The liturgical kiss
The observance of Jesus’ resurrection is the first of all Christian feasts. Older than Christmas, the weekly celebration of the Lord’s resurrection likely influenced one of the most fundamental customs in the Mass.
The first action of the clergy upon entry into the sanctuary is to approach and kiss the altar. It would seem strange that, in the worship of Jesus, His ministers would repeat the gesture of His betrayer.
The Gospels tell us that in order to identify Him to those seeking His arrest, Judas kissed Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. It seems contradictory that a gesture of betrayal would be incorporated into the worship of the One betrayed.
The Scriptures show that the custom of kissing on the cheeks was a common gesture among relatives, friends, and foes alike. Jacob kissed his father Isaac, Aaron kissed his brother Moses, David kissed his friend Jonathan and Joab kissed Amasa before stabbing him.
As individuals united in a Covenant that extends kinship by common profession of faith, this was a gesture of communion, not of eroticism. The most solemn usage of a kiss was when it was offered as an act of submission and homage.
Samuel anointed Saul’s head to make him king and then kissed him. Jesus rebuked Simon for welcoming Him into Simon’s home with neither water for His feet nor a kiss, but the Lord praises the sinful woman for washing His feet with her tears and kissing His feet.
Jesus’ encouragement of the custom was motivation enough to continue it despite Judas abusing and misusing it, but the kissing of sacred objects seems most likely to be influenced by Sirach 29:5 where a borrower would kiss the hands of the giver. As Christians began doing “this in memory of” Jesus, they would offer their bread and wine sacrifices on raised wooden tables in the homes of fellow believers in which they clandestinely gathered.
Wood was good since the Messiah reversed the curse of the tree of Eden on the tree of the cross. Those who later gathered over the tombs of martyred Christians would use their stone sarcophagi on which to offer the Lord’s sacrifice.
It was common to kiss remnants, or relics, of the deceased and it is thought that the faithful would kiss the stone coffin of the martyr around whose tomb they gathered. By the fifth century stone became the preferred material for altars as it became viewed as prototypical of Christ Himself, the self-described “stone rejected by the builders” that has become the cornerstone.
Anointed like the “Messiah,” if the altar is Christ then kissing it makes perfect sense. He alone gives immortality and He alone changes the sacrifices offered thereon into His body and blood.
As Easter dawns we remember how Jesus busted open the stone tomb after having conquered the wood of the cross. Whether stone, or wood, a kiss given to the source of life physical and spiritual shows we stand on the other side of what motivated Judas.
Artwork: Deposition of Christ; Fra Angelico, 1437-1440