Sunday, November 14, 2021

The Holy Kiss and the Social Distance

A few years ago over lunch, a friend pointed out to me that the holy kiss is not merely a passing reference to an ancient custom in the Bible’s historical narrative; rather, it’s a New Testament commandment given by two different apostolic writers not once, not twice, but FIVE TIMES. It was obviously important to both Peter and Paul, the Jachin and Boaz of the early church.

As such, we would be unwise to ignore it or handwave it away. The holy kiss should never be “kissed off”. At least, I’m uncomfortable doing that.

Reassessing the Holy Kiss

I’ve been reassessing the holy kiss ever since that conversation. My studies on the subject produced this post in 2016, at the end of which I concluded, “Paul and Peter are not commanding that all Christians kiss, but stressing that this common custom ought to be practiced in a uniquely Christian way. I am inclined to view the holy kiss as unnecessary for believers today to practice literally, though we ought to be mindful of greeting our fellow believers without discrimination or other false motives, recognizing the uniqueness and preciousness of Christian fellowship.”

That wasn’t too bad considering the information I was working with at the time. Recently, however, another study has produced even more support for my initial conclusions than I was able to dig up back in 2016. It invigorated my thoughts about the holy kiss and how we might better apply the principles it embodies in our modern, Westernized Christian context.

A Quick Refresher

So here’s a quick refresher on the kiss of greeting. If you are unfamiliar with the concept, have a look at this post first. For the sake of space, I will not be revisiting all the various scriptures about the kiss of love here, but simply providing a quick summary.

The ordinary Judean first century kiss of greeting signified affection (see Strong’s definition II. A.) and respect. It identified you with the person you embraced in a special way. It said, “This is my guy.” So Judas kissed the Lord Jesus, but not the other disciples. He was marking Jesus out uniquely for the soldiers. Had he been obligated by custom to kiss everyone present, there would have been no indication who should be arrested. Likewise, Simon the Pharisee would not kiss the Lord Jesus, though he was certainly happy to have him in his home for dinner. He was comfortable hearing what Jesus had to say and critically assessing it for himself, but to kiss the Lord would have been far too intimate; it would have been to invite criticism from his fellow Pharisees that he had become the Lord’s disciple. It would have implied agreement with the Lord’s teaching and fellowship in his agenda.

Gentile Kisses

But the kiss of greeting was not merely a Jewish custom. It was common throughout the Gentile world of the day, though with slightly different nuances from culture to culture. For example, Herodotus wrote:

“When one [Persian] man meets another on the road, it is easy to see if the two are equals; for, if they are, they kiss each other on the lips without speaking; if the difference in rank is small, the cheek is kissed; if it is great, the humbler bows and does obeisance to the other.”

So Paul was able to write about a kiss of greeting to Jewish and Gentile Christians in Rome, Corinthians and Thessalonica without wordy explanations. Peter wrote about the “kiss of love” to the “elect exiles of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia” without disclaimers and qualifiers. This is because neither man was introducing a foreign custom to his readers. It was the “holy” part that distinguished the Christian greeting. It was the “love” modifier that set this kiss apart.

The Holy Kiss Distinguished

Now, the differences in delivery technique between a first century garden-variety kiss of greeting and this new type of kiss are not immediately obvious to modern readers of scripture. Since there are no commands to discontinue ordinary kisses of greeting, my guess would be that there was some way in which onlookers might distinguish them. In any case, the “holy” version of a greeting kiss was not the ordinary, middle-eastern kiss of the ancients, but a custom unique to believers. It took the ordinary, middle-eastern kiss common in the first century and turned it into a distinctively Christian custom.

The word “holy” does not merely imply that the kiss was to be uniquely chaste and modest. The ordinary kiss was already chaste and modest; there was nothing remotely sexual about it. How could there be, if it were common between men of rank in the armies of Persia? Rather, the word “holy” implies that the kiss was uniquely a sign of Christian fraternity. It was the mark of saints, or “holy ones” — the Greek term is identical. This is why Paul insists Christians are to greet all the brothers with a holy kiss. Leaving any believer out would not do.

The holy kiss told the world there was a bond between you and the person you greeted that transcended race, culture, social caste, theological differences, and every other distinction that might otherwise be made between believers. Its impact was obviously greatest not in the church but in the marketplace or on the street, where the difference between this and an ordinary kiss of greeting became obvious not because of some new delivery technique but because, properly practiced, the holy kiss made none of the ordinary, day-to-day social distinctions in choosing its recipients.

Imagine the testimony as the rich Christian gets off his mule and leaves behind his retinue to embrace a believing slave in rags, or as the Jewish believer crosses the street to greet his Gentile brother in Christ in front of his appalled unbelieving associates. The evidentiary power of such unlikely declarations of fraternity cannot be overstated.

An Outward Sign of Spiritual Unity

Perhaps this is why the command to greet one another with a holy kiss is so frequently repeated. Centuries of acculturated resistance needed to be overcome, especially in the case of Jewish believers greeting Gentiles. And yet that was precisely what they were to do, making no distinctions.

This is the sort of behavior Peter and Paul are urging on Christians: to publicly identify with their brothers in Christ even if doing so shocks pagan sensibilities; to refuse to recognize worldly differences; to make the profession of faith in Christ your governing metric for public displays of love and respect.

The holy kiss was a bold, outward sign of the sort of internal, spiritual unity Paul calls for in 1 Corinthians 1 and 3 and in Romans 16, and that Peter appeals for in his first epistle. It was a bold rejection of the partiality deplored by James and lambasted by Paul.

It’s almost as if the difference between believer and unbeliever is so stark as to be comparable to the difference between light and darkness or between Christ and Belial, and the differences between the richest and poorest, most powerful and weakest, most respected and most maligned believers are to be considered nothing at all ... which is exactly the case.

A New Kind of Division

Now, none of this is to say that we are in pressing need of bringing back an ancient, long-lost custom, though some groups of Christians do practice the holy kiss. Nevertheless, even if we do not, surely the spirit of the holy kiss should be present in all our dealings. We should always be ready to identify ourselves to the world by showing love, respect and preference to those who belong to Christ in whatever lavish, public ways may be most suited to our own culture, and to go beyond that as well.

I spent an evening with unvaccinated Christian friends recently. The wife recounted some of the venomous things written on Facebook about unvaccinated Christians by their fellow believers, mostly women. The husband recounted a story about calling a deacon to find out the latest protocols for gathering in their local church, and being told that unvaccinated church members are welcome to log into Zoom for the meetings; gathering in person is only for the vaccinated.

Doesn’t sound much like the spirit of the holy kiss to me.

Now, as it turns out the deacon was misinformed, but evidently it would not have troubled him to have found out the members of his local church were now being segregated on the basis of vaccination status. To be honest, that kind of shocks me.

If a public kiss (or its modern equivalent) is to be our mark of identification with Christ and with each other then, forced to choose, I would rather bear-hug any Christian, vaccinated or unvaccinated, than even shake hands with an unbeliever. We have something between us that nothing on earth can touch, and we should never forget it. If we are going to squabble amongst ourselves, we need to work it out in-house, not on social media.

Phrases like “no divisions among you” do not accommodate health-based exceptions.

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