptic priests and bishops do, and turn my hand so we touched hands as equals… and she looked at me. I couldn’t read that look. It wasn’t one of reproach, of that I am sure – I cannot imagine her reproaching a priest even with her eyes… Perhaps it was nothing other than surprise, though I think I saw something else in her deep eyes. I really don’t know. But this I do know. That moment has haunted me, at any rate stayed with me. What did I do that day? I will tell you what I did. I deprived her of a blessing. From the beginning of being a priest I wasn’t comfortable about having my hand kissed (you know the sort of thing – feelings of unworthiness, an awareness, however feeble, of my own sinfulness) and so I tried to work through different approaches and came to the position that when I was vested for the Liturgy I would allow my hands to be kissed for they were not there for my benefit but for everyone else’s but that when just dressed in my black robe (other than in Morning & Evening Incense when the people kiss the priest's hand) I would turn the hand as I had seen some Coptic clergy do. That moment with the abbess cured me of all that. If someone wants to kiss my hand who am I to deprive them?

It is perhaps worth including here a word of explanation that the bishop is the icon of Christ and the priest is the icon of the bishop. When we kiss an icon of Christ it is Christ we kiss. So when we kiss the hand of the bishop it is the hand of Christ we kiss and when we kiss the hand of the priest it is the hand of the bishop and therefore the hand of Christ we kiss. Another thought to bear in mind when kissing the hand of bishop or priest is that the sacred gifts of bread and wine, the Body and Blood of Christ, are brought to God at His Holy Altar by these hands.

During Morning and Evening Incense, following the absolution, the priest holds the Gospel Book with the hand-cross on top of it and the congregation go forward and kiss the hand-cross, then the Gospel Book, then the priest’s hand. The cross is kissed first, before the Gospels because the Gospel comes to us through the cross – without the cross we have no Gospel or Good News.

On entering Church we bow before the altar curtain and kiss the bottom of it, then we kiss the hand of the bishop or priest if present, then we can venerate the icons on the icon screen – the icon of our Lord God and Saviour Jesus Christ, the icon of the Mother of God and then such other icons as may be on the screen or on the walls of the Church. I repeat that the saints are members of our family – it is good to greet them, it is good to show them respect and reverence and to seek their blessing and prayers. Although hand crosses and hands and altar curtain are kissed directly with the lips, when kissing icons the custom within the Coptic Orthodox patriarchate is more often (though I would say not absolutely exclusively) to touch the icon with the tips of the fingers and then to bring the hand to the mouth and touch the lips with the finger tips. The Byzantine Orthodox custom generally is to kiss the icon directly with the lips.

You will see the priest within the altar kissing the corners of the holy table – this is an act of deep reverence, and of love for “this…sacred and spiritual table, whereon…our Lord Jesus Christ, is…set forth as a mystic sacrifice…” (Divine Liturgy of St James)

To kiss is to give expression to feelings of love, of reverence, of awe.

Those who have attended the Liturgy on Holy Thursday will have noted that on this occasion the usual kiss of peace is omitted. This is in remembrance of the false kiss of Judas Iscariot, the kiss of betrayal. On Holy Thursday and throughout Good Friday we do not kiss any icons or relics or the hand-cross or hand of the priest. We can still light candles before the icon just as on any other day – we just remember not to kiss the icon. (Similarly on Holy Thursday there is no collection, no financial offerings, taken up from the people – in remembrance of the thirty pieces of silver for which Judas Iscariot betrayed our Lord God and Saviour Jesus Christ).

This is perhaps a good place to consider the when, why and how of the kiss of peace. The kiss of peace occurs in the Divine Liturgy after the Great Entrance when the holy gifts have been placed on the Holy Table but before the Anaphora or offering up of the gifts, even as taught by our Lord God and Saviour Jesus Christ: “if thou bring thy gift to the altar, and there rememberest that thy brother hath ought against thee; Leave there thy gift before the altar, and go thy way; first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift.” (Matthew 5:23&24) That is the ‘when’ and the ‘why’. The ‘how’ is beautifully described in a passage by the English travel writer H. V. Morton ('Through Lands of the Bible', 1938):

“There was a beautiful moment when “the kiss of peace,” which has long since been discontinued in its literal form in the West, was given by the priest to the two acolytes. With hands fresh from the chalice, he touched the hands of the boys, who came running down the altar steps to touch the hands that were everywhere stretched out towards them. I was at the end of a pew, and one of the boys cupped my hand between his palms and passed on quickly. My neighbour, a big rough man clothed mostly in rags, a man whom I should have avoided in any dark lane, turned to me with his hands ready to accept the “kiss”, then noticing that I was a foreigner, he did not know what to do, and faltered, dropping his arms. I offered my hands to him with the “kiss of peace” still fresh on them; and the man, with a smile of gratitude which was a beautiful thing to see on that hard face, touched my hands with his and passed the blessing along the line.”

I have noted some inconsistency or confusion when giving the kiss of peace with some people trying to put their hands around mine or one of their hands between mine with one outside of mine. This latter is fine for subsequently exchanging the peace between people after they have received but during the initial passing or receiving of the kiss of peace it should be that the person passing the peace on cups his or her hands around those of the person receiving the peace. Thus the priest kisses the edge of the diskos (or paten), the ark and the Holy Table then turns and places his hands around the deacon’s hands (the deacon having his hands and fingers together). Then the deacon turns and opens his hands to place them around the hands of those to whom he passes the kiss of peace. So if you’re passing on the kiss of peace to another then your hands go around the outside of theirs, so you approach them hands open. If you are the one receiving the kiss of peace then your hands should be together so the person passing the peace onto you can put theirs around yours. The kiss of peace flows outward from the Holy Table.

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