Greet one another with a holy kiss.
Romans 16:16

When I got in the truck to head to the church this morning (which Violet refers to as “Bob’s house”), I left with the kind of smile on my face that can only come from being kissed goodbye by a loving, lovely wife and an adoring, adorable two-year-old daughter. On my way, half-listening to John MacArthur’s excellent sermon from this past Sunday again, half musing on church life in the era of Covid, and half wondering why I enjoyed those kisses so much, my mind began to dwell on the Apostle’s oft-repeated exhortation to “Greet one another with a holy kiss.”

I wonder why, when Paul could have used a couple strokes of the pen to avoid centuries of debate about baptism or church government, he (by the Spirit) considered it a better use of ink to admonish Christians in Rome, Corinth (twice), and Thessalonica to pucker up and plant a sacred smooch. Peter recommended the “kiss of love.”

We’re now four months into not being quite sure how to behave around each other. How close do we stand in line? When being introduced to a stranger, do we offer a hand? A fist? An elbow? Is it proper manners to shake a hand and then fly like a bat outta Hades to the nearest sanitizing station to perform the grown-up version of wiping off Gramma’s sloppy kisses?

And how does Paul’s exhortation fit into all this? 

First some preliminary qualifications, then some thoughts about why God instructs us to kiss (in a holy sort of way), then I’ll take a whack at the question.

1. Holy kissing is a normal thing, and normal things are for normal times. Ah, you say, these are not normal times. Indeed not. But it is not merely the virus which is abnormal. The behaviors our society has adopted in fear of it are arguably more abnormal. It’s worth pondering how deep the pool of abnormal behavior might be and how long is the swim back to the ladder before we go cannonballing into it.

2. While Paul may not have understood asymptomatic viral transmission terribly well, the Spirit who inspired those words most certainly did, and inspired them anyway.

3. The holy kiss comes with no guarantee that God will supernaturally protect kissers from contracting or spreading contagious disease. Or from feelings of repulsion when you kiss that one lady. Or from butterflies in the tummy when you kiss that other one. This needs to be figured in and figured out. Let’s just say this: when the kissing gets unholy, you’re not doing it right.

4. A good old fashioned, firm handshake can stand in the place of a holy kiss. A limp-wristed dead fish handshake can’t, but that’s another subject altogether. Hugs work too. Beneath the Spirit’s exhortation is the reality that God wired humans to engage in at least some form of physical contact when greeting. Nevertheless, I will continue to refer to the kiss because that’s what Peter and Paul spoke of, and Jesus himself was accustomed to (Luke 7:45). I really doubt we can improve on them, for many of the same reasons I doubt Chris Tomlin improves those old hymns or Peter Jackson improved The Hobbit. Mostly though, it makes us all feel awkward and uncomfortable to think about kissing each other, and I get an odd joy out of making us feel that way. 

We greet the person we’re passing on the sidewalk with a split-second of eye contact and maybe a little smile, and that’s proper. When striking up a relationship with a stranger, we greet them with extended eye contact, a smile and an outstretched hand, and that’s proper. There’s also a proper way to greet your wife after returning from battle, but it most definitely doesn’t include a single outstretched hand. If arms and lips aren’t deeply involved, you’re doing it all wrong.

We are spiritual beings, so we interact with other people on a spiritual level, but it’s not like we just stand beside each other and mystically connect spirits like a pair of Bluetooth devices. We should never think of ourselves as spiritual beings trapped in some annoying physical restraint called a body. I do think it’s a terribly misleading at funerals when people stand before the dead and say “He’s not here.” I get the sentiment, and the soul truly is departed, but if there’s not a who in that box, what, exactly, is it? Our bodies are not like cocoons we shed to become butterflies, they’re more like essential clothing without which we will be uncomfortably naked until Jesus raises them back up. Bodies matter. And bodies touching bodies matters.

Alice once said to me “No more kisses, daddy!” But how could I not hold her hand everywhere we walked, set her on my lap when we watched the Stooges, or kiss her cheeks at any opportunity? And after she died, would it even be possible that our friends, in those hours of deepest sorrow, not closely embrace us or we them? It’s almost unthinkable.

Refusing to touch each other matters, for various reasons. I have seen a man stick out his hand and another refuse to take it in an aggressive act of open hostility. Not cool. An unconscious neglect to greet with a kiss may reveal that one doesn’t really love the other, as Jesus indicated when shaming Simon just a titch for his kissless greeting. Imagine – he had the opportunity to embrace Jesus, and just blew it off. 

Of course there are good reasons not to kiss, because as with all powerful things like kisses, they may potentially do more harm than good. In ancient Israel lepers had to move out of camp, let their hair go crazy, and greet everyone from a distance with a warning cry, “Unclean!” And… He shall live alone (Lev 13:45-46). Rough.

