Liturgy Qns, Sign of Peace

At a recent parish council meeting, some questions arose about the Mass and the liturgy. I’ll try to remember to spend a few minutes at Mass addressing these before Lent kicks in, but these questions can be a little complicated, so I wanted to write about them as well.

Some topics I hope to get to in response to these various questions that have come up: the sign of peace, holding hands during the Our Father, blessing with holy water at the beginning of Mass, who distributes Holy Communion, blessing children during Mass, and a few others.

We’ll start with the sign of peace. This has ancient roots in the celebration of the Mass and is traditionally called the kiss of peace, because in biblical times and in Mediterranean cultures, it was customary to greet each other with a kiss (even between men or between women). In our modern American culture, that gesture is typically reserved for men and women in a romantic relationship, so in the U.S. has generally been replaced with a handshake.

There are at least two Scriptural roots for this greeting making its way into the celebration of the holy Mass. The first comes from the closing lines of one of St. Paul’s letter to the Church of Corinth: “Finally, brethren, farewell. Mend your ways, heed my appeal, agree with one another, live in peace and the God of peace will be with you. Greet one another with a holy kiss.” [2 Cor. 13:11-12]. The second and perhaps more relevant passage is from St. Matthew’s Gospel, where he talks about not harboring anger or grudges against a brother: “But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother shall be liable to the council and whoever says, ‘You fool’ shall be liable to the hell of fire. So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.”

Thus the gesture has a profound significance. It symbolizes not just friendliness or self-introduction, but something far deeper: mend your ways … first be reconciled to your brother. The idea is that, before we can enter into communion with Christ Himself, we must first have a spirit of repentance and willingness to reconcile with our brothers and sisters in Christ if we can expect to be united with the Lord and with them in Heaven.

Unfortunately it seems that the liturgical significance of this gesture as a sign of forgiveness and reconciliation has been lost. In my experience, it has been reduced to “being friendly.” Certainly there is nothing wrong with being friendly, but the appropriate time and place for that is when socializing before or after Mass or at parish activities and events. At the holy Mass, the focus is always on Christ and His Word – proclaimed from the ambo (pulpit) and above all present in the holy sacrifice, where the bread and wine offered as gifts become the Body and Blood Jesus offered up to the world on the Cross of Calvary.

In practice, I have found that most Massgoers treat the sign of peace as an interruption to the Mass. That is, their attention is so much focused on not missing any neighbor to wave at or shake hands with, that they stop paying attention to what is happening at the altar at one of the most critical moments: what is called the “fraction” during the Agnus Dei (the priest breaking the Sacred Host and mingling a small fragment in the Precious Blood while the Lamb of God is sung). Here, in a sacramental way, we see present before us Christ allowing His sacred Body to be broken on the Cross and the mingling of His Precious Blood flowing out through His Precious Body in that eternal sacrifice which saves mankind from sin.

I am always saddened when I see people ignoring this as they turn away from the altar making sure that no one is “missed.”

As a result, when I celebrate Mass, I elect to omit the entirely optional rite of the sign of peace. Yes, you read that correctly. The sign of peace at Mass is optional and at the priest celebrant’s discretion. I should note that it does not have much of a recent tradition. Liturgical historians point to the sign of peace among the faithful early in the Church, either through a kiss or passing a “Pax board” from person to person to be kissed in turn. However, for the most recent nearly 500 years, until the Mass was revised after the Vatican Council, the faithful did not exchange the sign of peace. Instead, the priest and deacon exchanged a very brief and very sober gesture of reconciliation on behalf of the community (involving reaching to grasp the elbow in what is called the Roman embrace).

In addition to these considerations, people are becoming increasingly conscious of transmission of germs (especially during this era of Covid!) and do not necessarily want to shake hands, which can transmit disease easily. It is not even feasible to exchange this sign when people are sitting spaced apart. I do find the alternative of waving at people somewhat undignified for holy Mass.

For all those reasons, I have instructed the deacons not to extend the invitation for the (optional) sign of peace. I am not a killjoy. I won’t complain if a couple sneaks a kiss in at that time, for example, but generally, the sign of peace is not exchanged unless the deacon (or priest celebrant in his absence) directs it.

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