I haven’t written much blog-appropriate material lately, so here is something I wrote a while back that might be of interest. Last semester one of my students in my course on the history of Christian worship asked me about the practice of the kiss of peace. Here is what I cobbled together.

The so-called kiss of peace, or holy kiss, is mentioned several places in the New Testament (Rom 16:16, 1 Pet 5:14, 1 Cor 16:20, 2 Cor 13:12). It clearly has to do with the fellowship and mutual love shared by Christians. It seems to have been an act specific to the worship gathering of Christians and not simply a general Christian practice of daily life (like, for example, prayer). In support of this, we read in the second-century testimony of Justin Martyr that there is a kiss present within the worship of the early Christians:

“Having ended the prayers, we salute one another with a kiss. There is then brought to the president of the brethren bread and a cup of wine…” (First Apology, 65)

First, let’s deal with why there is a kiss of peace. 

1) To demonstrate and create interpersonal reconciliation and Christian unity in the worship service.

In the liturgies of the church, it is interesting to note that the kiss of peace moves around a bit.

In several liturgies of the Eastern Orthodox traditions, the kiss of peace is practiced in near proximity to the offering (“offering” not here referring to the collection of monies, but to the prayers offering to God the gifts of bread and wine for consecration). The kiss seems to have been placed there because of Jesus’ words in Matt 5:23ff regarding the reconciliation when you remember that you have something against a brother or sister while offering a gift on the altar. In the Western Rite (Roman Catholic and Anglican churches), the kiss of peace is placed directly before everyone participates in communion. Probably to underscore the importance of harmony and unity in the body before partaking in the one bread.

2) To show reverence to the image of Christ in others.

The kiss as an expression of reverence has ancient origins. The custom of kissing hands of sacred people (priests, bishops) and those with sacred authority (kings, emperors) is widespread among ancient cultures, including non-Christian cultures. Christians have kissed sacred obects and people during the worship service for centuries. In Orthodox services, people often kiss icons as an act of worship. In many churches (Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, etc.) that are more “high church” in their worship they kiss the Eucharistic table, the gospel book, and other objects during the service.

These practices are meant to demonstate reverance to Christ who is represented in the images of Table and Gospel.

Given the New Testament understanding of the Christian as a vessel of Christ (“Christ in you, the hope of glory”) and the understanding of the liturgical kiss as a “holy kiss,” we might argue that kissing one another in worship is a greeting of Christ, whom we believe is present in our brothers and sisters.

Now, let’s talk about how people have practiced the kiss of peace. 

In the ancient church, it most certainly was an actual kiss. It was not a sexual act in any way, but was an intimate, but common greeting among friends. This is still the case in many cultures (I can remember being kissed on both cheeks frequently when I was in Russia).

In the Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus (third century), he comments on the practice of actually giving a kiss in the liturgy:

“After the catechumens have finished praying, they do not give the kiss of peace, for their kiss is not yet pure. But the faithful shall greet one another with a kiss, men with men, and women with women. Men must not greet women with a kiss.”

According to the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, “Originally an actual kiss, the form of the Peace has been modified in all rites. In the Western the traditional practice was for the person giving the Peace to place hands on the shoulders of the recipient, who in turn placed his hands on the elbows of the giver, each bowing their heads toward each other, but in recent years hand-shaking has become more common outside monastic houses.” (Third Revised edition, p. 937)

So, in contemporary churches of the Western Rite, they normally practice the Kiss of Peace, or simply “Pax” or “Peace,” by hugging or shaking hands (often while saying “the peace of Christ be with you” or some such variance).

We see something of this in the intermittent practice of “meet and greet” in Evangelical and Stone-Campbell churches. In general though, this practice seems to be more like a break in the worship of the church in order to talk to friends. The traditional Kiss of Peace, on the other hand, seems to be a more sober and specifically liturgical act in the service. That is, you probably shouldn’t start up a conversation about last night’s NFL game. In the traditions that practice it, it is supposed to be a holy greeting that both symbolizes and creates unity and reconciliation in the body of Christ.