The Holy Kiss

Yesterday, the Pope announced that an ‘investigation’ is underway into ‘the possibility of moving the sign of peace to another place, such as before the presentation of the gifts at the altar.’

This ‘investigation’ had been asked for by the Synod of Bishops, and Cardinal Ratzinger had made the same suggestion a dozen or so years earlier in his book Spirit of the Liturgy, basing his suggestion, as he does in Sacramentum Caritatis, on the Lord’s command : ‘leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.’ (Matt 5:24)

In the eastern rites,  the Kiss of Peace is generally exchanged slightly later than the Pope has suggested, after the bread and wine have been brought to the altar but before the canon has begun.

In the early Church, the ‘Holy Kiss’ existed not just as part of the liturgy but as something which permeated the Christian life. For example, the contemporary account of the martyrdom of Saints Perpetua and Felicity recalls that they and their companions, at the last moment possible, embraced each other with a kiss ‘that they might accomplish their martyrdom with the rites of peace.’

Thus it was important to them not so much as an expression of reconciliation between each other, but more as an expression of the peace of Jesus Christ, ‘a peace the World cannot give’ (Jn 14:27).  But what does it mean to have a peace the world cannot give? For the Early Church, the Peace of Jesus Christ is expressed in the loving unity of the christian community. Thus St Augustine says:  ‘Peace He leaves with us, that here also we may love one another: His own peace He gives us, where we shall be beyond the possibility of dissension.’

This is not an early example of what is referred to as ‘horizontalism’ or ‘man-centred liturgy’ – for they carried ‘this treasure in earthen vessels, to show that the transcendent power belongs to God and not to us’ (2 cor 4:7) It is this ‘transcendent power’, above anything else, which bewildered and infuriated their persecutors. Hence Tertullian says: ‘But it is mainly the deeds of a love so noble that lead many to put a brand upon us. “See”, they say, “how they love one another”, for they themselves are animated by mutual hatred; “see how they are ready even to die for one another”, for they themselves will sooner put to death.’

The first specifically liturgical reference to the Kiss of Peace is from the Apology of St Justin Martyr halfway through the second century. After the liturgy of the word ‘we salute one another with a kiss, whereupon there is brought to the president bread and a cup of wine’. Significantly, Josef Jungmann explains that the kiss does not precede the Liturgy of the Eucharist so much as it concludes the Liturgy of the Word. The two were, perhaps, seperate celebrations originally, and it may have been the joining together of the two liturgies which led to the practice of delaying the Kiss of Peace until after the anaphora.

This makes  sense: whereas originally the community would ratify the intercessions which closed the Liturgy of the Word (our modern day Prayers of the Faithful) by exchanging the Kiss, sign of the fraternal communion which binds them together as the body of Christ,  now their kiss expressed not only their unity in these intercessions but also their unity in the greatest prayer of the Christian Church, the prayer, in fact, through which this unity was built.

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