The service is progressing smoothly so far, even when we don’t quite understand everything that’s going on. The clergy and attendants have completed the circuit around the nave in the Great Entrance, and they have placed the gifts on the altar. So far, so good.
Next the priest turns to face the gathered worshipers and says, “Let us love one another” and proclaims, “Christ is in our midst.” We respond, “He is and always shall be.”
Then—Surprise! Perfect strangers start kissing each other.
The Kiss of Peace
This part of the service can be a bit jarring for newcomers. Up until now we had been traveling together on a respectable spiritual journey, then suddenly we find ourselves in a group hug session at a rest stop among a bunch of latter-day hippies.
As parishioners exchange the greetings—“Christ is in our midst!” “He is and always shall be!”—they also exchange kisses on the cheek. It could be just one kiss, but someone of Greek descent might give you a kiss on each cheek. A Serbian will give three. (Is it right-left-right or left-right-left? Who knows?) If you’re a woman balancing in high heels, you might feel a little bit like a bobble-head doll while leaning in to grasp someone’s hand, give a kiss, and murmur the greeting without falling over.
If all this kissy-face stuff feels uncomfortable, don’t worry about it—a smile and a handshake is fine. (And not all parishes practice this; the custom varies by culture and geography.) But be aware that the kiss of peace is more than an ethnic oddity; it is a beautiful Christian tradition that has been retained in the Divine Liturgy since apostolic times.
Orthodox Christianity: Kissing Strangers for 2,000 Years
In several of his letters, St. Paul exhorted the people to “greet one another with a holy kiss” (Rom. 16:6, 1 Cor. 16:20; 2 Cor. 13:12; 1 Thess. 5:26), and St. Peter wrote about greeting with “the kiss of love” (1 Pet. 5:14).
A few decades later, St. Justin Martyr described a typical church service and noted that the kiss of peace preceded communion: “Having ended the prayers, we salute one another with a kiss. There is then brought to the president of the brethren bread and a cup of wine mixed with water” (First Apology, 65).
And a few hundred years after that, St. Augustine of Hippo (4th c.) preached these words in an Easter sermon:
When the Sacrifice is finished, we say the Lord’s Prayer, which you have received and recited. After this, the “Peace be with you” is said, and the Christians embrace one another with the holy kiss. This is a sign of peace; as the lips indicate, let peace be made in your conscience, that is, when your lips draw near to those of your brother, do not let your heart withdraw from his. Hence, these are great and powerful sacraments.
— St. Augustine, Sermon 227 (The Fathers of the Church (1959), ed. Roy Joseph Deferrari, p. 197).
I always get jazzed when I read an ancient text (translated into English, of course) and discover that we do the same thing in the Orthodox Church today, such as the priest’s blessing of “Peace be with all of you” and the laity’s response, “And with your spirit.” Maybe this excites me because I’m a total geek.
But these living traditions also speak to me because I grew up without them. One of the results of the Reformation, which Martin Luther could not have foreseen, has been the wholesale jettisoning of beautiful, meaningful, and, yes, apostolic practices because of the belief that “all we need is the Bible.” Of course, the kiss of peace is right there in the Bible, multiple times. But I digress…
Putting Jesus’ Command into Practice
The kiss of peace is also an important preparation for receiving the Eucharist. There are no throwaway niceties in the Divine Liturgy; everything has a purpose.
In Matthew 5:23-24 Jesus said,
Therefore if you bring your gift to the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar, and go your way. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.
The liturgy gives us the opportunity to put this command into practice.
The writer of the church manual the Didache (~AD 100) wrote in chapter 14, “Let no man having a dispute with his fellow join your assembly until they have been reconciled, that your sacrifice may not be defiled.” This commitment to unity and love enables us to move forward in the service as the priest or deacon says, “Let us love one another that we may with one mind confess…” and we sing together, “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: the Trinity, One in essence and undivided.”
Can we receive the Eucharist while holding grudges and unforgiveness in our hearts? Of course. But the end result is judgment, not salvation: “For he who eats and drinks in an unworthy manner eats and drinks judgment to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body” (1 Cor. 11:29).
