For the last several years- almost a decade, now- my husband and I have traveled to California on holidays to visit our children. Our eldest moved to Northern California back in 2009 right after college, and within a few years her sister followed, leaving two of our three children on the far side of the country. These days, those two children have families, and houses, and children of their own. They are a magnet for our vacation time and recently I was compelled to steal a few days there over the holiday weekend. You know… Covid has kept us apart. The impractical visit that I made to the West Coast over Memorial Day weekend was the first trip in more than a year- seventeen months, to be exact. The last time that I saw our grandson he was a wobbly, roly poly, cooing infant who was still working on smiling and sitting unassisted…and this weekend, he impressed me with his ability to speak in full sentences (in two languages, no less) and to run at a great clip down the bike path (while looking back over his shoulder at us. Yikes.)
But lest you think that this is going to be a bragging grandma blog, let me get to the heart of it: The Hug. All the way on the plane out to California I just couldn’t wait to hug my kids- to wrap them up in my arms, to bury my nose in their perfumed hair, to hold them after so, so long.
Now, I am a New Englander. New Englanders are stalwart, and a little stiff. We don’t really hug- especially those outside our own. My longing to hug my girls was not terribly weird (I am their mother, after all) but it was Covid-intensified: The separation that we have endured (and all of you, I know, from your loved ones) became all the more poignant, the closer I got to closing the gap, literally, between us. When I moved to Central Pennsylvania my “failure to hug” became a noticeable personal deficit. Central Pennsylvania is remarkable in its friendliness and hospitality. I was greeted warmly with hugs across the diocese that caught me off guard. I could have blamed my mother- she was the stalwart, stiff New Englander who bore me. I remember vividly when, back in 1979, the then “new prayer book” inserted the custom of the Kiss of Peace: my mother grumbled that she went to church to “be with God, not to fall all over people.”
What my mother might not have known was that the Kiss of Peace is an ancient Christian custom dating back to the days of the early church and before that, in Roman and Greek civilizations. There are five places in the epistles that speak of offering a “Holy Kiss:” Romans 16:16, 1 Corinthians, 16: 20, 2 Corinthians 13:12, 1 Thessalonians 5: 26., and 1 Peter, 5: 14.
Because it is understood that these letters were read to Christians in an assembly for worship, it is assumed that the bidding of this gesture of peace and its consequent sharing took place in the context of liturgy. We’ve been hugging in church, apparently, for centuries. Various denominations have developed different practices for sharing this ancient gesture; in the Episcopal tradition we range from offering formal handshakes shared among those nearest to us, to an enthusiastic roaming about the nave that can take several minutes as each member is greeted. In 1969 the Roman Church set some guidelines on the practice stating: “It is appropriate that each one give the sign of peace only to those who are nearest and in a sober manner. The Priest may give the sign of peace to the ministers but always remains within the sanctuary, so as not to disturb the celebration. He does likewise if for a just reason he wishes to extend the sign of peace to some few of the faithful. https://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/ccdds/documents/rc_con_ccdds_doc_20040423_redemptionis-sacramentum_en.html)
Other traditions use the Holy Kiss as a sign of being reconciled with each other before receiving communion; as a preface to the creed stating that by the Kiss of Peace we declare our love for neighbor and so can stand together, claiming our common faith; or as a physical sign of the manifestation of God’s grace that we experience in community at worship.
In the past eighteen months as we have been going to church on Zoom, Youtube and Facebook, we have missed out on the physicality of our worship. We have not been able to walk to the altar, to kneel to receive the wafer, or sip from the Cup. We have not been able to sing. We have not been able to greet each other with a Holy Kiss. These movements are important to us because we are an incarnational people. We understand that when we worship, we do it with our whole bodies- standing, kneeling, sitting, singing, hugging. And now, as we emerge from this wilderness journey and return to church, it is a joy- mostly- to reengage with these practices.
But some of us are a little skittish. The pandemic has knocked the stuffing out of us. We are covid-weary and, really, it’s a big change from attending church in our pajamas to being back in the pews. And so, friends, this is a bid for gentleness, caution and grace. I’m vaccinated but still wearing my mask in public places. I’m happy to be back in church, but not ready to start hugging again. I’m discovering that I am a little covid-weary, myself. I feel a little bit like a hermit crab, stretching ever so slowly out of my shell. How about you?
How has this time apart influenced you? What have you missed the most? Are you jumping back in with both feet, or are you wading slowly back into community? The next few months will be critical for us in the church. We cannot pack up the cameras and tripods and put them in the sacristy closet. There are lots of people to whom we have ministered who are not ready to come back in person, yet. There are those who need space to reenter on their own terms. There are those who are grieving or anxious or in need of encouragement. And so, I think that we would all be served by being gentle and by being aware during this time of reunion and reentry.
Paul concludes his second letter to the Corinthians like this:
Finally, brothers and sisters, rejoice! Strive for full restoration, encourage one another, be of one mind, live in peace. And the God of love and peace will be with you.Greet one another with a holy kiss. All God’s people here send their greetings. May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all. (2 Cor 13:11-14)
May it be gently so.