In honor of St. Valentine’s Day, I am devoting today’s blog to kissing. Let me be clear, as a celibate woman, I am no authority on kissing—at least not the romantic kind. But I have had considerable experience with the other kinds: kisses that show affection, appreciation, friendship, respect, and gratitude.
Let’s begin with a few facts. Kissing is not a universal human behavior. Some cultures (about 10%) do not kiss. This fact convinces many psychologists that kissing is not innate but rather a learned behavior. Where did kissing come from? Some say it originated with kiss-feeding, that
is, with parents masticating food and passing that food on to their young. Certain animals do this all the time: gulls, penguins, eagles, wolves, orangutans. (Today most human parents in the post-industrialized world tend to rely on Gerber’s.)
The earliest written reference to kissing is found in the Vedas, the ancient Sanskrit scripture of Hinduism. Some researchers say that romantic kissing as we know it today originated in India and was brought back to Europe when Alexander the Great conquered that part of the world. (I can just imagine one of Alex’s soldiers returning home from war in India and saying to his wife, “Honey, I brought you back some cinnamon–and by the way, I learned something over there that might spice up our love life.”)
Do other animals kiss? It sure looks like they do. Bonobo apes are known for their kissing. Dogs and cats lick and nuzzle each other. So do horses and zebras and giraffes. Even snails play with each other’s antennas. Though these behaviors may not be kissing in strictly human terms, they nonetheless strengthen the bonds between the animals—just as human kissing can do.
There’s a substantial amount of kissing in the Bible. Moses greets his father-in-law with a kiss. Jacob, dressed as Esau, kisses his blind father, Issac, before he cheats his brother out of his inheritance. And in the book of Ruth, Orpah (not to be confused with Oprah) kisses her mother-in-law Ruth. And St. Paul ends his first letter to the Thessalonians with these words, “Greet all the brothers with a holy kiss.” (He probably meant sisters too.) But the book of the Bible with the most kissing in it is the Song of Songs. This book is a beautiful and graphic celebration of erotic love. (As a young nun, when I read this book I used to blush at all those descriptions of breasts and thighs. I wondered: how did this book ever make it into the Bible? But I was glad it did!)
Which brings me to the Kiss of Peace at Mass. If you go to Mass, you know that right before Communion (usually) the priest or deacon says something like, “And now let us share with one another a sign of peace.” Notice, we often say SIGN of peace instead of KISS of peace because we don’t want to promote a lot of romantic kissing during the celebration of the Mass. My question for you is this: what does the sign of peace look like in your church? At my
church, couples often turn to each other and kiss on the lips. Others turn to their neighbors and shake hands and say something like, “The peace of Christ be with you,” or simply, “Peace” Others hug or smile or wave at each other across the pews and aisles. Still others flash the V sign. (My parents told me that when they were children, the women sat on one side of the church and the men on the other at Mass. I read somewhere that this was instituted to prevent any inappropriate behavior at the Kiss of Peace. Talk about Puritanical thinking!)
At the end of letters, emails, and text messages, we sometimes put a few X’s to represent kisses and a few O’s to represent hugs. The origin of this practice is quite interesting (at least to me) and also quite religious. The use of X’s for kisses dates back to the Middle Ages when the Christian cross † was put on letters and documents to represent faith, sincerity and honesty. Sometimes the signer even kissed that cross to express his or her sworn oath. Later the letter X (Chi Rho) was used to represent the word Christ. (We still see that in the word Xmas.) When the masses of people were illiterate they used
the letter X (the Chi Rho) to sign their names. The X attested to their honesty and sincerity. No one knows for sure how the O came to represent hugs. One theory is that Jewish immigrants in North America used an O to sign their names instead of the cross, that is, the X.
Let me conclude this celebration of kissing with a few other facts:
1. The study of kissing is called philematology. (Imagine telling people you got your degree in philematology! They’d probably think you were very smart!)
2. In the early church there was no Kiss of Peace on Holy Thursday because that was the day Judas betrayed Jesus with a kiss.
3. Ritual kissing includes kissing the floor to express humility or to ask for forgiveness. (I did this often as a young nun!) Ritual kissing also includes kissing the Blarney Stone or kissing the ground to show respect for a certain country or for planet earth.
(Remember how Pope John Paul II used to kiss the ground every time he got off a plane? When he could no longer get down on his knees, his host country sometimes provided a box containing some of their ground so that he could kiss the ground standing up.)
4. The longest kiss between a couple occurred on February 14, 2013 in Bangkok, Thailand. It lasted 58 hours, 35 minutes, and 58 seconds!
I think I’ve rattled on long enough. Let me just say “Happy Valentine’s Day” to each of you! And here are a few kisses and hugs to show my affection and gratitude to you for reading my blog.
Love, Melannie XXXXXXXXXXOOOOOOOOOO
P.S. I looked for a Valentine song for God. I think the ancient Irish hymn “Be Thou My Vision” fits the criteria. (It’s like saying “Be Thou My Valentine!”) There are many versions of this song on Youtube. I chose this one for three reasons: 1) it shows the lyrics so you can sing along, 2) it is in a key most of us can sing in, and 3) it is sung by a group.
What are some of your thoughts on this topic, the song, and/or St. Valentine’s Day?