Following the service of the Divine Liturgy one Sunday while I was preparing for a Baptism I was approached by a little girl who was about five years of age. There was no one else in the Church at the time. I stopped what I was doing, for she remained still and close by my side. I was busy positioning the font and preparing the table upon which the holy Gospel was to be placed along with other essential items required for the Sacrament. Having realised that the little person was waiting patiently at my side I turned around, looked down and asked, can 1 help you? Yes she said, I would like to kiss your hand. She kissed my hand and immediately exited the Church.
Why would a little girl be so happy to kiss the hand of a deacon? Who taught her that this was a good thing to do and for what benefit? From what I could see the child initiated the action herself, there was no adult in sight. She did not kiss the hand to receive a sweet.
She left with a blessing. She could not show it to her mother and say look what I have got, but what she received was very real, as it was real for the person through whom the blessing was given. I was deeply touched by the little girl's presentation and pure heart. I was humbled by her approach. Many adults cannot humble themselves to receive such a blessing. What most people see is the hand of an unworthy priest.
What is important to understand however, is that the hand of the priest which bears the blessing does not emanate from his person or his personality but from his priesthood which is greater than himself and anyone who serves within the priesthood. The blessing is God's blessing and if discharged with faith; both the priest and the recipient are humbled before God.
This young child was in a spiritual place, the house of God. She came to receive God's love and blessing and walked away with joy. he received a blessing which came from God and is beyond every person's comprehension. For this blessing there can be no distinction made between a child and an adult if we approach the priest in the correct manner. She like all innocent children of God seek out the blessing through a pure and sincere heart. This state of Grace is often lost however by adults who choose to rely on reason rather than placing their trust in God.
In the early Church it was common place for Christians to greet each other with a holy kiss. St. Paul in his letter to the Corinthians instructed "Greet one another with a holy kiss." (1Cor 16:20) When you see bishops, priests or deacons of the Orthodox Church greet each other, they usually do so with a holy kiss and embrace. During the Divine Liturgy at the call of the deacon, "Let us love one another that we may with one mind confess...", the celebrants in the sanctuary go through the gestures of embracing and kissing one another while the congregation, through the choir, sing "Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the Trinity, one in essence and inseparable. In the earlier years of the Church all the members of the congregation participated in this practice. This call for love and unity takes place immediately before the Creed which forms the confession of the three Persons of the Holy Trinity.
I believe much is revealed about the inner person when relating even to the most simplest of gestures. Some have learned to bow their head gently before a priest as a sign of respect. This is usually carried out whilst simultaneously shaking the priest's hand. To me this communicates a certain level of respect but also some discomfort and uncertainty in regard to the relationship with the priest and his authority as a father confessor and minister of Christ.
Others are accustomed only to the shaking of the priest's hand which belongs more to the world of social introductions and financial transactions. This form of greeting does not communicate spirituality and appears only to acknowledge the man and not the priesthood to which he belongs. There are also those who choose to offer only a verbal greeting to the priest. This to me communicates familiarity and a rather lax attitude. For the Orthodox Christian who knows about the true role of the priest, the appropriate greeting is to seek out God's blessing by the kissing of his hand, which incidentally is not always offered freely, but should be sought out by the faithful where circumstances allow it.
Of course what I have described here is based only on my observations and impressions. I am certain that there would be many who would not agree with these thoughts. But conversely it also applies that those who visibly and observably kiss the hand of the priest may be doing so out of habit and without sincerity. Equally those who do not kiss the hand of the father may choose to do so to dispense with all pretence. But it is also appropriate to say that no matter what the interpretation it is important to know what is Orthodox and belongs to holy tradition; and this has much to do with what St. Paul wrote about to the Colossians when he asked that Christians should always act with the sincerity of the heart. (Col. 3:23-4).
St. Luke records the account of the sinful woman who wept so much that she washed Christ's feet with her tears then wiped them dry with her hair. She was so heavily weighed down by sin that she kissed the feet of Jesus continuously anointing them with fragrant oil. She was forgiven her many sins because she loved Christ so much. "But to whom little is forgiven", said Christ "the same loves little." (Luke 7:47) Meaning that the forgiveness of sins comes to those who truly love Christ. All of us have a great multitude of sins; if we do not seek Christ's forgiveness then we show that we do not truly love Christ and acknowledge what He has done for us. Let us therefore seek out Christ's blessings and mercy and in what ever way is possible let us set our relationship with the priest and the Church along the right path.
Let our kiss be not like that of Judas. Judas used a kiss not as a sign of love for Christ but as a sign to identify Him and betray Him. "Whom ever I kiss, He is the One; seize Him' said Judas (Matt 26:48).
from The Truth,
Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of Australia
Christian Missionary Society of the Ascension of our Lord publication, Perth, Western Australia.