by Frederica Mathewes-Green
When my friend Marvin came for a visit, I thought it would be safe to invite him to Vespers. Marvin and Susan belong to the Presbyterian Church in America, and are perhaps my most theologically stern friends. I’ve met conservative Christians across the country, and most take an easygoing view of others’ denominational quirks. But Susan did not hesitate to scold me as a legalist for adhering to my Church’s schedule of fasting.
woman in the Russian Orthodox Church in front of the icon.
Regular, corporate fasting like this is still new to me; I have been Eastern Orthodox for only a year. In a twenty-year voyage from atheist to charismatic to evangelical to “there-must-be-something-deeper”, my husband and I finally pulled ashore at Antioch. For fifteen of those years Gary was an Episcopal priest. In January 1993 he became Father Gregory, and we walked away from St. Peter’s comfortable rectory and comfortable salary to start an Orthodox mission with just six families.
“Come with us to Vespers,” I urged, but Marvin hesitated. I recalled the evangelical 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, three-point sermons, alliterative poems–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 a capella harmony.
Since Marvin was my houseguest I was able to prevail, and even prodded him to stand near the front with me. I refrained from crossing myself any of the dozens of times allowed, and the service was sweet reasonability itself. That is, until we hit one part I had forgotten about–the kissing part.
After my husband read the Gospel, he held up the Book for the people to venerate, and they lined up to do so. I whispered to Marvin that people go up and kiss the Gospel Book “if they want to.” On this Saturday, everybody in the church apparently wanted to except us, so it was a little awkward.
Minutes later the service concluded and Fr. Gregory stood before the altar holding an icon. I realized with a sinking feeling that people were already getting in line again. I whispered that, again, people kiss the icon “if they want to.” We stood silently and watched twenty-two people come up and plant kisses on the Elevation of the Cross.
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.
An outsider might expect Eastern Orthodoxy to be 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 is 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.
We thank Frederica Mathewes-Green for permission to re-print this article.