A few of our new inquirers have asked about the practice of kissing the priest’s hand. For people outside of the Orthodox Tradition (and even for some of the Faithful), this is one of those foreign, counter-cultural and awkward practices that can be difficult to grasp. The following article may shed some light on this ancient practice.
The real question is, “Why don’t we kiss more people’s hands?” Kissing the hand of the priest is not an exceptional thing, but rather is the remnant of what was once a perfectly normal custom: showing reverence to our elders by kissing their right hands. There are certainly many people alive today in Greece who remember that the kissing of the hand was the normal and expected way to show reverence not only to the clergy but to parents, grandparents, godparents, and others in authority over us or holding a revered position in our lives. The disappearance of this custom is part of the disintegration of traditional Christian society, which was based on hierarchy, humility, and respect. And based, of course, on love, which does not exist without respect.
When we kiss the hand of the bishop or priest, we are not showing respect to the person of the priest but to his sacred office. The priest as a man is a sinner, but the priest as priestrepresents Christ; he is an icon of Christ. Also, though his hand is unworthy, yet it touches the Most Holy Things – the Precious Body and Blood of the Lord. Furthermore, despite his unworthiness, in Holy Ordination he has received the Grace of God to impart spiritual gifts and blessings. Why would we deprive ourselves of the blessings of our Lord Himself, by not seeking the priest’s blessing?
So when would we ask for a blessing? We typically seek this blessing whenever we greet and bid farewell to our spiritual fathers. Also, we kiss their right hands when we receive the prayer of absolution at confession or at other prayers. We do not, however, kiss the priest’s hand when receiving Holy Communion, lest we risk an accident with the Holy Chalice.