Sometimes a friend will refuse my hand because he has a cold or the flu, so we forego our typical embrace for the day. But it still feels weird to not make some kind of contact, and sometimes I think I’d rather risk getting sick. And if Michele says I oughtn’t kiss her because she’s got a cold, well, to hell with the cold. Sniffles are a small price to pay for a kiss!

God seems to like making many of the things we have to do quite enjoyable, and that’s pretty kind of him. Eating is both required for survival and a jolly good time. So is sex. And raising children. Even work, especially if it was without thorns, thistles, and sweaty brows, is really satisfying. Holy hugging and kissing fits in here too. We need to do it, but we also want to. Ultimate combo.

Several weeks ago I went to visit a most beloved and lovely nonagenarian friend in her apartment. At her direction I retrieved some cake and a bowl of strawberries from the fridge, poured a couple cups of coffee, and sat down at the table beside her. She asked me to bless our little meal, then reached out her hand and said, “I know I’m not supposed to do this, but I don’t care.” I joyfully grasped her hand, we bowed our heads and gave thanks, then ate and drank and laughed merrily in the presence of the Lord.

And we didn’t die.

How should we do holy kisses in the age of Covid? My aim in the preceding paragraphs has not primarily been to encourage indiscriminate holy kissing, but to remind us all that the sacred smooch is a normal, valuable, even essential physical and spiritual commodity, and we should think carefully about the cost of laying it aside for too long. 

The old saying goes “nothing ventured, nothing gained.” Holy kissing is a venture, and comes with risk. Joab feigned a kiss to kill his cousin and rival Amasa (2 Sam 20:9), and the most famous kiss in the Bible was also intended to kill. We symbolically and literally make ourselves vulnerable when we embrace in a physical way. There’s a dropping of the guard, opening a door in our bubble. 

And there’s a reason even back in the 1600’s Matthew Poole felt the need to mention this concerning holy kissing: “The apostle requireth, that in these salutations they should have chaste and holy thoughts.” Indeed. Keep tongue in mouth and heart in chest when holy kissing, or once again, you’re doing it all wrong. Add to these the possibility to contracting various infectious diseases, and who knows what else, and that’s what’s ventured, and God knew all along it could be a dangerous affair.

But there is something to be gained, or God wouldn’t have asked us to do it. There’s a reason politicians ‘press the flesh’ and kiss the babies, right? They know we’re more likely to vote for someone we’ve touched and who touches us. Watch any professional athlete walk near the stands, or the President walking in to give the State of the Union, and you see hundreds of hands stretched out, just trying to get a touch. The same phenomenon seemed to surround Jesus, and that doesn’t surprise us.

I doubt we are consciously aware of how important touching each other is. We know scientifically that touch between mother and baby or husband and wife creates not only an emotional bond, but a chemical and hormonal one. So when Christians touch they not only express their spiritual bonds in Christ, but while worshiping Christ create physical bonds between them through the practice of holy kissing. No doubt this is at least partly why Paul twice exhorted the Corinthian congregation, which was coming apart at the seams and needed some being bound together: “Greet one another with a holy kiss.”

Holy kissing doesn’t solve all problems, and in a pandemic it may create new ones. But… let’s not overestimate the venture and certainly not underestimate the gain.

Here’s how I’m processing holy kissing these days, holding this standard up for no one but myself: I assume covid innocence. I assume anyone who grabs my beard and pulls me in for a kiss isn’t trying to Joab me with a coronavirus, and that our embrace will give life, not take it away. I can’t justify treating my brothers and sisters as covid-guilty until proven innocent. I know there’s the asymptomatic thing to consider, just as I know there’s conflicting data about how that transmission works or doesn’t. In any case, there’s always been a small chance the embrace will turn out to be harmful in some way, and even a really, really small chance it will be deadly.

But holy kisses are spiritual medicine for the soul and the church. God doesn’t prescribe the sacred pucker-up just to make us feel weird; he does so because he knows what’s best for us, and under normal circumstances, what’s best for us is to be in each other’s presence and physically embrace one another before the Lord. Those who can, should, and with a merry heart. Those who won’t embrace need to start embracing, those who for whatever reason can’t should rejoice with those who can, never forgetting the “good old days” and longing for their return.

These things I remember,
as I pour out my soul:
how I would go with the throng
and lead them in procession to the house of God
with glad shouts and songs of praise,
a multitude keeping festival.
Psalm 42:4


top image:
Farewell of Saints Peter and Paul, showing the Apostles giving each other the holy kiss before their martyrdom.
(Alonzo Rodriguez, 16th century, Museo Regionale di Messina).
from wikipedia