The practice of touching or kissing the ground is an important tradition in Orthodox Christianity. It is a symbolic gesture that conveys reverence, humility, and love for God’s creation. There are various times and places where Orthodox Christians will carry out this practice, and it holds deep spiritual meaning for the faithful. In this article, we will explore the history, significance, and proper etiquette for touching or kissing the floor in the Orthodox tradition. Understanding the meaning behind this distinctive ritual provides insight into Orthodox spirituality and customs.
History and Origins
Touching or kissing the floor has been a part of Orthodox Christianity since the early days of the faith. There are records of early Christian martyrs and saints kissing the ground at the moment of their death, accepting their sacrifice with humility before God. Over time, this gesture became more routinely incorporated into worship and prayer practices. Here are some of the main origins and historical purposes behind floor veneration:
– Reverence for holy ground – In Biblical tradition, standing on holy ground requires removing one’s shoes in God’s presence (Exodus 3:5). Kissing the floor acknowledges the sanctity of where one stands.
– Humility before God – Prostrating oneself reminds the worshipper of human lowliness and God’s greatness. This posture was used by Jesus himself in the Garden of Gethsemane (Matthew 26:39).
– Respect for the material world – Touching the floor reflects the Orthodox view that all creation is fundamentally good, coming from the hand of God.
– Connection to monastic customs – Monks and nuns would prostrate fully to the ground during prayer services as an act of ascetic devotion.
– Imitation of saints and martyrs – Saints like Mary of Egypt kissed the earth when repenting of sins. Martyrs would kiss the execution ground before death.
So from early Christian antiquity through the Middle Ages, important spiritual meaning became attached to this physical act. Today, it remains an iconic element of Orthodox worship and piety.
When is the Floor Kissed or Touched?
There are several key instances where Orthodox Christians make a point to touch or kiss the floor:
– Entering a church – Upon coming into an Orthodox temple, it is customary to venerate the church building by bowing and touching the floor. This is done immediately after making the sign of the cross.
– Receiving communion – After taking communion, the communicant will bow and touch their lips reverently to the floor. This shows humility and gratitude to God for the gift just received.
– Venerating icons – Icons and relics are honored with a bow to the floor, acknowledging the holiness of the persons or items depicted.
– Beginning personal prayer – Private prayer at home may begin by bowing down and touching forehead to the floor before standing or sitting up to continue.
– Forgiveness and repentance – In moments of contrition before God or asking forgiveness from others, touching the floor represents humility and sorrow for sins.
– important services – Major feast days or solemn services may involve prostrations to the floor at certain key moments as an act of reverence.
So Orthodox of all ages will incorporate this ritual into their regular spiritual life within church and at home. Significant life events also warrant touching or kissing the ground as a sign of piety.
How is the Act Performed?
The physical gestures involved in floor veneration can vary somewhat across Orthodox jurisdictions and traditions. But there are some common elements to how it is appropriately performed:
– Bowing posture – A reverent bow is made from the waist, leaning forward with hands at sides or folded in front.
– Touching with the hand – The right hand is placed palm down to touch the floor, often making the sign of the cross.
– Kissing the floor – Lips may touch the back of the hand, fingers, or floor directly.
– Number of times – Customs range from once to multiple times, depending on the occasion.
– Sequence with cross – The bow to the floor usually comes immediately after making the sign of the cross.
– Where on the floor – The kiss or touch is made somewhere in front of the person, not off to the side.
– Standing back up – The worshipper returns gently to an upright position after the floor veneration.
– Varying fullness – A simple bow is common, but sometimes full prostrations are made.
The specific posture may vary between Orthodox traditions across the world. But the attitude of reverence remains the same.
Spiritual Significance for Worshippers
For Orthodox Christians who practice floor veneration, this ritual retains profound spiritual meaning and significance:
– Obedience and submission – Touching the floor displays obedience to God, the Church, and its traditions.
– Sacred spaces – It honors the holiness of the place of worship, showing it proper reverence.
– Humility – Bowing down cultivates an attitude of humility rather than pride.
– Unworthiness – Kissing the floor admits one’s total unworthiness before an infinitely holy God.
– Repentance – It represents repentance from sin and a turning toward God’s mercy.
– Honor and worship – Prostrations acknowledge God’s ultimate glory, majesty, and honor.
– Love and gratitude – The kiss demonstrates deep love for the Lord and gratitude for his blessings.
So for Orthodox believers, this simple act instills proper perspective before God. It also unites their bodies with their spiritual intentions.
Dispositions for Performing the Ritual
Since floor veneration is not just physical but an expression of inward faith, certain dispositions help to perform the ritual properly:
– Prepare prayerfully – Take time to ready your heart and mind for worship.
– Banish distractions – Avoid preoccupations so full attention can be on God.
– Approach reverently – Perform the act with care and reverence, not flippantly.
– Focus on meaning – Concentrate on the spiritual meaning, not only the outward form.
– Give full devotion – Put one’s whole self into the physical gestures.
