A holy kiss

Mauro Alejandro Strione / freeimages.com
Mauro Alejandro Strione / freeimages.com

One of my favorite scenes (and there are many!) in the 1987 classic, The Princess Bride, is near the beginning of the film, when the grandfather (Peter Falk) begins reading a fairy tale to his grandson (Fred Savage) who is sick in bed. He promises the boy a swashbuckling tale of adventure. But soon, Grandpa is reading about love and romance. Surprised, the grandson stops him, then eyes him suspiciously. With undisguised disdain, the boy asks the crucial question: “Is this a kissing book?”

Well, even the Bible is a kissing book.

Sort of.

As Paul concludes Second Corinthians, he includes both an instruction and an encouragement: “Greet one another with a holy kiss.  All the saints greet you” (2 Cor 13:12, NRSV).

In much of modern western culture, a kiss is a romantic act, given on the lips. But Paul is probably referring to giving a kiss of greeting on the cheek (or both cheeks). This isn’t the only place the holy kiss is mentioned. Paul had given the same instruction to the Corinthians in his earlier letter (1 Cor 16:20), and he would also say it to the Romans and Thessalonians (Rom 16:16; 1 Thess 5:26). Even Peter refers to the “kiss of love” that Christians were to give one another in greeting (1 Pet 5:14).

Paul, of course, didn’t invent the custom; see, for example, Jesus’ rebuke of Simon the Pharisee (Luke 7:45). But the practice of the early church imbued the kiss with new meaning. Following Jesus often entailed being estranged from one’s family, friends, neighbors, and culture. In such a context, the kiss of greeting signified membership in a new family.

As we’ve seen over and over, the Corinthians could be a fractious group. They needed some tangible reminder between them of their unity in Christ.

And their unity with the larger church outside Corinth. It’s no accident that Paul follows his instruction to greet one another with greetings from other Christians. Paul may be bringing greetings from a specific group like the Macedonians, which would be significant in itself, given the controversy over Paul’s financial support and the collection for Jerusalem (e.g., 2 Cor 11:7-9). But the important point is that the Corinthians, as a group of Gentiles trying to figure out what it means to follow Christ in the midst of a pagan society, are not alone.

Some have wondered whether Paul’s instruction is still binding on Christians today. Should we greet one another with a kiss? If it’s right to say that the early church had modified an existing cultural custom for theological reasons, then the answer would also depend on one’s cultural context. Thus, in America, where there is generally no kiss of greeting, the answer would probably be no. If we had anything, it would be a holy handshake or hug instead.

But we don’t want to miss the point. Paul isn’t adding a random ritual to their repertoire. This congregation needs a symbolic reminder of their unity in Christ, as well as with the whole movement of God and the gospel in other places. To be restored to wholeness, the Corinthians needed to get past the differences in the congregation and any disconnection they had with the churches in Macedonia and Jerusalem. And it might begin with learning to greet each other with the proper respect and affection.

So, man-hug, anyone?