We are careful what we touch now, sanitize surfaces to stop the spread of a virus, to keep each other safe. The Mass is so tactile, so physical and, for the time being, we have lost those small symbols and signs which come so naturally to us. The water stoops are empty. No peace is physically exchanged. We keep our distance from one another. The priest no longer stoops to kiss the altar in veneration, or raise the gospel book to his lips. There is no kiss for the gospel of the Lord.
There is another kiss, too, though not observed as such, or much, these days. In the early church the Sharing of the Peace was called The Kiss of Peace. Whilst most people don’t exchange a kiss, they do exchange a physical sharing of peace, often with the embrace of a hand, all of which is also suspended in Pandemic times. Each of these simple kisses reminds us of a beautiful way in which we meet Jesus in the Eucharist.
The gospel kiss reminds us that we meet Jesus in the Holy Scriptures, particularly in the gospels. When the word is proclaimed, it is a living encounter with Christ, as we wait on his word, receive his teaching. At the Gospel Acclamation people rise a gesture of reverence and attentiveness.
The altar kiss reminds us that we meet Jesus at the altar, the place where bread and wine is changed into Christ’s body and blood.
The third kiss reminds us that we meet Jesus is one another. Christ is present in the assembly itself. ‘Wherever two are three are gathered in my name, there am I in their midst! (Matthew 18:20). The faithful form a holy people whom God has made his own. We are a royal priesthood, so that with the priest, offer a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving whilst offering themselves too, loving one another as brothers and sisters in Christ.
All of these three are important: Word, Sacrament and Service. We can’t have one without the other. We are called to meet Christ in others, and for others to be able to meet Christ in us. Jesus said, “As you did this for one of the least of my brothers and sisters you did it for me.”
George Macleod of the Iona Community wrote this: “Jesus was not crucified in a cathedral between two candles but on cross between two thieves; on the town garbage heap at a crossroads so cosmopolitan they had to write his title in Hebrew, Latin and Greek. At the kind of place where cynics talk smut, and thieves curse, and soldiers gamble, because that is where he did and that is what he died about and that is where churchmen ought to be and what churchmen should be about.”
For us, of course, that is not at the expense of serving him at the altar. It’s to the altar that we bring to Christ the needs of the world, and it is at the altar that, having received Jesus’s sacramental presence and listened to his word, we are strengthened to serve him in the world.
In the gospel according to John, there is no narrative of the Institution of the Eucharist. He has given us the incident of something else that happened at table. Jesus stoops to wash his disciples’ feet giving his disciples an example to follow. Sacrament and service go hand in hand. The three kisses we currently miss so much call us back to that.