"Greet each other with a holy kiss."
"Greet each other with a kiss of love."
I Peter 5.14
Hospitality is a hot topic in churches today. What I'm trying to contribute in these posts is a look at the micro-level, the non-verbals that subtly send messages like "You're not welcome here." or "I honor you."
In my last post I gave an apology for paying attention to touch. In short, I think touch is an oft overlooked means by which we send signals of hospitality.
Apparently, the early church greeted each other with "a holy kiss" or "a kiss of love." I have no idea what this looked like or how offering the kiss across sociological lines would have been experienced in the early church. My hunch is that as social elites and slaves gathered in the early Christian churches the sharing of a holy kiss would have been a radically subversive gesture, an egalitarian symbol enacted by the body of believers.
We don't kiss in America, but we do have our own form of greeting: The handshake. Like the holy kiss, the handshake is an egalitarian gesture. Two people face each other, touch, and engage in a shared movement. My favorite bit of handshake lore involves Thomas Jefferson. The first two Presidents--George Washington and John Adams--used the Old World practice of bowing to greet visitors and guests at formal engagements. Further, given the status of the Presidency, people bowed to the first two presidents. Jefferson, however, shunning displays of hierarchy and royalty, began to greet his guests with the handshake. This was scandalous at the time as it involved physical touch and, as we have noted, it introduced an egalitarianism in greetings. Jefferson didn't want to be bowed to. This set an egalitarian precedent in America. If you didn't bow to the Highest Office in the Land, well, you didn't have to bow to anyone in America.
So I respect the handshake. It introduced both touch and egalitarianism to American greetings. To this day my favorite part of the Catholic Mass is the rite of peace when you turn to those around you and offer the peace, usually a handshake offered with the words "Peace be with you."
And yet, despite all this, I often find the handshake a bit distant. I guess I pine for the days of the holy kiss. This feeling might be due to my experience in South America a few years ago. In South America (but not only there) both men and women exchange cheek kisses. As an American I initially felt awkward with this act. That is until I experienced it in church. From then on I was sold on the idea of cheek kissing as a greeting, between both men and women.
But until American customs change I think we are going to be stuck with the handshake. So, I do the next best thing. I supplement my handshakes with additional points of contact. Sometimes I'll shake hands with two hands. Sometimes I'll touch the person's shoulder or elbow with my left hand as I shake with my right. Again, all of this is simply to send a clear non-verbal signal of welcome. And, obviously, there are hugs for people I know well.
Now I'll admit that males hugging can be awkward at times. Too much homophobia I guess. So what males need in America is something that is more than a handshake and less than a hug. Here is my recommendation for male greetings in the church:
My favorite male greeting is one I find most common in my African-American students. To start, we all know what the typical handshake looks like:
But in the form of greeting I'm recommending rather than extending the hand outward, the hand is elevated with the elbow bent. Like in this picture of Shaq and Kobe:
From there the hands come together to clasp around the base of the thumbs. Like this:
This posture allows for an embrace. In the classic handshake the arms of the people shaking hands act as a kind of rigid rod between them. It is very hard to move into a hug from a classic handshake. This, I think, is the source of much male-to-male awkwardness when there is a miscue on if we are attempting to shake hands or have a hug.
But from this different handclasp the elbows are already bent. This allows the two people to move quite close to each other, with the hands pressed between the chests and below the chin. To finish off the greeting, after clasping hands, you move in close, and then, with the left arm, reach around the person and offer an embrace. Sometimes it's just a strong pat on the back. You can then back up, still clasping hands.
When I greet my male students this is my preferred mode of greeting and welcoming. The handshake is too distant; the hug is too intimate. But this half hug, half handshake is the perfect mix. Plus, it has a kind of urban cool which I also like.
"Greet each other with a holy kiss."