The origins of kissing are uncertain. Some argue that it is simply instinctive; others that it originates from so-called ‘kiss feeding’ when mothers feed their infants by passing chewed food to their babies’ mouths. F.Scott Fitzgerald reckoned the kiss originated when the first male reptile licked the first female, reminding her that she was as succulent as the small reptile he had for dinner the night before!
Kissing is often on the lips, but not necessarily so. It can be a simple ‘peck’ on the cheek – indeed, it can be just a kissing in the air near the cheek, with the cheeks touching or not. Or of course, it could be a formal kiss on the hand! Kissing can be brief – or it can be long and drawn out (particularly when it involves so-called ‘French’ kissing). According to the Guinness Book of Records the longest kiss occurred on 14 February 2013 when Thai couple kissed for 58 hours 35 minutes and 58 seconds!
Interestingly the earliest known reference to kissing is to be found in the Song of Songs, which begins with these words: “Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth! For your love is better than wine” (1.2). According to one philematologist (one who studies kissing!) the love kiss “rich in promise, bestows an intoxicating feeling of infinite happiness, courage, and youth, and therefore surpasses all other earthly joys in sublimity… Even the highest work of art…. is nothing in comparison with the passionate kiss of a woman one loves” (Kristoffer Nyrop).
However, a kiss is not just a means of expressing romantic and sexual love – it can express affection between family and friends; in ancient times as also in medieval Europe it often showed respect and honour. Over the centuries kissing has been a means of ‘making-up’ – the ancient Jewish Philosopher, Philo, refers to the ‘kiss of harmony’ – or what we might call the ‘kiss of peace’.
This is the context in which the Apostle Paul encouraged his readers to “greet one another with a holy kiss” (Rom 16.16; 1 Cor 16.20; 2 Cor 13.23; 1 Thess 5.26; see also 1 Pet 5.14). The question arises as to how we put this injunction into practice? Kissing was clearly an acceptable practice in the churches of the New Testament, but the reality is that British culture is different to the culture of Pau’s day. In our culture, outside the family, kissing as a form of affection has tended to occur only between women – but that is changing. In many circles it is quite customary for men and women to offer reciprocal kisses on the cheek as a greeting or as a farewell – sometimes on one cheek, and sometimes on two. But such social kissing has yet to become the norm in church! Rather in church shaking hands is the more common form of greeting – indeed, as people enter church they can often have to run a gauntlet of handshakes.
In the 2nd century a distinctive element of the Christian liturgy was ‘the kiss of peace’. This, however, was not so much a greeting, but rather ‘the sign that our souls are united, and that we banish all remembrance of injury’ (Saint Cyril). However, in modern liturgies the kiss of peace has tended become a handshake. When the congregation is encouraged to offer one another “a sign of peace”, people turn to one another and normally offer a handshake with the words ‘The peace of the Lord be always with you’, with the response ‘and also with you’. Often a very noisy and sociable affair, for non church-goers it can seems very strange.
Eugene Peterson in his paraphrase The Message declares ‘Holy embraces all round’ – and in today’s culture that can seem much more natural . In some Christian circles embracing – or hugging – has become very popular between men. It has become almost a conventional form of greeting.
At the end of the day how we greet one another is immaterial, provided that we do show affection to one another in some kind of tangible manner. True we have to ensure that certain proprieties are observed – there is kissing and kissing, hugging and hugging, touching and touching. It is not for nothing that Paul talked of ‘holy kisses’. But holiness does not rule out physical displays of loving affection!