Tuesday, March 21, 2006

"Greet one another with a holy kiss"

... apparently, Paul didn't just mean that metaphorically. Christianity Today interviews Michael Penn, Professor of Religion at Mt. Holyoke College, and author of "Kissing Christians: Ritual and Community in the Late Ancient Church."
Our earliest reference to the kiss is from the apostle Paul in 1 Thessalonians. He doesn't give us very many details, which suggests that it was already a well-established practice.

It's only decades later that other Christians give us more details. We discover that early Christians kissed each other in a variety of different rituals, as part of prayer, baptism, Eucharist, everyday greeting, martyrdom, and so forth. In the first two centuries, at least, not only did men kiss other men and women other women, but men and women kissed one another. And most often this was a kiss on the lips.
[snip]
So is this the root of that part of church services when …
You mean the awkward moment where you kind of shake hands?

Yes.
Yep, that's exactly what it is. Within many Protestant traditions it has been replaced by other gestures or done away with entirely. Initially that term, "the peace," as in "the passing of the peace," referred to a kiss. But as you know, kissing has dropped out of favor among 21st-century Christians, at least in the worship service.
Hmm -- this is one of the developments since the Council in modern Catholic liturgy that I quite like -t he offering of the peace (well I'm not too sure how I'd take going back to a literal kiss!). It fascinates me no end that people fulminate mightily against this (for the record, I really enjoy that blog, even if might disagree with the good Father on this one). I really don't get that. But wait -- there's more.
First, one of the things we've unfortunately inherited from the Reformation is a de-emphasis of ritual. We think of Christianity as a belief system. What does one believe? But early Christians thought it very important what one does.

When I think of my experience during a worship service, I have to admit I forget a lot of the sermon. And unless it was a really good hymn, I forget some of the words. The most powerful moments are those when I am fully participating, body and all, whether that be in the Eucharist or a baptism service, or a variety of other things. The kiss is like that—very body-centered and powerful.
Gosh! That sounds almost ... Catholic! Which is also why one can get a little distressed at the zeal of those who took the Council's reform in this, well, basically, Reformed, direction. I really need to dig up that Commonweal article on the great 20th century anthropologist (and devout Catholic) Mary Douglas' response to some of the reforms.
The amazing thing is that something like the kiss, a great symbol of love and of family, also gets used as a symbol of anti-Judaism, as a way to divide men and women, to reinforce clerical hierarchies, and to label people as heretics. I think it's important for us to recognize both sides. I don't have the answer, but I'm trying to figure out one of the most difficult challenges to modern Christianity: How do we create a strong sense of community but do so in a way that isn't exclusive?
Admirable no doubt. Especially given the "teaching of contempt" against the Jews in the past. A certainly amount of exclusivity is built into the Gospel, though, ne? Many are called but few are chosen?

Martin Marty has a great review in Christian Century as well.

[Ah here's that great article on Mary Douglas from Commonweal, back in 2001.
I first encountered Douglas's work in 1980 in a class on ritual taught by the liturgist Aidan Kavanagh, O.S.B., at Yale Divinity School. We read Douglas's Natural Symbols (1970), which expressed deep skepticism about Vatican II's reforms and took "reforming bishops and radical theologians" to task for "their doctrinal latitude, their critical dissolving of categories and attack on intellectual and administrative distinctions." Douglas argued that too many of the council's reforms were carried out with little appreciation for what makes rituals and symbols meaningful, and with even less understanding of how attitudes toward religious conformity depend on a person's social location. It was Douglas's contention, for instance, that the abolition of Friday abstinence from meat did away with a vital symbol of Catholic identity and solidarity. To those who argued that abstinence was more spiritually authentic if it was a personal decision, not a group discipline, Douglas pointed out that dispensing with such shared symbols would not make self-denying acts more likely or more intelligible, but quite the opposite.
And she isn't just another reactionary -- read this!]

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