“Holy” is an important word in the Bible, and there are many holy actions described in the Bible: Communion, prayers, and worship, to pick some of the larger ones. But there is only one act in the Bible that is called holy, and it is one we might not think of. What is it? “Greet one another with a holy kiss,” which is repeated four or five times. “Holy” is not just another way of saying “appropriate,” or rather it means “appropriate” but also something much stranger, much wilder. “Holy” means set apart to God, an element of Heaven here on earth.
The New Testament’s main word for a profound display of respect in fact means “kiss”, even if our translations hide it. Bowing and kissing have some interesting similarities throughout the Bible, and they mean something similar. Kissing has one meaning in American culture, but it has a very different set of colors in the Bible, and we are missing something of the holy kiss until we can see it as a display of profound reverence for one who is living in the life of Christ and becoming a little Christ. Is giving a kiss to an Orthodox Christian really different from kissing an icon?
The holy kiss is an opportunity to meet others in love. Do you know how someone gives you a greeting, a gift, or something and you know it isn’t fake, you know another person has put his heart into it? That’s what the holy kiss should be, and for many people here, is. Why? There was one tenth degree black belt in karate who was asked what he thought our society could learn from his martial art. He didn’t give any of the answers we find so obvious: exercise, self-defense, discipline, and the like. What he said, very emphatically, was “to bow,” at which point he stood up and gave a great, courteous, and majestic bow. Bowing was bigger to him than any of the things that draw us, and that is what the holy kiss should be. What’s the connection? Bowing and giving a kiss are never very far in the Bible, and once you understand them, you understand that they are a place where quite a lot come together. Furthermore, some of the warmest kisses I’ve received have been from bishops and other devout Orthodox Christians, and then the kisses have been worthy of that bow. How you give the holy kiss is related to your spiritual state.
The holy kiss is tied to holy communion. It is part of the eucharistic liturgy, and the Fathers draw interesting connections. St. Ambrose of Milan said, “We kiss Christ with the kiss of Communion:” we embrace Christ when we embrace each other, and yet there’s something that the holy kiss adds. The kiss is itself an image for the Eucharist: even our prayers before communion say more than that. Yet the holy kiss is not just something indirectly connected to Holy Communion. The holy kiss is an act of communion between persons, and if we pray before Communion, “Neither like Judas will I give thee a kiss,” this means not only that love must be in our reception of Holy Communion, but that we must not like Judas kiss our brethren without the love of Communion. There is difference between an embrace to someone who is Orthodox and someone who is not, because as with Holy Communion the kiss does not stand by itself: full communion makes a difference.
There are many other things one could say; the holy kiss takes different forms in different cultures and in my home parish is usually a hug. But the holy kiss is, in its way, the eighth sacrament, and is a window that opens out onto the whole of Orthodoxy. It is well worth living.