The Sign of Peace – theory and practice

No doubt this has happened more than once – one is standing after the Pater Noster at Mass, and the priest offers the congregation the peace of Christ, after which he urges all to offer a sign of that peace to another. So far so good. So one turns to the person one one’s right and offers the kiss, or sign, of peace (for us monks, a stylized embrace not a handshake), and then one turns to one’s left and …. finds that this neighbour is busily trying to catch the eye of someone else further away in order to nod or wave or whatever. One waits patiently for him to turn to offer the peace. But it is too late: the Angus Dei is intoned, and whether that neighbour to the left ever moved to offer the peace will remain unknown. The moment had passed; the liturgical duty now was to sing the Agnus Dei.

To be blunt, the Sign of Peace, or rather the way it is practised in the liturgy today, leaves me cold. It seems an example of theory which is rarely fulfilled in practice. In even the most reverent of Masses the Kiss of Peace sounds a jarring note, and disrupts the heightening liturgical focus on our Lord present in his Body and Blood by forcing us to turn to another and talk, and gesticulate, and to indulge in what seems little more than bonhomie, a group hug, a feel-good moment. Silence and stillness yield to a greater or lesser (all too often greater) hum of conversation and unsynchronized movement.

What, then, is the Sign, or Kiss, of Peace all about? What is it really?

The scriptural origins of the rite seem to lie principally in the words of our Lord and St Paul. In St Matthew’s gospel (5:23-24) our Lord declares,

So if you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.

While our Lord is obviously referring directly to the sacrifices of the Temple, it was hardly stretching things when the early Church saw in our Lord’s words something that applied to the Sacrifice of the Mass. So the liturgical necessity for peace can be found in the Didache, which dates from c.100AD, which clearly directed the Church,

… when coming together on the Lord’s own day, break bread and give thanks after confessing your transgressions. In that manner, your sacrifice will be pure. And do not let anyone coming with a quarrel against a brother join you until they are reconciled, in order that your sacrifice be not impure. 14:1-2

St Paul seems to be a source for the means to obey our Lord’s words, and express the unity in peace of the Church gathered for the Eucharist. Several times in his letters he exhorts the Christians to whom he is writing to “greet one another with a holy kiss” (Romans 16:16; 1 Corinthians 16:20; 2 Corinthians 13:12; 1 Thessalonians 5:26). As the Church grew in size and its liturgies grew greater in scale, the necessity for expressing peace and its necessity for the worthy offering of the Sacrifice were united in a ritualised exchange of the Kiss of Peace. In the eastern Church, and in the West until the fourth century, the Kiss of Peace came before the Offertory, in almost literal adherence to our Lord’s words quoted above. The Kiss of Peace was thus a preparation for the Sacrifice. Influenced by the African Church, Rome by the 4th century had placed it after the Pater Noster, as a preparation, now, for Communion. Lest the rite become indecorous, men exchanged the Kiss only with other men, and likewise women only with women. It seems that even then it was recognised that there was potential for indecorum in the rite.

By the 12th century, however, the Kiss had become even more ritualised, where it was observed at all. The people no longer exchanged the Kiss, only the sacred ministers, among themselves, did so. This was in large measure due to the infrequency with which people received Communion by then. Since the Kiss had become a preparation for Communion, then there was no need for non-communicants to exchange the Kiss. When they did receive and the Kiss was offered, it was in a new form entirely. A small tablet called the pax-brede, decorated with an image of the Passion, Crucifixion or the Lamb of God, was kissed by the celebrant and then it was offered to the people to kiss. Since the priest kissed it immediately after kissing the altar and the paten holding the Body of Christ, it was a clear sign of the peace of Christ being shared among all. In time even this practice fell into abeyance, save at High Mass.

The important point to note here is that the Kiss of Peace was not about offering our peace to another. It was to acknowledge the peace Christ had won for us by his blood shed on the cross, by which we are reconciled to God and to each other in the Person of Christ, in the Church which is his body. St Paul (Ephesians 2:14-16) again is crucial for this understanding of the Kiss of Peace:

For he [Christ] is our peace, who has made us both one, and has broken down the dividing wall of hostility, … that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby bringing the hostility to an end.

The emphasis now is not on some gesture of goodwill towards another, but on mutual recognition that the blood of Christ, about to be received in Communion, has put us at peace with God and also in each other by uniting us into his body, the Church, where together we receive his body, the Eucharist.

The exchange of the Kiss of Peace was revived in the Missal of 1970. It was modelled not so much on recent practice but on the practice of the early Church. Thus the people again exchanged the Kiss with each other. Or rather, not so much a kiss as a “sign”. Scope was left for adaptation to various cultures and their means for expressing such a sign. So far so good.

