The Kiss of Peace
Bill Long 4/13/06
The History of A Biblical Greeting
I got diverted onto this path through my study of the word osculate, but let's follow the path a little longer. We learned in the previous essay that by the time of the Middle Ages (13th century) the pax, a tablet kissed by the officiating priest in the Mass, had been substituted in the liturgy instead of the kiss of peace. Let's trace some of the earlier history of that kiss.
The Kiss of Peace in the New Testament
Many historians of liturgy take Paul's and Peter's exhortations in the NT to greet one another with this kiss as a holdover, or reflection, of a similar custom in Roman society. As this web site says: "According to Joseph Jungman, the famous Jesuit historian of liturgy, this was the Christian appropriation of a secular practice when a kiss was the sign of initiation into a fraternithy or society." There are four references to the practice in the New Testament, with Paul using the phrase three times. In Rom. 16:16, he says: "Greet one another with a holy kiss" (en philemati hagio). Paul says the same in II Cor 13:12--"Greet one another with a holy kiss," in I Cor. 16:20, and I Thess. 5:26--"Greet all the brothers and sisters with a holy kiss." The word is absent from the end of Galatians, a letter in which the church to which Paul is writing are in considerable turmoil. Thus, we can probably conclude that for him it was a sign of reconciliation and harmony, a token not simply of a greeting to one another but of deep communion or connection between members of the body of Christ. The only other New Testament reference to this kind of kiss appears in I Pet. 5:14--"Greet one another with a kiss of love."
We know less about this kiss than we would like to know. Was it supposed to be given in a worship context? Was it simply a sort of formalism with no deep meaning--something like we must say, "Say 'hi' to my friends for me." Or, as Paul's usage suggests, was it a greeting of deep meaning that the Christians were supposed to give to each other? Did you greet members of the opposite sex with such a kiss? Was it long or short? On the lips or the cheek?
Incorporating the Kiss of Peace into Worship
As Professor Reese shows, the first use of the kiss in the Eucharistic liturgy goes back to the 2nd century. In a remarkably rich and instructive passage Justin Martyr (ca. 165) describes the nature of Christian worship as he knew it:
"On the day we call the day of the sun, all who dwell in the city or country gather in the same place. The memoirs of the apostles and the writings of the prophets are read, as much as time permits. When the reader has finished, he who presides over those gathered admonishes and challenges them to imitate these beautiful things. Then we all rise together and offer prayers for ourselves . . .and for all others, wherever they may be, so that we may be found righteous by our life and actions, and faithful to the commandments, so as to obtain eternal salvation. When the prayers are concluded we exchange the kiss. Then someone brings bread and a cup of water and wine mixed together to him who presides over the brethren. He takes them and offers praise and glory to the Father of the universe, through the name of the Son and of the Holy Spirit and for a considerable time he gives thanks (in Greek: eucharistain) that we have been judged worthy of these gifts. When he has concluded the prayers and thanksgivings, all present give voice to an acclamation by saying: 'Amen.' When he who presides has given thanks and the people have responded, those whom we call deacons give to those present the "eucharisted" bread, wine and water and take them to those who are absent" (First) Apology, ch. 67.
Notice the "flow" of the early Christian worship only a few generations after the Apostles. It consists of: (1) Sunday worship; (2) Readings from the "memoirs" (apomneumoneumata) of the Apostles. These would be some version of the Gospels, but it is uncertain whether only four were used in Justin's Church at that time; (3) A presider (no mention is made of whether it is a "professional" clergyman who exhorts people to "go and do likewise);" (4) Prayers intercessory and personal; (5) the kiss; (6) the Eucharistic celebration. Thus, as early as a century after the composition of the Gospels, and slightly more than a century after Paul's epistles, the kiss was incorporated into the service between the reading/exhortation/prayers and the Eucharist. As such it occupied a liminal or, to use the word that got me going on all these studies, an inosculating or anastomosing position in the worship. It became the connecting link between the two large sections of worship, a kind of tube through which one passes from the more instructional and intercessory to the devotional and intimate.
I don't know enough to be able to document the problems that may have crept into Christian morals through the incorporation of the kiss of peace into worship. One source says that the "Germans" corrupted the practice by transforming it into a little "peck" on the cheek; others hint at the problems that some husbands had when their wives would engage in the "holy kiss." I think a desideratum would be a social history of the holy kiss. In any case, one could understand how the intimacy suggested by certain kind of kissing would be replaced by more formal indications of fellowship--such as the kissing of the osculatory, the handshake, the hug, etc. Would American Churches be well served if the kiss of peace was restored in our liturgy? Not on your life. Sex is a topic so confused and confusing in this culture that we probably need fairly rigid boundaries between people in public ceremonies, especially if people are strangers to each other. However, the existence of such a kiss at one time in the Church's history acts as a powerful reminder that the redeemed community ought to strive for that kind of interpersonal intimacy which affirms, embraces, and even kisses.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long