Hospitality and Holy Kisses

On any visit to a different country, your first impressions usually have to do with cultural differences.

Last month, I traveled to Spain. One of the first differences between American life and Spanish life that I experienced was how people greet one another and say goodbye. In Spain, it’s almost always with a kiss on each cheek. And always with everyone in the group.

I got to meet many relatives in Spain for the first time, and each time I saw them, and each time we said goodbye, it was always with a kiss on each cheek. (Though the men usually didn’t do this with me. I assume because of sensitivity to it being something I wasn’t accustomed to. But they did do it with one another.) It didn’t matter how many were there. You took time to greet and kiss each person.

And this custom wasn’t just with family. Anytime my family introduced me to anybody else, the greeting was the same. “Mike, this is our neighbor who lives across the street.” Kiss kiss. “These are our former neighbors and good friends.” Kiss kiss. “Oh! I know that person! We went to elementary school together.” Kiss kiss. On one occasion, we were in a bank and one of the tellers left. I watched as he gave goodbye kisses to his two fellow tellers and the cleaning woman.

This way of greeting one another made me feel instantly connected and welcomed with these new family and friends. Despite being in a new place, and meeting people for the first time, and hardly able to speak any Spanish, I felt connected and welcomed.

Experiencing this for two weeks gave me newfound appreciation for the command given in the New Testament to “greet one another with a holy kiss.” Paul gives this instruction in some form or other four times – Romans 16:16, 1 Corinthians 16:20, 2 Corinthians 13:12, and 1 Thessalonians 5:26. A similar phrase is also in 1 Peter 5:14.

In the past, when I read any of these verses, I saw the command as bound up in ancient middle eastern culture. In our contemporary American context, we don’t just kiss anybody. I understood these verses to mean that we should greet one another in church in whatever expression seemed appropriate.

I still think about these verses as culturally bound, but I now realize that we can’t substitute a “holy kiss” with just any other form of greeting. Simply waving and saying “hello” won’t do. Kisses connect two people in a way that is physical and affectionate. Greeting in this way also takes time and demands honoring each person’s presence. You can’t kiss a group all at once. You have to give attention and time to each person you see.

What would happen in our churches and in our homes if we showed this level of hospitality? I’m not suggesting we all start kissing every person we see; there’s still a need to recognize cultural differences. But what if we sought to ensure that every guest in our church or in our home receives a welcome that connects them with every individual in a way that is physical, and affectionate, and that is honoring each individual’s presence?

Is such hospitality possible in our American culture? What would it look like?