You may have seen an Orthodox priest or bishop before and just never realized it. They are hard to miss, honestly, with their beautiful vestments and their (most of the time) long beards. In the Orthodox Church, we hold incredible respect for the clergy. This is because they serve at the altar on behalf of the people. Because they are spiritual fathers who live as icons of Christ. Therefore, when we greet a member of the clergy, we don’t just shake their hand and say, “Hey, nice to meet ya!” In this post, we explain the proper greeting a layperson should use when meeting an Orthodox priest or bishop.
Who are the clergy?
Clergy is the generic term we use to describe the formal religious leadership within the Orthodox Church. The clergy are set aside to take care of the ritual aspects of the religious life of the Church, teach, and help in spreading Orthodox doctrine and practices. They are, essentially, the New Testament version of the Levites. All clergy in the Orthodox Church are male.
In Orthodoxy, we have a certain hierarchy in place within the overall conciliar structure of the global Church. There are three orders within this hierarchy, each of which is identified in the New Testament and found in the early Church. At the bottom is the order of the deaconate. Above the deacons are the priests, who preside over individual parishes. (Each priest only has one parish, and most parishes only have one priest.) After the priests are the bishops. Bishops oversee multiple communities of Orthodox Christians. Moreover, these communities are usually assigned to the bishop on the basis of geography (the East, the Midwest, etc.).
You can always recognize Orthodox clergy by their beautiful vestments. The designs for deacons, priests, and bishops differ for symbolic reasons; on the practical side, they also help laypeople like us tell them apart! If the priests and bishops are not wearing colorful vestments, they will almost always have on a black cassock. They may also have crosses or icon pendants resting on their chests. Some Orthodox clergy (especially in monasteries) also have long beards, which further differentiates them from Roman Catholic or Protestant clergymen.
Quick aside. Not all vestments will be the color of the ones pictured above. Vestment colors often change throughout the year, symbolizing different seasons (like Great Lent – violet) or commemorating specific events (like the Elevation of the Cross – red).
How to greet a priest or bishop
In modern American culture, people usually greet each other by shaking hands or, in the case of good friends, embracing. However, in the Orthodox Church, we keep the ancient practice of kissing one another as our greeting. Laity (regular parishioners) greet each other with a kiss (or two or three) upon the cheek, as people did in Eastern Europe for centuries. When greeting a member of the clergy, though, we do things a bit differently.
We do not shake a bishop’s or priest’s hand; we do not kiss his cheek either. Rather, we kiss his right hand and ask for a blessing. We do this because we seek to honor Christ, whom the priest/bishop represents. To greet a priest or bishop properly:
- Cup your hands in front of you, right over left, palms facing upward
- Then bow to the priest/bishop and say, “Father/Master, bless.”
At this point, the priest or bishop will bless you in the name of Christ with the sign of the cross. Then he will place his hand on top of your cupped palms. Once he has done this, you may kiss his hand and receive the blessing.
Why kiss them, though?
The kiss is an ancient custom signifying love, respect and reverence. The Orthodox keep this practice alive during divine services and fellowship. It is as natural to us as breathing. We kiss icons, holy relics, the Cross, the Gospel, the priest’s hand, and sometimes, the Holy Chalice. We do this because we encounter and experience Christ Himself through these holy things. If you ever visit an Orthodox Church, expect to see us kissing things quite a bit. And expect to maybe get a kiss in greeting yourself!
To find out what other things you’ll see, check out this article: 8 Things to Expect in an Orthodox Church.
Why ask for a blessing?
We greet clergy by asking for and receiving a blessing for a couple reasons. First, it honors the sacred office of the priest or bishop. After all, the hands of these men touch the Holy Body and Blood of Our Lord. Their hands prepare the Holy Gifts for all of us, so we may partake of Holy Communion and experience God in His fullness. The Orthodox fully recognize that the priest is a man, and that he sins, just like we do. The kiss of the hand does not honor the person, but the office and role he represents. As a priest, he is an icon of Christ. And though he is unworthy, he has received the Grace of God to impart spiritual gifts and blessings.
Secondly, we ask for blessings because doing so is a sign of a humble heart. It reveals a deep faith in the power of God. For example, the woman with a flow of blood touched Christ’s garment to obtain healing, and the Lord praised her great faith. The sinful woman kissed the Lord’s feet in repentance (Lk 7:38). And in the parable of the Prodigal Son, the father runs out to meet the repentant young man and kisses him (Lk 15:20). The Orthodox follow the examples of these individuals, approaching our clergy with humility and faith.
Other times it is appropriate to kiss the hand
The most common use of the hand-kiss in Orthodox tradition and custom is in receiving a blessing from a priest or bishop. But there are other times it might also be acceptable to do this:
- Saying hello or goodbye
- Asking for a blessing before traveling
- Receiving the prayer of absolution at Holy Confession
One time we should never kiss the priest’s hand (or the Chalice) is during Holy Communion. Attempting to do this may cause an accident and result in the Holy Gifts being spilled.
It is important to show respect and reverence to priests and bishops when greeting them. After all, they are not just “one of the boys.” They serve as your spiritual fathers, your guides. They are icons of Christ we should all seek to emulate. When you kiss their hands, you show respect for their office — they are the ones who “bless and sanctify” you and who offer the holy gifts on your behalf. So, next time you greet your priest or bishop, do not shake his hand, ask for his blessing.
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