One common observation made by visitors and inquirers regarding Orthodoxy has to do with one of the main forms of respect and veneration that we practice: kissing. Whether it is an icon in the narthex, the feet of the statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the relics of the saints, or the hand of the priest, we tend to show our love, our veneration, and our respect towards holy things by kissing them. This is, indeed, an ancient practice.
In the Old Testament we read of kisses as a form of respect, as when Jacob kissed his father Isaac to secure his blessing (Gen 27:27). In the New Testament, the Lord’s feet were kissed by the penitent woman as a sign of devotion and worship (Lk 7:38); there was also the infamous kiss of Judas (Matt 26:49), an ultimate sign of betrayal and the perversion of a holy kiss for ill will. St. Paul tells us in his Epistle to “greet one another with a holy kiss” (2 Cor 13:12). In the Roman world, kissing was the most common form of salutation; one kissed on the lips family members and those of the same social rank (so common, in fact, that we find ordinances banning aristocrats from greeting one another with a kiss on the lips during times of plague), and kissed the hand, foot, or ground in front of those of a higher social standing. So then the practice of kissing as a greeting and of objects as a way to show respect is a major part of our tradition.
As time went on the practice of kissing as a greeting fell out of fashion due to the concerns of arousing inappropriate feelings, but to kiss is still how we show respect to holy things, an act of veneration and a showing of our love. We kiss the Cross on Good Friday to show our love to the Lord who sacrificed himself on that Holy Wood for our salvation. And through that act of veneration it passes through the Cross and to the Lord Himself. This is an important point: we do not worship the item or image itself, but rather He who made all things and who by His Incarnation, by His becoming flesh, sanctified all created matter. We kiss the relics of the saints because in their lives their bodies became conduits of the grace of God due to their closeness to the Lord, and after death they still retain that closeness and grant healing and strength through their relics.
So too, we kiss the priest’s hand not because he himself is worthy of it, but because the priest represents Christ to us, and acts in persona Christi, in the person of Christ, during the Mass. It is also for this reason that the priest disguises himself in vestments, so that the man may be obscured and we might see Christ the Priest and Victim instead. As Abbot Tryphon of Vashon Island Monastery eloquently wrote, “The kissing of the hand of the priest is not about the man, but rather about Christ. It is much like the kissing of an icon, which is not about the veneration of paint and wood, but about the archetype represented in the icon. When we kiss the hand of the bishop or priest, we are not showing respect to the person of the priest but to his sacred office. The priest as priest represents Christ, and is therefore a living icon of Christ. Though he be a sinner, and unworthy in and of himself of such respect, that he touches the Most Holy Things – the Precious Body and Blood of the Lord, the kiss is in actuality, extended to Christ. Through ordination he has received the Grace of God to impart spiritual gifts and blessings, so we should not deprive ourselves of blessings by refusing the priest’s blessing.”
This is why, during the Mass, the deacon, subdeacon, and servers all kiss the priest’s hand. And why, during the Kiss of Peace, the priest first receives the peace of Christ by kissing the altar, and then passing it on to the deacon, who passes it to the subdeacon, and so on. It is the peace of Christ we acquire through the priest. It is not Fr. John’s hand they are kissing, but that of our Lord Jesus. So, too, should we greet the priest by asking his blessing and upon receiving it, kiss the hand of Christ that mystically grants it through the mortal hand of His priest.
In this new year, let us then endeavor to be more aware of the ways in which God reaches out to us and provides us with his love and healing grace: through the hands of his priests, through the holy icons and statues, and through the relics of the saints.
by Sbdn. Ian Abodeely
Pastoral Assistant at St Michael’s Church