Next the priest announces, “The doors! The doors!” and instructs the catechumens to depart. In the old days, the catechumens took an alternate route and did not complete the liturgical journey until after baptism. Because the Eucharist is no longer a secret rite as it was in the early days, some parishes omit this small section of the liturgy.
If your parish retains these words about the doors, consider it a reminder of the sanctity of the Eucharist. It is easy to take holy things for granted as just one part of our Sunday morning, which is just one part of our busy week. But these little historical artifacts in the liturgy remind us that believers have died—and continue to die—for the privilege of gathering together to partake of the Body and Blood of Christ.
Our confession of faith was hammered out at the Council of Nicaea, convened by Constantine the Great in 325. With the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the priests and bishops chose each word with care, and it has lasted to this day as the definition of the Christian Faith and a bulwark against heretical teachings. An addition at Constantinople about fifty years later affirmed the divinity of the Holy Spirit, giving the Creed the accurate but unwieldy title of the “Nicaean-Constantinopolitan Creed.” (But “Nicene Creed” will do. I’ve printed it below.)
If a candidate for baptism could not sincerely confess the Creed, he would not be baptized. Even today, in our fractured world, the Nicene Creed is the definition of Christianity for Evangelicals, Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholics, Baptists, Assemblies of God members—all professing Christians. It is a reliable and unchanging map of the historic Faith.
It is shocking how many modern Christians have never even heard of it. I vividly remember sitting around a table a few years ago with a heterodox group of Christians. Five or six of us were present, each from a different church—most of them nondenominational. I had distributed a copy of the Nicene Creed for everyone to read.
One woman in the group skimmed it quickly then said, “Well, I don’t agree with this!” I was so stunned by her flippant attitude that I didn’t think to ask which part she rejected. I was too busy wracking my brain to find a nice way to say, “Well, then, you’re a heretic.” (Sometimes silence really is the best response.)
But her ignorance is not her fault. It is the fault of so many congregations whose leaders don’t bother with catechesis and who proclaim, “The Bible is our creed,” as if its words don’t need to be interpreted.
There is “one Lord, one faith, and one baptism” (Eph. 4:5), and the Orthodox Church is very clear on what that Faith proclaims. No creative theology is allowed here. As Fr. Lawrence Farley writes, “Sharing the common faith is a prerequisite to sharing the common sacrament” (Let Us Attend! A Journey through the Orthodox Divine Liturgy, p. 68).
This conviction is out of step with the individualistic Christianity of North Americans. Many people will say, “As long as you love Jesus, everything else is details.”
However, sincerity is not the measure of acceptability—or of Truth. “By confessing the creed immediately before praying the Eucharistic anaphora,” Fr. Lawrence continues, “the Church states unequivocally that it is not acceptable to believe just anything at all, and that belief is not just a private matter.”
Before we go forward to receive the Body and Blood of Christ, it is important that we agree just who this Jesus is. Saint Paul understood this and expressed his concern that the people of Corinth could be swayed by false teachings:
But I fear, lest somehow, as the serpent deceived Eve by his craftiness, so your minds may be corrupted from the simplicity that is in Christ. For if he who comes preaches another Jesus whom we have not preached, or if you receive a different spirit which you have not received, or a different gospel which you have not accepted—you may well put up with it! (1 Cor. 11:3-4).
By including the Creed in the Divine Liturgy, the Orthodox Church bears witness to the primacy of unchanging truth.
At this point in our liturgical journey, we have committed to loving one another and to proclaiming the true Faith. In our next post, we will consider our prayers for forgiveness before we receive Holy Communion.
+ The Nicene Creed +
[The following is the official English translation used by the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America.]
I believe in one God, Father Almighty, Creator of
heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.
And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of
God, begotten of the Father before all ages;
Light of Light, true God of true God, begotten,
not created, of one essence with the Father
through Whom all things were made.
Who for us men and for our salvation
came down from heaven and was incarnate
of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and became man.
He was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate,
and suffered and was buried;
And He rose on the third day,
according to the Scriptures.
He ascended into heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father;
And He will come again with glory to judge the living
and dead. His kingdom shall have no end.
And in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the Creator of life,
Who proceeds from the Father, Who together with the
Father and the Son is worshipped and glorified, Who
spoke through the prophets.
In one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.
I confess one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
I look for the resurrection of the dead,
and the life of the age to come.