Christ is our peace. (Ephesians 2:14)
Notice that we say "Christ IS our peace," not simply that He gives us peace. He Himself is the peace for which we long.
Why? Because, in His own flesh, Jesus unites what used to be separated. God and man were at odds since the fall of Adam and Eve; Jesus is both God and man.
Between heaven and earth was a huge divide; Jesus is from heaven, who came to earth to take on an earthly body, and ascended into heaven with that earthly body.
Since the fall of Adam and Eve, social divisions multiplied; husband versus wife, brother kills brother (Cain and Abel), the world cannot understand each other (Babel). But, in Jesus, the Only Begotten Son of the Father, we all can be the adopted sons and daughters of the One Father of all (Pentecost).
One faith, one Lord, one baptism.
THE KISS OF PEACE
The unity, harmony and peace that ought to exist between Christians was, from the earliest times, expressed in the kiss of peace. "Salute one another with a holy kiss." It is interesting that two Apostles, Saint Peter and Saint Paul, both say the same thing in their epistles (1 Peter 5:14; Romans 16:16). This must have been an early and fundamental Christian sign.
In fact, it was a common sign of friendship in the days of Jesus.
SS Peter and Paul give each other a kiss of peace before going to their martyrdom
Christians would greet each other with a kiss. This also took place during the liturgy, the sacred moment of Christian worship.
THE KISS OF PEACE IN THE LITURGY
There is no doubt that a kiss of peace was exchanged among Christians at the liturgy, but in varying ways. At first it seems men and women kissed, even on the lips, as is seen in the story of Saint Mary of Egypt when she received Holy Communion from Zosimus. Later, when the Church grew in size, men and women sat separately in church and exchanged this peace only among their own gender.
In some places, the sign of peace came before the Offertory, in reference to Matthew 5:23-24 to make peace with one's brother before offering to Lord. The Apology of Saint Justin (around 150AD) places the kiss of peace at this part of the liturgy, just before the Offertory.
But in Rome it always came after the Consecration, that is, after the Holy Sacrifice had been accomplished, and before partaking of the sacrificial meal.
Pope Innocent I (early 400s), writing to the bishop of Gubbio (Italy) says that, while it was the custom in Gubbio to call the congregation to exchange peace before the Consecration, he says it should come after the sacrifice is accomplished, so that the kiss becomes a sign of completion of the celebration of reconciliation.
In other words, to symbolize that we can only offer peace to each other because of the peace which Christ is for us. It was His sacrifice on the cross that put all divisions to death, reconciling us with God and with each other. Therefore, we save this exchange of peace for after the Consecration and before we receive the Sacrament of Peace and Unity, the Body and Blood of the Lord.
You will notice that there is a marked attention on the idea of peace once the Our Father is said.
"...graciously grant peace in our days..."
"Peace I leave with you, my peace I give you..."
And even after the sign has been given, the last invocation of the Agnus Dei (Lamb of God) is "grant us peace."
The idea is that, now that the sacrifice has been accomplished, Christ has become our peace, He has achieved our peace and is able to give that peace to us.
THE KISS OF PEACE IS REDUCED
In time, the kiss of peace was restricted to the sacred ministers at a Solemn High Mass. Even there, the physical kiss on the mouth was reduced to an embrace.
It is a fact of history that many things, good in themselves, became subject to abuses. Even in the time of Saint Paul, he was writing against certain abuses that Christians did during the Sacred Liturgy (1 Corinthians 11).
So the Church began to reduce or modify those things that were frequent victims of abuse.
In 2007, over 30 years after the re-introduction of the sign of peace among the faithful in the Mass, Pope Benedict XVI pointed out some of the problems with the sign of peace. There are times, he said, the sign can be "exaggerated," causing a "certain distraction" in the people just before receiving Holy Communion. This already points to specific abuses that this gesture can suffer.
TODAY...AN OPTION, NOT MANDATORY
In 1970, the sign of peace by the entire congregation was restored to the Mass as an option. The older Sacramentary, the one we have been using for many years before the latest Roman Missal, said that the priest (or deacon) may invite the people to exchange a sign of peace.
In the new Roman Missal, the priest (or deacon) invites the people to offer each other a sign of peace, "if appropriate." We are not told by the liturgical books what is "appropriate."
Since 1970, virtually every priest has taken the option that it no longer feels like an option. If a priest were to refrain from using the option, he would have to do much explanation among the people beforehand.
(No. 82 in the General Instruction of the Roman Missal)
(No. 82 in the General Instruction of the Roman Missal)
1. WHAT sign?
The Roman Missal says it is up to each conference of bishops to decide the specific sign in accordance with local custom. The US Bishops have not decided on a specific sign, but leave it up to local custom.
