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The Sign of Peace

As we began to implement precautions against the Coronavirus before the suspension of public Masses, one of the precautions was to cease exchanging the Sign of Peace. It is ingrained in us to shake hands and to say “peace be with you” (or very similar words). However, it is a wise precaution to stop shaking hands during the current pandemic. So, the exchange of the Sign of Peace was suspended. When the suspension of public Masses is lifted, one might expect that we may still not shake hands for a while.

I would like to take this as an opportunity to reflect on the Sign of Peace, sometimes called the “kiss” or “kiss of peace”. It is a very old custom of the Church. Paragraph 1345 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church cites St. Justin Martyr writing around 155 A.D. “When the prayers are concluded we exchange the kiss.”

In paragraph 82 of the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, we read, “

82. There follows the Rite of Peace, by which the Church entreats peace and unity for herself and for the whole human family, and the faithful express to each other their ecclesial communion and mutual charity before communicating in the Sacrament.

As for the actual sign of peace to be given, the manner is to be established by the Conferences of Bishops in accordance with the culture and customs of the peoples. However, it is appropriate that each person, in a sober manner, offer the sign of peace only to those who are nearest.

In most churches I have been in, the instruction offer to “offer the sign of peace only to those who are nearest” is the practice. We shake hands with the people immediately adjacent to us. (This is the practice where I now serve) However, I have been in a church or two where people begin to move around “some” going beyond those “who are nearest.” I have been in a church or two where they move around the whole church, shaking hands and greeting people with everyone in the church.

It’s the last that leads me to reflect on what the Sign of Peace is supposed to me. First, let us think about where it occurs in the Mass. We have just finished the Eucharistic Prayer. The bread and wine have been transubstantiated into the Body and Blood of Christ. We have just said the Lord’s Prayer. We are about to say/sing the Lamb of God and receive Holy Communion. It is a very sacred moment.

In the midst of that sacred moment, comes the Sign of Peace. Here, I include the entire text from the Roman Missal:

Lord Jesus Christ,
who said to your Apostles:
Peace I leave you, my peace I give you,
look not on our sins,
but on the faith of your Church,
but on the faith of your Church,
and graciously grant her peace and unity
in accordance with your will.
who live and reign for ever and ever.
Amen.

Priest: The peace of the Lord be with you always.
People: And with your spirit.

Priest/Deacon: Let us offer each the sign of peace.

What are we offering in the sign of peace? Are we wishing people to have a peaceful day without conflict or difficulty? Certainly that should be our prayer for them but is that the whole of what we offer? Certainly, we pray for peace in the sense of no wars or violence but there is something more going on here.

Please note the second text that I bolded and italicized, “The peace of the Lord.” It is the Lord’s peace that we offer. Here I think of John 20:19-31 that we heard this past Sunday where Jesus says three times to his disciples, “Peace be with you.” In my homily on Sunday I spoke about their fear and distress. The peace that Jesus offers is much more than a human peace. It transcends the sufferings and trials of this world to know the God is always with us. It is not peace in the sense of being “happy” and/or “care-free.” It is a peace that comes from making Jesus our cornerstone, making him the center of our lives.

We should also look at the first phrase from the rite that I bolded and italicized, “Peace I leave you, my peace I give you.” These words are not made up by humans. They are Jesus’ own words in John 14:27 where He goes on to say, “Not as the world gives do I give it to you. Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid.”

This is the peace that we offer in the Sign of Peace. It is not just well-wishing. It is not hello (that comes before and/or after Mass). It is a solemn and sacred peace. Does moving around the whole church express this peace or is it a “disruption” to the sacredness of what goes on at Mass? My experience has been that it disrupts the sacredness of the moment. I believe the practice of offering the Sign of Peace to those who are nearest to us is the proper balance of sharing God’s peace and the sacredness of the moment. It is the best way for us to express to each other our ecclesial communion and mutual charity before communicating in the Sacrament.

Even when the Coronavirus prevents us from physically offering the Sign of Peace, we still pray that all know the Peace of Christ.

Peace,

Fr. Jeff

3 Comments

  1. Thomas House says:

    Fr Jeff, I thoroughly enjoyed your article on The Sign of Peace. I had always thought and viewed it as a form of wishing others a friendly greeting. I had not seen it as something as ecclesial. It has bothered me when others walked up and down the aisle greeting everyone, I viewed as somewhat disruptive, and which took away from the solemnity of the mass. I have always kept my greeting to family or friends immediately around me, and not the entire church. I can now view this in a whole new light. I guess for me during this time to reflect on John 14.27, “I leave you peace, my peace I give you”, which will remind me it is a more solemn moment, and not just a greeting.

  2. Linda House says:

    To me the sign of peace is all about making eye contact with other people. After all are not the eyes “the window to the soul.”

  3. Fr. Jeff says:

    Perhaps the eye contact more looks into the soul than a polite handshake. This would not belittle the handshake. Just a thought for us to reflect on WHY we do it.

    Peace,
    Fr. Jeff

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