However, what we see in our churches at the exchange of the Sign of Peace seems to have little to do with its liturgical purpose. All too often there are conversations, jokes even. People move from their seats to search out friends and family in other parts of the Church. There is a need felt by some to include as many as possible. Sometimes even the priest leaves his proper place at the altar to spread some of the love around himself. It becomes one great feel-good moment, a group hug, a love-in. Liturgically this is most unhelpful. We have just offered the Sacrifice, Christ’s Body and Blood are now present and we are preparing ourselves to receive them. Then, all of a sudden, we focus on ourselves and not Christ whom we are to receive nor the Father whom we have worshipped. After this we are expected then to refocus quickly on the sublime moment of Communion, usually with the singing of the Agnus Dei. On a good day, most people will have refocused and begun singing along by the second of the three invocations in the Agnus Dei!

Yet the liturgy itself tells us what the Sign of Peace is truly about. Look at what the celebrant says immediately prior to the Peace – “Lord Jesus Christ, you said to your apostles ‘I leave you peace, my peace I give you‘… grant us the peace and unity of your Kingdom …. The peace of the Lord be with you always … Offer each other the sign of peace.”

“The” sign is of Christ’s peace, not our own general goodwill to others, or worse, to only our friends and family. It is an acknowledgement that we are in fact united in the Body of Christ who is our peace. Perhaps it would have been better if the liturgy quoted the entire verse (John 14:27) of Christ’s words:

Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you.

It is expressly a peace that we cannot give to each other. Only Christ gives us peace. Our capacity is a negative one: we must not obstruct Christ’s peace from uniting his Body. Otherwise we undermine the whole point of his shedding his blood for us. In truth, a sarcastic, insincere, jocular or careless exchange of the Sign of Peace is verging on a sacrilege.

The exchange of peace is actually only an option in the current liturgy – it is not required, and it is up to the celebrant to decide if it should be made or not. However, many would be upset if it were omitted. But I wonder if they would be upset for the right reasons. Are they upset because they feel they have missed out on a feel-good moment? Are they actually aware that it is Christ’s peace uniting us all that is the focus? Do they perhaps rather see the Peace as an opportunity to offer friends and family a loving gesture? But such gestures are best made throughout the course of the day. There is something incestuous about offering the Peace only to family and friends. If it is to be offered, surely it should be offered to those we do not know, the stranger in our midst, the fellow Christian with whom we are at peace in Christ despite our not knowing him or her.

To be honest, I would much rather omit the Sign of Peace as we practise it today. The dangers outweigh the benefits. Too many people misunderstand it; when offered only to friends and family it becomes a vehicle of exclusion of others (so inappropriate when about to receive the Lord’s Body and Blood); when offered carelessly, facetiously or hypocritically, or worse when it is refused, it causes scandal to others and can ruin their preparation for Communion.

A mainstream liturgist, Fr Jeremy Driscoll OSB, in his very useful book What Happens at Mass, writes the following regarding the Sign of Peace:

Then the priest greets the assembly with the very words of our risen Lord. “The peace of the Lord be with you always” he says… Then the priest directs the people, “Offer each other the sign of peace”. And all the members of the assembly turn to those immediately near them and offer the same greeting of the risen Lord. This is a ritual exchange, not a practical greeting. It is part of what we have called the serious play of ritual. (p.123)

It strikes me that Fr Driscoll has here the essentials of a renewed understanding and practice of the Sign of Peace when seen in the light of the above:

  1. That the “sign” in the Sign of Peace consists in the words of the risen Lord when he appeared to the disciples: “Peace be with you” (John 20: 19, 21). Hugs, kisses and handshakes are unnecessary and sometimes even unhelpful.
  2. That the Sign of Peace is a rite within the Mass, and so involves a ritual, not a free-for-all.
  3. That the Sign of Peace is a preparation for Communion so our focus should remain on Christ.
  4. That the peace we are exchanging is that of Christ, who is our peace, and not our own goodwill as such.
  5. That it is an option only, and if it is included then the Sign of Peace is better offered only to those next to us, and even better only to strangers, and should never be an exclusive love-in with family and friends.
  6. That to offer a sign of Christ’s peace that unites us in a way that is facetious or insincere is to risk both sacrilege as well as scandal to our neighbour, and so is no fit preparation for Communion.

Thus endeth the rant! Maybe there is something here to meditate on in the season of “peace on earth and goodwill to men”. For some more on the history of the Sign of Peace you can look here.