Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory. — Isaiah 6:1-5
Greet one another with a holy kiss. — Romans 16:12-16
What on earth is a “holy kiss?” Is it a kiss on the cheek, a kiss on the lips, a sensual kiss, or a hesitant shy peck? Is it the “kiss of peace” which we share in worship each week, a hug of greeting or a handshake? Whatever its form, what makes it holy? In fact, what makes anything “holy” or “sacred”? Such words seem to have dropped out of our vocabulary. Except, that is, when we debunk “sacred cows,” pour scorn of “holy Joes,” or, as some do, use it as a preface for some or other swear word.
But there was a time when it was usual to speak about the Holy Bible, holy matrimony, holy people, holy baptism, the holy eucharist and one holy church. And Catholics still refer to the pope as the holy father. But most of us don’t normally speak like this anymore, and when we do it sometimes sounds pretentious. We prefer “wholeness” to “holiness” even though they are not the same.
David, my grandson, asked me the other day, “What is a secular state?” Secular is the opposite of the sacred; it is the worldly as distinct from the religious. Whereas once upon a time, much of Europe was part of the Roman Empire ruled over by Caesar, with the rise of Christianity it became the Holy Roman Empire ruled over by the pope, and emperors and kings divinely appointed. But at least since the French Revolution, Europe has gradually become a conglomerate of secular states with democratically elected leaders even if in some places there is still an established church. Whatever the role of religion, neither the church or other religious institutions have controlling power.
The underlying struggle in the Middle East today is between those who want their countries to be secular and those who want them to be holy, that is, Muslim states governed by Sharia law. Turkey has become a secular state even though Islam is very strong there; Iran, by contrast, is a Shiite Muslim country whose Ayatollah is the supreme ruler. But the tension and often open warfare throughout the region is basically between secularists and Islamists, most notably in Egypt and Libya. And the same tension exists in Israel where religious and secular Jews compete for power, even though they may make unholy alliances when they need to.
The rise of the secular state can, in large measure, be blamed on the abuse of religion. The revolutionary overthrow of the monarchy in France and with it the power of the Catholic Church, and of the Tsar in Russia, and with him the Orthodox Church, was regarded by many as a victory for human emancipation, justice and equality. And secularization continues to be regarded by many as liberation from the dark ages of priest craft, superstition and oppression. In the process, religion is sometimes persecuted but invariably pushed to the periphery of political and social life unless governments find it useful for their own purposes.
But this rejection of “sacred cows” eventually led also to the debunking of the “holy” itself, so that it is difficult for us today to understand what on earth is a “holy kiss” because we only know kissing as a sexy worldly act and are surprised to hear that it can also be a holy one. The truth is, in a secular world, there is little sense of the sacred, and certainly neither the body or sensuality is understood in such a way, though it once was, as Song of Songs in the Bible so wonderfully describes.
But if a sense of the holy disappears, it is not long before life itself is no longer regarded as sacred. Relationships are no longer sacred, values are not sacred, cherished beliefs are not sacred, honor is not sacred — that is, they have no transcendent significance. Human rights and liberties may be enshrined in constitutions, but they are no longer holy. We can, and do, make up our own rules and these are often reasonable and good — better sometimes than religious laws that are irrational and dehumanizing. But too often we disregard even these or abuse them to serve our own selfish interests, whether as individuals or nations, rather than the common good.
We are, in short, no longer accountable to God. We can become corrupt as long as no one finds us out. In sum, the loss of the sacred reduces the value of human life, people become functional cogs in a wheel, life becomes cheap, and the earth can be destroyed for commercial purposes — it is no longer sacred as it was in days gone by. A kiss is a kiss, not a holy kiss.
The prophet Isaiah lived at a time when Israel was falling apart at the seams. There was injustice, oppression of the poor, and corruption and the abuse of power was rife. At a time of transition from one king to another, in the “year that Uzziah died,” so Isaiah tells us, he went into the Temple in Jerusalem to see if he could hear some Word from God that would speak to the people. And while he lay prostrate he had a vision of the Lord high and lifted up, and heard the angels’ song: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.” This experience of transcendence or the holy, shook him so profoundly that he became aware, not only of the full extent of Israel’s sins and his own, but he also became a prophet of God’s justice in a society in which the sacredness of life had been compromised through national arrogance and oppression of the poor.
When the Bible says that “God’s ways are not our ways, and God’s thoughts are not our thoughts,” it is speaking about God’s holiness. God is different, different to the idols we make, manipulate and worship, like nation, greed, or whatever gains our devotion or seduces us. God is holy, he is the God who is justice and love, the God of mercy and compassion. That is why God judges sin for sin destroys life, sin is oppression and hatred, sin is lacking mercy and compassion. If nothing is sacred, sin does not matter. But it does matter when we are converted to the sacred, and sing the song of the angels as we do every time we come to the Eucharist in the prayer of thanksgiving. “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.”
This is a regular reminder that the “whole earth is full of God’s glory.” That we do not own the world, we cannot simply do what we want to do with other people or the earth’s resources. The earth is sacred. So, too, is every meal we share, every person we meet, every relationship. They are holy. And even every kiss, even the most sensual, becomes sacred even as it may remain sensual, not the kiss of Judas who betrayed Jesus but the kiss of a woman of ill-repute who wiped Jesus’ feet with her tears and kissed them.
Recovering a sense of the holiness of God and therefore of the sacredness of life transforms the way we live. It is the way of holiness. If God is holy, we cannot manipulate God for our own purposes; if God is holy then all God has created is holy — life is sacred, justice is sacred, human beings are sacred, the body is sacred not just a machine, food and drink are sacred, and kissing is an act of love and forgiveness, it can be a kiss of peace and wholeness: a holy kiss.
John W. de Gruchy is emeritus professor of Christian studies at the University of Cape Town in South Africa, and extraordinary professor at the University of Stellenbosch. This is a weekly meditation given at the Eucharist service at Volmoed Christian Community Centre, Hermanus. He writes at anisa.org.za where this originally appeared.