Thursday, September 8, 2016

The kiss

What is wrong with this picture? Well, first, it looks like a former Roman pope, John Paul II, in the company of an Arab Muslim. And second, is it a large copy of the Qur’an that the pope is kissing? Or am I dreaming? When I first saw it, I asked myself the question at the head of this paragraph. I then went on to ask myself, If the pope is kissing a copy of the Muslim scriptures, why doesn't the Muslim—probably a Saudi prince, but who knows?—kiss a copy of the Christian bible?

This is very old news, but when I first saw it, it was news to me. The image touched me in a number of places, bringing a lot of memory, even racial memory, into my active mind, but not much to my emotions. When the Bible says, the world of the past is gone’ (Revelation 21:4), for me it's gone, really gone. I can think about it, study it, but my emotions as well as my life, are in the world of NOW, the New Order of the World’—and that's not the ‘new world order’ proclaimed on the back of the dollar bill, NOVUS ORDO SECLORUM, but the one inaugurated by Christ—the Kingdom of God.

But what about this disturbing image?
Why is it disturbing?
Who is this man and what is he kissing?
And why does he kiss it?
I gather from doing a bit of online research that this incident provoked quite a heated response among not only Roman Catholics, but also among Protestants and other Christians. Roman Catholic apologists were at pains to explain it away as merely a gesture of friendship and respect, that the pope was not affirming the Qur’an or its teachings. Others said he was affirming those good things that are in the Qur’an and in Islam, but not the bad things. To me, this latter defense seems completely absurd. All these excuses and explanations came from American observers, from people who are evidently completely cut off from traditional culture. The pope, however, was not.

To answer the questions asked above, this image is disturbing because it is the pope (self-proclaimed ‘father of all Christians’ and de facto head of the Roman Catholic confession), and he is kissing a ceremonial copy of a book, namely the Qur’an, which its proponents say refutes and replaces the Bible of both Old and New Testaments. As to why he kisses it, that has to be a profound mystery. In modern Western, particularly Americanized, culture the act of kissing has limited meaning. Generally it is a token of familiar or romantic relationship, occasionally a token of formal respect. People know about and generally think anachronistic such things as kissing the pope's ring. Americans feel a little uneasy and flustered at the idea of the formal cheek kissing of politicians. Only those Westerners who belong to Orthodox Christian and Jewish faiths know the deeper significance of the kiss. Not all could explain it, if asked. They just do it.

Even within Roman Catholicism the kiss still forms part of the ceremonial of religious services. Though few Roman Catholics privately kiss the Bible, they see priests and others kissing it during worship. Not generally having ikons, they are not accustomed to kissing sacred images. You can't kiss a statue. So from the Roman Catholic point of view, the kiss, even in the context of worshipful acts, takes on more the current meaning of showing respect than its original meaning.
In the ancient world (which is still alive today in traditional cultures) the kiss means more.

Even the ancient Greeks and Romans showed their worship of the gods by kissing their hands and then raising them and blowing the kiss towards a favored statue. The early Christians considered this an act of idolatry, which it certainly was, and refused to participate; hence, they were termed ‘atheists.’ But the innate urge of mankind to kiss as an act of worship would not be eradicated: it was passed on to the early Christians from two directions, from the Greeks and from the Jews. The latter kissed the scrolls of Torah and anything associated with the Holy One of Israel, ‘the Being.’ This became the act of kissing the Book of the holy and divine Gospels, and then of the Old Testament, the New Testament and, finally, of the graphic representations of both—the ikons.

But wait! There had to be a change in the meaning of this action—the kiss—or else the Christians would, like their pagan predecessors, be guilty of idolatry as well. After much deliberation and a sometimes violent history of confrontation, the Orthodox Church declared that the kiss was not an act of worship, which was due to God alone, but only an act of veneration: The kiss is a tangible testimony of both faith in and assent to That which is represented by the Book of the Gospels, the Bible, and the pictures, all of which are forms of the ‘ikon,’ visible evidences of the Invisible, Only God. The kiss is not, or should not be, given thoughtlessly. It is the visible place of meeting between our personal faith and the plan of salvation of our man-loving God.

This may be a mystery or a novelty to some, but not to the pope, especially as one who came from a traditional culture like Poland, where Roman Catholicism still includes vestiges of the more ancient practices of Orthodoxy. That he should kiss the Qur’an was indeed disturbing. It was not, as some of his apologists have said, the same as giving the diplomatic kiss to a head of state. Another evidence of the ignorance of the kiss prevailing in the West was the incident where the United States President bowed and kissed the hand of the Sa’udi monarch. Far from being a sign of his submission to the Muslim king, the President was simply a glaring and embarrassing example of the ignorance of his people, few of whom even cared that he did it.

The point of this post is not to judge the actions of the late Roman pope, nor of the current United States President, nor of the Orthodox Christians who kiss everything and everyone in sight; not to label and define idolatry, apostasy, dissimulation, or false witness. It is just to remind us that what we do is important, is an act of testimony, and hence is even an act of worship. To worship is to consider someone or something ‘worthy,’ which is the origin of the word ‘worship.’ Of course, for us, only One is worthy, and we know Who That Is. That the pope should have sacrificed his testimony to the Truth of Christ by kissing the false scripture of antichrist is indeed deplorable. He knew better, but the pope is, after all, a politician, and we all know what compromises a politician is prepared to make. It is for God to judge them, not for us, who have only to keep in mind the words we pray before receiving the Holy Mysteries…

Receive me today, Son of God, as a partaker of Your mystical Supper. I will not reveal Your mystery to Your adversaries. Nor will I give You a kiss as did Judas. But as the thief I confess to You: Lord, remember me in Your kingdom.

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