– Offer to God – Do it as an act of loving offering to the Lord.
– Express humility – Embrace a genuine sense of contrition and lowliness.
– Renew intention – Use it to rededicate oneself to following Christ.
– Feel union with church – Let it connect you to all other worshippers.
– Appeal for grace – Receive it as a freely given gift from God, not earned by human efforts.
So the appropriate disposition makes this ritual both outward and inward, bodily and spiritual. Just going through the motions absentmindedly separates the act from its meaning.
Misconceptions About the Practice
Since floor veneration is not commonly practiced in all Christian traditions, some misunderstandings can arise. Here are a few misconceptions worth clarifying:
– It is not required – No one should be forced into the act against their conscience. It is voluntary.
– It is not idolatry – Orthodox do not worship the floor or believe it has magical powers.
– It is not for vanity – The rite should not be done to impress others with one’s piety.
– It is not mindless – Kissing the floor is meaningful, not just habitual mindless action.
– It is not magic – Physical gestures do not automatically earn God’s favor. Sincere faith and grace are still required.
– It is not worship of matter – Orthodox venerate matter like icons but do not deify or worship it.
So while some may misunderstand it at first glance, floor veneration is actually a humble gesture of worship offered to the triune God alone.
Questions From Those Unfamiliar With the Practice
Since kissing the floor is unfamiliar to many outside Orthodox Christianity, it can prompt some honest questions from observers. These include:
– Why don’t you just bow or kneel? Full prostrations or touching the floor provide that extra degree of physical self-abasement and humility.
– Does your back or knees ever hurt? Floor veneration is practiced with care and wisdom about physical limitations. But discomfort endured for God is valued spiritually.
– Isn’t this unhygienic? Orthodox treat church floors with care and cleanliness just like any shared surface.
– What if someone trips or falls? Worshippers are careful in movements, aware of others around them sharing the space.
– Do you actually have to kiss it with your lips? Customs vary – lips, hand, or bowing alone to the floor may be appropriate depending on context.
– Isn’t this just empty ritualism? Orthodox believe matching physical and spiritual gives worship its fullness. The two together are more meaningful.
– Should everyone be required to do this? No one should ever be forced. These acts of devotion are voluntary and to each person’s ability.
So while curious onlookers may have honest questions, understanding the solemnity and intention behind the act often resolves any concerns.
Quotes About Floor Veneration
Orthodox saints and spiritual writers over the centuries have reflected on the purpose and value of floor veneration. Here are a few insightful quotes on this distinctive pious practice:
“We kiss the floor, because we are kissing the footstool of the feet of the Lord Jesus Christ” – St. Euphemia
“Let your bending body reflect your humble heart, touching the earth in order to touch heaven beyond it” – St. John Climacus
“When prostrating, do not come before God with the body alone, but approach Him in soul and spirit as well” – St. Tikhon of Zadonsk
“We are but dust and ashes, yet lovingly kiss the ground trod by those transfigured by Christ’s light” – St. Maria of Paris
“Lower yourself to the ground in humility, and you will be lifted up to heaven in spirit” – St. Kosmas Aitolos
“Each time I kiss the floor, I am kissing the feet of Christ, remembering that I am but a lowly servant” – St. Xenia of Petersburg
So for millennia, Orthodox writers and thinkers have highlighted floor veneration as a gesture that both expresses and shapes the proper posture of humanity before God.
Examples in Scripture and Church History
Scripture and church history provide many examples of holy figures demonstrating deep reverence through bowing or prostrating themselves to the earth:
– Abraham fell facedown to the ground before God when interceding for Sodom (Genesis 18:22)
– Moses and Aaron fell facedown before the Glory of God appearing in the tabernacle (Numbers 14:5)
– King David bowed down and prostrated himself upon bringing the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem (2 Samuel 6:14, 1 Chronicles 29:20)
– Jesus prostrated himself in deep distress and reverence while praying in Gethsemane (Matthew 26:39)
– The Magi fell down and worshipped the infant Christ after presenting their gifts (Matthew 2:11)
– Early Christian martyrs like St. Ignatius of Antioch knelt to kiss the ground at their execution.
– St. Mary of Egypt bowed down in repentance after converting to Christian asceticism.
– St. Vladimir’s envoys bowed down before Hagia Sophia in awestruck worship when they first encountered Byzantine Orthodoxy.
So Scripture and tradition contain many episodes of bowing down in reverence during pivotal encounters with the Divine.
For Orthodox Christians, touching or kissing the floor is an iconic gesture rich with spiritual meaning. This tradition comes from ancient origins grounded in biblical theology. When performed with focus, faith, and the right disposition, floor veneration impresses on the worshipper’s body and soul their absolute humility before an awesome God. This visceral expression of devotion helps orient the believer toward their true relationship to the Lord – lowly servant worshipping the Most High. While unfamiliar to some observers today, honoring holy ground connects present day Orthodox to centuries of faithful who bowed down not toward the earth below but toward the heavens above.