Here's an interesting note. Guam does not fall under the US Conference of Catholic Bishops. Neither does the Northern Marianas. We fall under the Pacific Conference of Catholic Bishops. That conference, made up of islands vastly different from each other in numerous ways, leaves it up even more to local custom.
Herein lies the recipe for a few problems. "Local custom" doesn't seem to be a precise formula. We live in a multi-cultured world. In one pew at Mass, there could be people whose cultural background make physical contact with non-relatives uncomfortable, and other people in the same pew who are quite used to it.
When I was young, we "had" to shake hands with elderly people who, according to our culture, we ought to have reverenced by putting their hands up to our noses. Shaking everyone's hand was what the American priests told us to do; shaking everyone's hand was not our culture, at the time.
Many married couples refuse to shake hands, seeing that gesture as less than what their relationship calls for. So they kiss; sometimes on the cheek, sometimes on the lips. At least in this instance, because husband and wife will not kiss others on the lips, their "kiss of peace" has become an expression of their marital love, rather than of their unity as believers. In a sacramental marriage, it is true that there is more than a natural relationship, but I wonder if the Kiss of Peace in the liturgy is meant to express a bond that is particular to husband and wife.
A basic problem with the sign of peace when not understood is that, when people are told to interact with each other, even in Mass, they can fall back spontaneously on their natural feelings, as seen in the example above.
The sign of peace then becomes, unfortunately, a natural experience; of friendliness, human contact, family love; rather than a spiritual experience of unity based on a union with Christ and His sacrifice. There's nothing wrong with natural friendliness. But that's not why Christ suffered and died for us.
The Roman Missal also says that the sign of peace should be done in a sober way. This ties in with Pope Benedict's remark in 2007 about the need for restraint in making this gesture.
In Mass, we are dealing with sacred signs and symbols, and the realities to which they point. The great danger of the sign of peace when misunderstood, and the lack of precision surrounding it, is that it can become an expression of natural friendliness. Even there, not everyone experiences natural friendliness when shaking hands in church.
The Roman Missal is also clear that we are to offer the sign of peace, if invited by the priest or deacon, "only to those who are nearest." This would mean to exchange the sign with the persons in our immediate vicinity.
Wandering about, even across the aisle at times, to give people the sign of peace is a liturgical abuse. The purpose of the sign of peace is not for us to make actual contact with everyone, but to express a spiritual reality that transcends the limited physical expression it is supposed to be.
THE SIGN OF PEACE IS NOT OUR CHANCE TO "MAKE UP"
Another danger that can happen at the sign of peace, when people are not properly catechized, is that they use this moment to make a first step in reconciling with someone else. It often happens in our small island that people at odds will meet up at a funeral or wedding Mass. By force of circumstance, these two people can sometimes sit in the same pew. Come the sign of peace, they turn to each other and the dam breaks. Tears flow, apologies are made and the interminable hugging commences.
There are times when the celebrant at Mass has to wait (he shouldn't) for the people to "calm down" after these extended and liturgically abusive exchanges of peace.
The Kiss of Peace is not meant to be our chance to achieve reconciliation. That should be done even before Mass starts; in the sacrament of Penance; in our personal outreach towards those we have offended or who have offended us.
The Kiss of Peace is to manifest the reconciliation we already have, through Christ our Lord.
THE BEAUTY OF THE EXTRAORDINARY FORM
Although the Kiss of Peace is limited in the traditional Latin Mass to Solemn High Masses with deacon and subdeacon (and Pontifical Solemn High Masses), it makes a great impression, keeping the spiritual nature, the sobriety and restraint called for by the Church.
The Kiss comes after the celebrant's prayer for peace, which is made right after he has said, in the Agnus Dei, "dona nobis pacem," "grant us peace."
He then kisses the altar, the symbol of Christ, who is the very altar of His own sacrifice, His Sacred Body and Blood.
By kissing the altar, the priest is kissing Christ our peace, and thereby receives the peace of Christ. Now he can give this peace to the deacon.
The deacon approaches the priest, and since the deacon is asking for the peace from the priest, it is the deacon who bows to the priest. They embrace. The priest wishes peace upon the deacon "Pax tecum." "Peace be with you." The deacon responds, "Et cum spiritu tuo." "And with your spirit."
The bestower of peace, the priest, places his hands on the shoulders of the one receiving the peace, who places his open hands under the elbows of the priest.
The deacon now repeats this pattern, bestowing peace upon the subdeacon.
Although the congregation is not involved in making this exchange, they are witnesses of it among the sacred ministers and participate in this gesture in that way. When they see the celebrant receive Christ's peace, represented by the kissing of the altar, and how this peace passes from Christ to celebrant to deacon then subdeacon, the faithful are edified by spiritual realities and not by human contact alone.
They are visibly reminded that Christ is our peace. No other.