Not long ago I was at weekday Mass in a big church, not very full, all of us congregants spread out as far as we could be from one another. Even so, almost no one was more than a pew or two distant from anyone else. At the sign of peace, most people just gave "the wave.” You know the wave. The person turns in your direction, maybe smiles slightly and places his or her palm face out, somewhere between the gesture you find in an icon of Jesus and the Supremes singing "Stop in the Name of Love.” When used at a distance, and with a second of eye contact, it can be a pleasant form of acknowledgement, "Hello from across the room.” But when you're standing one pew apart, the vibe is often more like, "Please don't touch me.”
A week later, at Sunday Mass elsewhere, I noticed the same thing: though the pews were crowded, many people would not extend a hand to one another, or they did so only to people directly in front of them. And the ritual lasted only about 10 seconds, before the organist was on to "Lamb of God…” and the priest was breaking the host. It is not like this everywhere. Still, when I encounter it I cannot help but wonder, What ever happened to the sign of peace?
Not the Same As Ever
A little history:In the early days of Christianity, the "kiss of peace” came at the end of petitions or significant rites and served as an acclamation, much like "Amen.” Tertullian called it the "seal of prayer.” As communities developed their own liturgical traditions, placement of the kiss varied. The Roman Rite placed it where we find it today. Other traditions placed the ritual in the middle, immediately after the petitions or after the presentation of the gifts. At the millennium, it had been relegated to clergy alone and by the 16th century is had vanished from the Latin litrugy altogether. Only with the 1970 General Instruction of the Roman Missal did the rite officially become a part of Catholic liturgical practice again.
Today liturgical theologians talk about the sign of peace as a moment that connects worshipers back to the desire for reconciliation they sought at the end of the Our Father: "Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us” it also anticipates the reception of Communion. In offering peace to one another&ampampmdashnot thanks, not "Howdy,” but peace, and not only to friends and family but also strangers and enemies-we express our desire for healing, for communion in our church and in our world and by the grace of God we experience that communion as a reality. At least, that's the theology.
One view of the problem with the rite is that it might be in the wrong place in the liturgy. About to receive Communion, having been drawn through the eucharistic prayers into a holy space, some of us might be thinking, "Hey, I'm praying now. Talk to me later.”
Other liturgical positions for the sign of peace have a certain logic, too. The beginning of Mass, for instance, seems a natural place for a rite that draws us together as community. The transition between the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist also makes good theological sense: before we present our gifts, we reconcile with one another. It makes good human sense, too. Having just listened to readings and a homily, the congregation might need a chance to get up and get the blood moving again before proceeding into the eucharistic prayer. Finally, at the end of Mass it is hard to miss a strong gravitational pull to linger and share community. You find a lot more handshakes and embraces going on when people are leaving church than you find polite waves.
In some places, one finds a different solution. Instead of barreling directly into the rite after the previous acclamation, some presiders stop at that point and invite the community to take a moment to pray for peace. In Australia, where I lived last year, almost every parish I visited used this approach. The change in the congregation after just a few seconds of silence was notable. Having undertaken the liturgical equivalent of a deep breath, congregations (and their priests) entered into the sign of peace with a greater equanimity and presence to the moment. Yet, paradoxically, the total time spent on the rite had not increased.
Breaking and Entering
The sign of peace is not a formality, an exchange of pleasantries or an introduction. It is another opportunity in the liturgy for God to break in and affect us. Some days, as I listen to the familiar prayers and their cadences, it is hard not to get distracted. If I am lucky, it is a good distraction, the offering up of worries, relationships and the like to God in prayer.
More often than not, though, my mind wanders through itineraries, problem solving and the latest episode of "Grey's Anatomy.” I can finish the Our Father without even realizing I have said it.
On those days, the sign of peace is my salvation. By forcing me to look up, see the people in front of me and exchange a greeting with them, I am freed, if only momentarily, from my inner hamster wheel, freed sometimes from my grudges, too. Living in a small community, you inevitably have to exchange the sign of peace with someone, in your darkest moments, you'd rather see hit by a truck (or at least repeatedly by a toddler with a Wiffle Ball bat). Oh God, I pray on those days, please let him turn the other way, please don't make me face him. It can be very hard. But much to my surprise, I have found offering and receiving the sign of peace from people who bug me or have hurt me (or whom I have hurt) can be tremendously liberating. What has drawn tight or hard inside can unexpectedly be loosened.
In the face of wars and economic crises and family problems, we are all longing for peace, for reconciliation, for freedom of one kind or another. If we take the sign of peace a little more gently and slowly, or perhaps if we experiment with relocating it, we might be able to experience that grace a little more deeply.