[The Christian Century, April 13, 1994]
When my friend Marvin came for a visit, I presumed he’d join us for vespers, out of curiosity or simple politeness. To my surprise he was deeply reluctant. Marvin is a dedicated convert to a conservative branch of the Presbyterian church, and it began to dawn on me that he might actively object to Orthodoxy.
I recalled the evangelical Protestant anxiety about highly liturgical churches: once in the slippery world of symbolism, you could find yourself participating in overwrought proceedings of theological questionability. On the level plane of words—Bible memory verses and three-point sermons—you can know pretty clearly where you stand. But once a guy puts on golden robes and starts swinging incense around, things become murkier. Still, I reasoned, Vespers is the least threatening Orthodox service—just thirty-five minutes of standing together, singing prayers and scripture in harmony.
Since Marvin was my houseguest I was able to prevail, and even prodded him to stand near the front with me, though he would clearly have been more comfortable in the back, or even the parking lot. I tried to keep the service non-threatening, and refrained from crossing myself any of the dozens of times prescribed. The service was sweet reasonability itself. That is, until we hit the part I had forgotten—the kissing part.
At the end of the service my husband held up a brass cross for the people to venerate, and they lined up to do so. I whispered to Marvin that people go up and kiss the cross "if they want to." On this Saturday, everybody in the church apparently wanted to except us, so it was a little awkward.
The line to the cross led right past a stand with the icon of the feast, and most people paused to bow and kiss that as well. Quite a few went on to kiss the cross, then kiss my husband’s hand. A brief, nonchalant way of explaining all this to a Presbyterian was not springing to mind.
I was thinking that, as far as I’ve been able to observe, Presbyterians never kiss, at least not in church. Orthodox eagerness to do so probably looks obsessive—even like idolatry. For, I must admit, we kiss a lot. We kiss icons, crosses, and Gospel Books, kiss the edge of the priest’s garment and kiss his hand, kiss the chalice, and kiss each other. (Only practical concerns, I’m sure, deter us from kissing the censer.)
It reminds me of being a little girl of three or four, barefoot in my white nightgown, going around at my parents’ party to kiss all the guests goodnight. I could hear someone chortling, "She’s a regular kissing bug!" There is exuberance and generosity in the way we Orthodox scatter kisses around, cherishing the things and people that bear God to us.
St. John Chrysostom makes the charming assertion that, because we receive the holy Eucharist through our lips, our lips are most blessed, and we honor them by giving kisses. I first encountered this form of devotion a few years back at the Walters Museum in Baltimore. A selection of ancient Greek icons was on display, well-mounted and covered with protective glass. On looking closer I could see that the glass sheets over the icons were covered with many overlapping marks of kisses and lipstick.
By Western standards of painterly excellence, the icons were crude. Some of them were nearly a millenium old, the paint scarred and the wood battered and gouged. Look at this image of the Virgin Mary, silent pain radiating from her eyes; this view of the crumpled dead Jesus, head sunk on chest, titled "The King of Glory"; this dark regnant Christ, magnificent and severe, displaying in one hand his unequivocal demand that we forgive our brothers.
Viewing these icons is not like admiring a delicate Renaissance Madonna. Something in their dignity and startling immediacy demands a more personal response; Orthodox refer to icons as "windows into heaven." Of all the things a Western Christian feels in their presence, probably the last response that would occur is kissing them. But for Orthodox it is the obvious response, the only response that conveys the tenderness, gratitude, and humility that these mysteries demand.
The Walters must not have entirely approved of these intimate devotions. When they mounted an exhibition of Russian religious art a few years later, the icons were uncovered but safely back against the wall, while barriers and electronic alarms kept anyone from coming within two feet. Patrons behaved themselves accordingly, but I’m sure that many an Orthodox was, in his heart, leaning against the barriers and smacking forlornly.
How can we honor wood and paint this way? My Mennonite friend Nancy scoffs: "If Jesus is right there with you in worship, why do you need icons to remind you?" My husband laughs, "Because we need icons to remind us!" We are like the lover in the old hit song, who complains that his girl went "leaving just your picture behind/and I’ve kissed it a thousand times." It’s not the paper photo that he’s in love with, but the person it represents. But because it does represent his love, he cherishes and honors the photo, wearing it out with kisses. The holy, invisible Lord surrounds us and we grasp for his elusive presence, kneeling down awestruck with our foreheads to the floor, tasting heaven on the Eucharistic spoon, laying kisses on His image and each other and most anything else we can get hold of.
From the outside, Orthodoxy probably looks stuffy, esoteric, and rigidly ritualistic. But once inside, it turns out to be a box full of Kissing Bugs. We feel such gratitude to God for saving us, such awe at His majesty, such joy in the fellowship of the Saints, that we respond from the heart. It’ s not superstition requiring us to relinquish formal, ritual kisses. We find ourselves in our true home in the Church, astonished and overjoyed to be welcomed at this glorious feast. Like a child in a nightgown, secure in her Father’s house, we go scattering our kisses with simplicity and love.