Have you ever wondered the significance of Paul’s and Peter’s call for Christians to greet one another with a “holy kiss” (philema agios; Rom 16:16; 1 Cor 16:20; 2 Cor 13:12; 1 Thess 5:26; 1 Pet 5:14)? This has been explored in detail in fascinating book, Kissing Christians: Ritual and Community in the Late Ancient Church, by Michael Philip Penn.

Penn examines in detail how the kiss idealized a sense of community, affected self-definition, and constructed and maintained boundaries within early Christian communities. Penn’s study of the role of kissing in the Greco-Roman world found that 25 percent of pagan references to kissing were in the context of the familia, a connection that clearly influenced the early Christian use of the kiss as a rite of inclusion, with all five New Testament references speaking of the kiss as a greeting.[1] While there are no non-Christian references to a widely exchanged ritual kiss, the effectiveness of using the kiss to form coalitions and generate difference was undergirded by the way kissing served to publicly perform status and social rank. For example, kissing the hand of the emperor and others in leadership positions became a gesture of submission, embodying distinctions in the social strata. It was thus unthinkable for one of higher social status to be seen publicly kissing another of lower rank.  “Who kissed whom, where, in what circumstances – these actions reflected, reinforced, and challenged the social order.”[2]

Thus, for a group of self-designated Christ-followers, to kiss one another regardless of status and rank was nothing short of unprecedented and radical. Masters kissing slaves, employers kissing employees, rich kissing poor, Jews kissing Gentiles, these were not mere empty gestures; they were signs that a new world had in fact dawned in the midst of the Greco-Roman empire, one in which the prevailing social, ethnic, and gender distinctions were in effect being overturned.

But the kiss also functioned as an important boundary marker for Christians. For example, we see in the Christian tradition the kiss linked to the baptismal event. The first clear references to a baptismal kiss come from the third-century Apostolic Tradition and Cyprian’s Epistula. According to the Apostolic Tradition, the kiss was restricted from the catechumenate (those converts preparing for baptism) since “their kiss is not yet pure” (AT 19), having not yet gone through exorcism and baptism.[3] The kiss thus had a particular role in the catechumenate, from whom the restriction of kissing “did not simply reflect their position in the church, it helped create it.”[4]

As a rite of passage, then, “the kiss functioned as a gateway, transferring a candidate from one social status to another.”[5] For early Christian communities, this gateway, placed at the end of the sanctified waters of baptism, was nothing less than a social recreation of the world.

As it turns out, sometimes a kiss is not just a kiss.

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Related podcast:

Steve Turley on Ritual, Contemporary Worship, and Donald Trump
This episode of iView is an interview with Steve Turley (Ph.D. Durham University) on several topics:  ritual and ritual theory, faith vs baptism, contemporary worship, meals, and we also touch on contemporary worship. Just for fun we also talk about Steve’s recent article on Donald Trump and why Christians like him (note the date: 2/5/2016). This discussion highlights Dr. Turley’s new book, The Ritualized Revelation of the Messianic Age: Washings and Meals in Galatians and 1 Corinthians (T&T Clark, 2015). Gregg Strawbridge and Scott Jones conduct this interview.

 

[1] Kissing Christians, 13.

[2] Kissing Christians, 15-16.

[3] According to Penn, the operative discourse here is that of late antiquity’s connection between kissing and the transference of a person’s spirit. To kiss one who had not been baptized would risk evil spirits infiltrating the larger community. See Penn, Kissing Christians, 99.

[4] Kissing Christians, 71, 99.

[5] Kissing Christians, 120.