One of the first gifts the Risen Lord gave to the church after the resurrection was the gift of peace. On that first Easter night, Jesus came to the disciples in the locked room and greeted them with, “Peace be with you.”
All of us desire the peace of Christ, which enables us to be faithful in times of conflict, to live hopefully in times of uncertainty and to love with Christ’s love when circumstances make that really difficult.
Throughout the liturgy we express our longing for this peace. God’s Word promises peace and calls us to live and to extend peace to others. In the “Our Father” we pray for the coming of God’s kingdom, which is characterized by peace. And the second Eucharistic Prayer for Reconciliation expresses our desire for the peace God offers: “In the midst of conflict and division, we know it is you who turn our minds to thoughts of peace.” But the most evident expression is the Sign of Peace.
The practice of extending a “kiss of peace” as a sign of respect or friendship is found in Jewish tradition and was the custom at the time of Jesus. When the woman washed Jesus’ feet with her tears, he reminded his host, “You gave me no kiss, but she has not ceased kissing my feet since I entered” (Luke 7:45). We know, too, that the apostles continued this ritual as St. Peter encouraged Christians to “embrace one another with the embrace of true love” (1 Peter 5:14).
In the liturgical tradition in Rome, the kiss of peace followed the celebration of the liturgy of the Word. When the liturgy of the Word was joined with the liturgy of the Eucharist the gesture was associated with the presentation of the gifts and recalled Jesus’ instruction to first be reconciled before bringing our gifts to the altar. Some time in the 4th century, the gesture was moved to the end of the Eucharistic Prayer and became an extension of the Lord’s Prayer as a preparation for Communion. Since Communion expresses and deepens the unity of the Church, the gesture was exchanged before people shared in the body and blood of Christ. Our present liturgy retains this placement immediately before Communion.
The priest prays for the peace and unity of the church and then invites us to exchange a sign of peace. The manner in which this is done varies from place to place. Whatever form is used, it should be a genuine sign and reverent. It is not simply a greeting like “good morning,” but it is a form of worship and prayer. Our gesture is a personal pledge and sign of reconciliation, unity and peace; an expression of faith in the presence of Christ in our neighbor and a prayer that God will bless him or her.
This week perhaps we can be more aware of the sign we offer at Mass and more intent in actions of creating and sharing peace.
Sr. Rehrauer is president of the Sisters of St. Francis of the Holy Cross, Bay Settlement, and former associate director of the Liturgy Secretariat for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.