The above command comes at the very end of 1 Corinthians, the letter written by Paul to the church in Corinth. In a short while this practice would be widespread in the church – it came to be known as the osculum pacis, the “kiss of peace”.
While some think that the word “holy” in “holy kiss” refers to the purity that Christians need to conduct in their relationships, that’s probably too superficial a reading. The word “holy” also carries the sense of “sanctified”, or “singular” – really, really important, and special.
That’s most certainly Paul’s meaning: Christians, greet each other in a way that outwardly expresses the bond that you already share, in Christ. Something that expresses the peace that you share, because you’ve both been brought together – you who would never otherwise meet, let alone call each other “brother” – you’ve been brought together by the grace of God in Christ.
Greet each other in such a way that expresses this bond, this peace – that portrays to each other horizontally the affection that has been graciously lavished on you vertically, by God. That one brother, who is still slogging through sin, who claims Christ and yet who has so much earth clinging to him – look him in the eye, and with the eyes of faith, envision him as he will be, and then greet him, with that vision in mind.
In ancient times, and still in many cultures, this meant a kiss. Because kisses were reserved for family, for welcoming them and for departing. It acknowledged the close bonds, by the blood they shared. And Paul says, you – do that, with that brother or sister you hardly know, but with whom you share a singular, eternal bond, in the blood of Christ – greet them as if that’s true. With a holy kiss.
But not today, not here, among us. Because we are westerners, and because of COVID. And yet Paul’s command still stands. How to follow it?
I will offer some suggestions, but hear me: as you think creatively, about how to follow through on this command, what occurs to you will probably be pretty good.
It starts with our own minds. To think about the other person, through the lens of the gospel, with gospel glasses – with grace, with a vision for their future in Christ.
It then moves to the eyes. Right now, over our masks, that’s all we have – the eyes. Affection can be communicated, in just a look. But it also can be communicated through an email, a note, a phone call – just letting the other know you were thinking of them, and reminding them of who they are in Christ – and who they will be.
No lockdown can take the bonds we share. It only changes its expression.