During my pre-Orthodox days when I was an Anglican priest, one of the most popular services for the devout was the so-called “8 am service”—a much-shortened Communion service offered without hymns, without sermon—and usually without many people. Those who favored it said they liked the service because it was short and quiet and one could “make one’s own Communion” without the necessity of meeting other worshippers. It allowed them their own quiet devotional time with the Lord, without all the fuss and bother of other people.
This desire to avoid others at church and reduce worship to a private act is deeply ingrained in the fallen human heart, which instinctively builds walls to keep the other out. It found a peculiarly American expression in the institution of “drive-in churches” where a family drove into a church parking lot and remained isolated in their cars for the duration of the service. (I’m not making this up.) According a description in a 1967 edition of Time magazine, “Many worshipers are attracted by the lack of usual Sunday formality, and show up in everything from bathing suits to pajamas…Ushers distribute printed hymns as the cars roll in, help plug in speakers, take car-to-car collections during the service or request worshipers to place donations in a bin on the way out. Some drive-ins also pass out car-to-car wafers and grape juice for Communion…Some pastors try to talk briefly with churchgoers as they roll out through the gates; (one pastor) even encourages his mobile congregation to greet visiting preachers with ‘a gentle, dignified horn toot.’”
What is lacking in all this, whether it be the venerable Anglican institution of the 8 am service or the tragi-comic fad of the drive-in church, is the recognition that Christian liturgy is a corporate act, something done by a united body of people, the royal priesthood of the church (see 1 Peter 2:9), and not by private individuals who regard the presence of others at worship as an unfortunate but necessary distraction.
This corporate understanding of Christian worship is at the foundation of the apostolic practice of exchanging the Kiss of Peace, (or “the holy kiss” as they called it; 1 Cor. 16:20). From the days of the apostles, “at every Christian synaxis (or gathering)”, the faithful exchanged the Kiss, sealing all their intercessions with the sign of unity. The original place for the Kiss was “immediately after the prayers at the conclusion of the Liturgy of the Word, for its pristine purpose was to conclude the synaxis of readings and prayers…It was the symbol of fraternal love that sealed the Christian service” (Robert Taft, The Great Entrance, pp. 375, 376).
How did this work? In the earliest times, it would seem that the Kiss was given indiscriminately, between all Christians regardless of gender, and on the lips. (We recall how this was the way St. Mary of Egypt gave the Kiss to Zosimas before receiving Holy Communion.) In the earliest days when the Church was persecuted by the pagan state, the group assembling for the synaxis was a small intimate one which knew one another well, and such mixing of gender was not much of a problem. Later, and especially after the Peace of the Church under Constantine, the numbers grew dramatically, and propriety demanded a separation of genders, with the men standing on one side and the women and children on the other. But even then the Peace was still exchanged and given on the lips, with the men greeting the men standing immediately around them and the women doing likewise with the women around them.
This state of affairs continued even to the 10th century. But by the 11th century, the Kiss began to be exchanged only by those in the altar, and a 13th century Georgian version of Chrysostom’s Liturgy prescribes that the priest, when serving alone without other clergy, simply omit the Kiss entirely, since there was no one else in the altar with whom he could exchange it (Taft, op.cit., p. 395).
In many Orthodox places today, the Kiss is now being restored (though not without the same controversy that once attended the restoration of more frequent Communion). Its restoration need not disrupt the service, nor degenerate into a kind of warm and fuzzy hugfest. At my own parish of St. Herman’s in Langley, B.C., the faithful simply turn to those on either side and exchange a greeting, saying, “Christ is in our midst!”, with the response, “He is and shall be!” I actually timed it once; it took 10 seconds.
But importance can’t be measured with a clock (after all, how long does it take to receive Holy Communion?) For the exchange of the Kiss of Peace, when simply and reverently done, does something to a congregation. It knocks down the walls mentioned at the beginning of this article, knits people together into a family, breaking the barriers which sin erects between brothers, preparing all to stand together as one body before the Holy Chalice.
By restoring the Peace, we are, after all, simply obeying and fulfilling what is already in our own Liturgy (to say nothing of obeying the ancient injunction of the apostles): each Liturgy the deacon stands and cries out, “Let us love one another!” He is not simply telling us to have a loving attitude; he is directing us to exchange the Peace, and the proof of this is that this is exactly what concelebrating clergy still do in response. (Watch them the next time the bishop visits.) I suggest that we should take our Liturgy more seriously and try doing what it tells us.
The importance of this exchange of the Peace may be seen in what we laity are given to say in response to the deacon’s directive. We leap in with enthusiasm and finish his sentence for him—he says, “Let us love another that with one mind we may confess…”, and we join in “…Father, Son and Holy Spirit, the Trinity one in essence and undivided!” In other words, it is only after uniting our hearts in love that we can truly confess the Orthodox Faith. Faith without love is not true faith, but mere cerebral gameplaying. A true confession of faith can only come from a heart touched by the love of God and united in that love to our brethren. Thus only after exchanging the Peace in love can we go on to recite the Creed, savingly confessing our faith in the Holy Trinity.
When all is said and done, the other people at the Liturgy are not a fuss and bother, nor a distraction to our devotion. They are fellow members of the Body of Christ, which Body alone makes our private prayers truly Christian. Our participation in their liturgical presence is our joy and salvation. Let us love one another indeed!