“Greet one another with a holy kiss…” ~ Romans 16:16
An Orthodox young man was once in Winchester Cathedral near the Shrine of St Swithun. There are icons above the shrine, including one of the saint. When he was sure no one was looking he crept around the rope cordon and venerated the icons. He said a few prayers at the shrine and then went to leave. Unbeknown to him, one of the Cathedral Stewards had seen him kissing the icons and praying. She went up to him afterwards looking rather stern. The young man braced himself for a telling-off. But instead, the Steward asked him very politely why it was important for him to kiss the icons.
When I meet a close friend or relative, we exchange a kiss. More than this, St Paul instructs Christians to ‘greet one another with a holy kiss’. The Orthodox Church doesn’t distinguish between those Christians who are alive and those who have died. All are alive in Christ. We recognise that some of our Christian brothers and sisters who have passed on before us are certainly alive in Christ by their answers to our prayers, and we therefore honour them as ‘Saints’. It is important to affirm that they continue to live only through the saving grace of Our Lord’s crucifixion and resurrection. Without the resurrection of Our Lord and God and Saviour Jesus Christ, all are truly dead. It is by His saving grace alone that we enter into eternal life.
So what of the icons? It is not seen as unusual for a bereaved wife to kiss a photograph of her late husband, or for a fiance to kiss a photograph of her intended groom. This is quite natural – they are conveying their love for the person depicted, not their love of a piece of paper! With icons it is the same. The Word ‘icon’ simply means ‘image’; we kiss the image of the one we love.
Since the Saints are alive to us by the resurrection of Jesus Christ, it seems right that we should talk to them. We are not offering them praise and worship, which is due to God alone. It is more like chatting with our friends and asking for their prayers. I often ask my Christian friends to pray for me, so why should I not ask the Saints to do likewise? They have gone before me into the resurrected life in Christ, and as such are currently closer the Risen Lord than I am!
When an Orthodox Christian enters the temple, he would usually kiss the icons of Christ and of Mary (the greatest Saint), plus any other Saint of his choosing. He may also then kiss and greet other people within the temple. Unlike in the West, this is not done in a formal way as part of the liturgy. It is far more spontaneous.
In the world as well as in the temple, we are surrounded by a great army of the Saints, those who have gone before us. It is only right that we continue to love them and honour them as much now as we did before they died.