What is it about kissing at Mass? The priest kisses the altar. Twice. The deacon or priest kisses the Gospel book. We kiss each other at the Sign of Peace. The newly married may show their love “in an appropriate way.” What’s going on?
The custom of Christians kissing goes clear back to the New Testament. Paul, by no stretch a romantic, urged Christians to greet one another with a holy kiss (Romans 16:16), and Peter suggested a kiss of love (1 Peter 5:14).
Kissing the altar first appeared in the fourth century. People used to kiss the threshold of the building they entered in respect. At Mass, the kiss switched to the altar, which symbolized Christ, the cornerstone of the Church. By the Middle Ages, most altars contained relics of martyrs so the kiss honored them as well. Today the priest greets the people with “The Lord be with you,” but he also greets the altar—the presence of Christ, and the holy place where Mass will follow.
Kissing the Gospel book carries a similar meaning. We recognize the presence of Christ in the book that speaks good news. The kiss of the altar at the end of the Mass is the farewell counterpart of the entrance kiss.
From the third century, a kiss of peace was given to new Christians after Baptism. Today, when the bishop offers peace to the newly confirmed, he imitates that baptismal ritual. A priest who confirms the newly baptized at Easter might offer the same greeting.
Strangely, the Order for Celebrating Matrimony doesn’t always invite the couple to kiss. If the wedding takes place at Mass, they’ll get a chance at the Sign of Peace along with the rest of the assembly. If there is no Mass, the rite never alludes to the kiss. But since the introduction encourages local adaptations, a little improvisation might help.
The kiss we know best is the Sign of Peace. When the Roman Rite was first formulated, it called for a real smack. Society must have been a lot “smoochier” than it is today. Still, some moderns restrain too much. When a married couple chooses a handshake instead of a kiss, it makes one wonder what sign they’re really giving. When at Mass, prepare to pucker.