I have had recent opportunity to consider the practice of the Kiss of Peace during the liturgy. Apparently it is seen as disruptive by some members of the Orthodox Church. I am offering (at least) two reflections, the first on its practice, the second on concerning elements which seem to underly the reasons offered to no longer allow or encourage the exchange of the Kiss by the laity as well as clergy. The Kiss of Peace is a longstanding tradition that has important meaning for our Christian practice. I offer these reflections in the hope that both laity and clergy take the opportunity to learn both the significance of the action as well as how to do it with a dignity appropriate to its meaning. As a traditional practice, both Paul and Peter tell us to greet one another with a holy kiss (Rom 16:16, 1 Peter 5:14). As a confirmation of baptism, the Apostolic Tradition (2nd century) says that once baptism is complete, the faithful and newly baptized exchange a kiss (22.6), and in the Apostolic Constitutions, the deacon exhorts the congregation to exchange the kiss as a part of the prayer of the faithful (VIII.11). This exhortation remains in our oldest liturgical tradition, the Liturgy of St. James. Justin Martyr places the Kiss of Peace as a part of the eucharistic celebration (Apology, 65), and Cyril of Jerusalem mentions it before the eucharistic prayer, where we know John Chrysostom celebrated it as well.
The Council of Laodicea codifies that the kiss is to be exchanged among clergy, and then among the laity. We don’t know when the practice of exchanging the kiss among concelebrating clergy only began, but it was likely after the 9th c. As with virtually all of our liturgical practices, there are periods when they were and were not done. Often, what is “traditional” simply depends on which period of history one is referring to.
More compelling to its continuation than its traditional practice is why we exchange the Kiss of Peace. As I was recently reminded in a sermon, we are called to become like God not in God’s essence, but in God’s actions. Turning to one another, reaching out, kissing one another’s cheeks while exchanging the traditional greeting “Christ is in our midst!” and “He is and ever shall be!” is an act which testifies that through the eucharist we are about to receive, Christ is each and every one of us. Christ does not live only in the Eucharist, nor in the communion which exists between the clergy. In baptism, we have all put on Christ (Gal 3:26-28). Christ stands in our friends, the family member that irritates us, and the complete stranger next to us. In the liturgy, ‘friend, ‘irritating family’ and ‘stranger’ are overshadowed by the love of Christ we are called to bear for one another. The communion which is entered into (in part) via the Eucharist is the communion which exists in our loving actions towards one another. The Kiss symbolizes this and it allows all of us to act in the liturgy the way we are to act in the world, as people who offer peace to one another. The Kiss of Peace is an expression of forgiveness, reconciliation and unity. It is how we are to act “for the life of the world.”
I entirely agree that the Kiss of Peace can be disruptive. It is not a time to say hello or chit-chat. It is a time to look one another in the eye, declare the presence of Christ, and seal this with a kiss. We all need to be reminded of the riches of our liturgical tradition, the meaning of the phrases and actions that we too often do by rote, completely forgetting their meaning. For those concerned about its disruptive aspects, please take the disruptions as an opportunity to teach the faithful how to practice this act of love towards one another in a dignified and respectful manner.