Kiss of Peace, Part 2

Kiss of Peace, Part 2

Published: Feb 4, 2011 by Maria Gwyn McDowell

In my previous post, I briefly noted the history of the Kiss of Peace, its often disruptive quality when misunderstood and poorly practiced, and the importance of teaching us to practice the Kiss of Peace a respectful manner.  Here, I would like to address my concerns regarding the reasoning offered by two advocates of ending the practice, a currently practicing priest and an active Metropolitan.  Please note that I do not know the context in which these reasons were offered, they were brought to my attention in isolation of any other comments.

The priest writes, “we can still witness this act being done when more than one Priest is celebrating the Divine Liturgy. The Church, however, ceased having the faithful express this act since it became disruptive. In addition, there were some who began to abuse this act with inappropriate behavior. In recent times, some parishes have tried to “reinstitute” this act by having the people shake hands. This is not the same practice that had originally been taught in the Church and is a recent innovation that is inappropriate!”

The Metropolitan instructs that “the kiss of peace is a practice that is reserved for the clergy concelebrating at the Holy Altar, and indicates the brotherly love that we should have for one another in the priesthood in Christ. Although at one tie in the early Church it was done by both the laity and clergy, it fell out of practice because of abuse.  If practiced today, it not only usurps a rubric currently reserved for the clergy, but when I have seen it done it is highly disruptive, causing people to think they can greet each other socially as they do at the fellowship hour.  It also interrupts the solemnity f the Liturgy of the Faithful, which flows in an uninterrupted and dignified manner. Social activities belong in a social hour; at the Divine Liturgy we are called to a much more reverent and attentive behavior.  At the very most, in parishes where this has been previously practiced, the faithful could simply say to those next to them, ‘Christ is in our midst,’ in a low and reverent manner.”

It is notable that neither clergyman mentions the liturgical or spiritual benefit which was seen as important for almost a thousand years of liturgical practice. Rather, they emphasize the disruptive nature of the practice and its abusive misuse.  I have practiced the Kiss of Peace for most of my life. I have never witnessed it being abusive, and I have rarely experienced it as disruptive.  I do not deny that it has been abusive, even if I have not experienced it as such.  The question is, however, whether stopping the practice (or refusing to reinstitute it) is the appropriate response to abuse or disruption?  If the act had no value, if it has nothing to teach us about our Christian lives, then asking people to stop is entirely reasonable.  

But what if it does have value? There is a reason that the practice lasted for as long as it did among both clergy and laity, and a reason that it has never completely died out. And there is a reason for the frequent calls by theologians and clergy that the practiced be re-instituted as widely as possible. The quotes above make no mention of these reasons, instead choosing to focus on only the negative elements.

What I find disturbing is that both men appear to take the easy way out.  When confronted with a practice which has lost its meaning and appropriate expression, rather than offer instruction, they simply forbid it. Telling people to stop is easy.  Appealing to ‘tradition,’ though in this case, a more recent tradition than its original, fully-shared practice, is easy. It is much harder to say to people, “how you are doing it is a problem, we need to relearn this practice,” and then walk with them over time through the process of creating ‘new,’ worshipful habits.

This unwillingness to challenge and teach often masks a poor view of the people of God. Are we not able to learn? Are we not able to hear that we are doing something disruptive and there is a better way to do it? I am often struck when I teach at the eagerness with which people want to learn, be challenged, grow and change. If we do not expect that people can learn and be challenged, then they will meet our expectations and refuse to learn.  But if we expect that they can learn and grow, more often than not, they do. It may be slow and halting, but they grow.

This view of the laity as somehow lesser also seems to be reflected in the implication that witnessing the Kiss of Peace exchanged between concelebrating clergy alone is sufficient.  This portrays the laity not as participants, but merely witnesses to the sacred acts of the clergy.  This is a very common attitude among Orthodox, an attitude which is encouraged by portraying lay participation as a sort of ‘usurping’ of clergy privileges.  Many of these ‘privileges’ were shared among clergy and laity for hundreds of years.  What is lost in this view is the reality of our common baptism, our common call to be priests, royalty and prophets, and the importance of the liturgy in forming us as persons who love God and neighbor.  Met. Kallistos Ware, speaking at the 2008 Metropolis of San Francisco Clergy-Laity conference, emphasized the importance of restoring a number of ancient practices, among them the shared Kiss of Peace, precisely because these practices are a liturgical help in becoming persons who are in the likeness of God.  We do not learn by watching, we learn by doing (…).

The Metropolitan is right, the liturgy is a place of reverence, and social niceties belong at the coffee hour.  The priest is also right, ‘reinstituting’ the kiss of peace in the form of shaking hands is indeed a recent, and inappropriate, innovation.  Yet by characterizing the Kiss of Peace as only disruptive, they lose the opportunity to teach it as a reverent act of witnessing to the Peace of Christ which is given to each and every one of us, and to which we are also called to live out in our daily lives.

I have engaged in the Kiss of Peace my whole life.  At times, it has been disruptive.  My response in those moments is to simply offer the kiss as I was taught as a child, and return to the prayers while allowing those around me to finish their greetings.  Over my many years, I have heard many reminders of how to better engage in the practice.  I have never been told that it should cease.  The few liturgies I have attended in which the Kiss was not exchanged always leave me with a sense of loss.  A lost opportunity to acknowledge the presence of Christ in our midst (whether we feel it or not), a lost reminder of the peace to which we are called.  I welcome the disruption if it means the opportunity to engage in this ancient practice.