The Holy Kiss
Last Sunday, Trinity Sunday, I preached on some very familiar words, that many Christians have said hundreds of times, 2 Corinthians 13:14:
The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all. (ESV)
But the words immediately before that aren’t so familiar- I suspect that many people are simply bemused by them:
12 Greet one another with a holy kiss. 13 All the saints greet you. (2 Corinthians 13:12-13 ESV)
What do we do about this? Are we supposed to obey it every Sunday? All scripture is God-breathed, and therefore useful (2 Timothy 3:16), so there will be lessons for us here; and in fact I think that this two verses are very helpful for us in Corona time, and during our gradual emergence from it.
So what is a “holy kiss”? Paul calls it “holy” probably to emphasize that it is not a romantic or erotic kiss; it is something pure and pleasing to God. Note that in v12 he uses the word “holy” and in v13 the word “saints”. Both words have the same root: “saints” are literally “holy ones”. The word is used in the Bible for all believers in Christ, all those who are set apart, dedicated, and acceptable to God by their union with Christ. A holy kiss is a kiss that is proper to holy people; it is part of their worship.
The worship practices of the early church were largely taken from the synagogue; the first Christians were all Jews, so this was natural. But the holy kiss was not part of synagogue worship; it was something new and unique to Christians. The great preacher of the early church, John Chrysostom (c.348-407 AD), in his sermon on this passage, gives us some idea of its significance:
“What is “holy”? Not hollow, not treacherous, like the kiss that Judas gave to Christ. For therefore is the kiss given, that it may kindle the disposition, that we may so love each other, as brothers brothers, as children parents, as parents children; yea, rather even far more. For these things are a disposition implanted by our nature, but these by spiritual grace. Thus our souls are bound to one another. And therefore when we return after an absence we kiss each other, our souls hastening into mutual interchange”.
This tells us at least partly why the first Christians would kiss one another: because it was a family greeting, the greeting that would be exchanged between close relatives. This was how they thought of themselves: as a family, indeed closer than a family, because as John Chrysostom notes the family bond was a natural bond, but the bond between Christians is a bond created by God’s grace, that binds their souls together.
So the holy kiss is an expression of the fact that Christians are a family. But Chrysostom suggest that it may be even more than that. He writes of the custom whereby when someone entered a temple, they would kiss the porch, either the doorposts or the doorstep:
“But about this holy kiss somewhat else may yet be said. To what effect? We are the temple of Christ; we kiss then the porch and entrance of the temple when we kiss each other. See ye not how many kiss even the porch of this temple, some stooping down, others grasping it with their hand, and putting their hand to their mouth”.
Chrysostom’s point is that the kiss was a sign of deep respect and reverence. When they kissed one another, the first Christians were recognizing that they were all temples where Christ dealt by the Holy Spirit. They were showing reverence and respect for one another.
So should Christians kiss one another when we meet today? Sometimes. In some cultures, where a kiss is a common greeting between people of opposite sex, or people of the same sex, it would be a very good thing to do. In other contexts, it would not. Some cultures put more value on physical space than others; and the “Me Too” movement has made us all aware of the dangers of unwanted physical contact. Some people may have good reasons for feeling uncomfortable at physical contact with someone else, and it may seem strange and off putting to a visitor to a church, (as a hug or even an handshake at the “giving of the peace” often does). At the moment, the Covid-19 crisis makes any kind of physical touch impossible. But it is good to think about how we greet one another as Christians. It should be a warm, affectionate greeting, the sort of greeting that we would exchange with members of our close family. This might be a kiss, a handshake, a hug, a bow, or a Vulcan hand salute; what we choose to do will vary according to context. But as well as warmth and affection, it needs also to express respect and reverence for someone in whom the Holy Spirit dwells. As always, God is more concerned with the intent of our hearts, than with our exact outward practice.
The kiss is important in another way as well. To kiss someone, one has to be physically present in the same place. It is a reminder that we are embodied, incarnate souls, not spirit beings trapped in a body; and our bodies matter. Which brings us to the Covid-19 crisis. For the last few months, we have been unable to meet together, physically, in the same place, as a church. Even now, as restrictions are gradually lifted, it is difficult. So we have had to resort to Zoom and Youtube, and other forms of virtual meeting. But this is not normal, and may people across the world are now reporting that they find it a great strain. Virtual meetings are better than nothing, but they are an impoverishment; a church was not meant to be like this. We need to meet together as one family in one place, and we should miss it desperately. As Chrysostom says “when we return after an absence we kiss each other, our souls hastening into mutual interchange”. At the moment, we are in an absence; it would be wonderful to think that when finally we can meet together without restrictions, we kiss each other, or whatever our equivalent is, and our souls will hasten into mutual interchange. But of course while we meet as the church militant here on earth, we are never entirely without restriction. One day though, we will stand around Christ’s throne with no restrictions caused by sin, and kiss one another in pure and holy love.
In other words, 2 Corinthians 13:12 reminds us of the importance of the local church. One cannot be a Christian on one’s own; merely sitting in front of a computer screen is a very impoverished form of Christian existence. We need to be part of a Christian family that meets together in one place. There is no possible substitute for this.
2 Corinthians 13:12 is about the local church; but the local church is never isolated (if it is, it is a sect). It is connected to something much bigger: the universal, catholic church. That is what v13 is about:
13 All the saints greet you.
On this verse, Chrysostom comments:
“By this also giving them good hopes. He has added this in the place of the kiss, knitting them together by the salutation, for the words also proceed from the same mouth from which the kiss. Seest thou how he brings them all together, both those who are widely separated in the body and those who are near, these by the kiss and these by the written message?”
Christians may be physically apart; but they are still bound together as parts of the catholic church. So a local, family church should never become insular and inward looking. We should look outwards towards other churches, pray for them, and where possible send them our love. This mustn’t be taken for granted; mutual greetings, expressions of our love bind us together. Once we understand that, then we are ready to receive the blessing of the triune God whose love binds all Christians as one:
The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.
 John Chrysostom Homilies on Second Corinthians, in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, Volume 12, page 418. This translation of Chrysostom actually says “intercourse”, but I have altered it to “interchange” to avoid misunderstanding!
 The Vulcan hand salute may be more appropriate than we realise. Leonard Nimoy, who played Spock in Star Trek, was brought up as an orthodox Jew. As a child in the synagogue, he saw the Cohanim, the priests raising their hands to bless the people, with their fingers in the shape of the Hebrew letter shin- שּ. Shin is the first letter of Shaddai, almighty, Shekinah, glory, Shalom, peace, and Shem, name. According to Nimoy, they were blessing people with the name of God.