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Kiss, But Decently and In Order

I’m sure I did some pretty dumb things as General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, but I was smart enough to avoid offering edicts about liturgical practices that, for good or ill, have become important to the person in the pew. For example, I personally think there is a special place in Hell for the person who invented the children’s sermon. There are far better ways to engage children in worship that respect their actual state of mental and spiritual development, and what is usually offered up is a contrived conversation that provides theological drivel to the adults and confusion to the children. But church members love it and, generally speaking, the children seem to tolerate the exercise without any real ill effect. So I kept my mouth shut on this subject, saving my words for more useful and perhaps pressing conversations and, to this day, choose to be more amused than annoyed by this dubious liturgical innovation.

Not so, Spanish Cardinal Antonio Llovera, head of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments at the Vatican who this month sent a letter to bishops’ conferences around the world discussing the placement and the mode of practice of the “kiss of peace” in the Latin Mass. Parts of the letter dealt with rather esoteric liturgical matters relating to the historical evolution of where the kiss is set in the Mass. But the letter also ventured into the matter of practice, displaying decidedly scolding overtones and suggestions of “abuse” related to “familiar and profane gestures of greeting.”

And what might those abuses be? The letter identifies these: Including singing during the event, having people moving around too much from their pews, the priest leaving the altar and mixing in with the faithful, and using the occasion to offer personal greetings such as congratulations or condolences at a baptism or funeral. In other words, kiss, but don’t accompany it with uplifting music. Kiss, but only as long as it doesn’t involve much movement. Kiss, but keep the priest isolated at the altar. Kiss, but make sure the sign of Christ’s peace is kept separate from spontaneous expressions of human compassion and solidarity. This reminded me of the grim, doleful piety seen in paintings by Velazquez or Goya. Perhaps this is where the Spanish Cardinal found his inspiration!

OK. At my home church there is a bit more milling around than I like. And some of what’s exchanged includes information more suitable for the coffee hour than the liturgy. But there is also a genuine sense of joy, of welcoming one another, including the stranger, of constituting a community grounded in Christ rather than blood ties, geography, age, interest, professional responsibilities, or any other organizing principle that creates communities elsewhere. From time to time we could benefit with a bit of instruction – reminders – about the meaning, origins, and purpose of the event. And there might be ways to make it feel more integrated, rather than occasionally disruptive to the flow of the service. What we don’t need is directives to increase its sobriety or solemnity that only sniff of a desire to control.

There are times when it’s important for church leaders to heed the discernment of the faithful, to trust their judgment rather than demand that it work the other way around. “It seems good to us and to the Holy Spirit” is an ancient phrase that still holds true. In a world starving for connection, for the experience of community, for spontaneous joy, the kiss or exchange of peace has been embraced by the faithful at both the Catholic mass and Protestant liturgies. And the only folk who seem terribly worried about it are raging introverts or ecclesiastical fussbudgets.

Does this mean that we simply agree to do whatever it is people like? Of course not. But when it comes to things like the exchange of peace, we would do well to match our preoccupation with historical, liturgical, and theological correctness with attentiveness to the question of why it is that a particular practice seems to resonate so deeply with the actual worshipping community. We might discover that a real need is being met. Then the question would become how to most effectively respond to that need in ways that enhance the joy, beauty and grace of the entire liturgical experience, rather than how to ensure that it’s all done decently and in order.

John H. Thomas
August 14, 2014

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