Catholics do a lot of weird things at Mass. We sit, we stand, we sit again, we stand again, we sit again, we stand again, we kneel, we stand again, we shake hands with people, we kneel again, we walk up to the front, we walk back to our seats, we sit again, we stand again, and we leave. Seems like a lot of work. But, maybe we’re just over-achievers, because we always insist upon making an already demanding task that much harder by throwing in added challenges. Where are we going to sit? Front? Don’t want to seem too eager. Back? Don’t want to be stuck with the crying babies. We settle into a pew and then squeeze as much conversation out of the next 5 minutes as we possibly can, assuming we’re not late as usual. We sit and silently criticize the music, the readers, the altar servers. The homily is either too long or too bland or too preachy. We all add in a multitude of additional challenges throughout the Mass—everyone’s got their own specialties.
Once we get to the start of the Eucharistic Prayer, a cold sweat spreads throughout the congregation like a plague. Slowly, one by one, everyone realizes we’re getting close to the big one, the one you spend days beforehand worrying over and weeks afterward reliving (at least some of us do). The sign of peace is nearly upon us. While everything leading up to that moment is centered upon the celebration of Christ’s sacrifice in the Eucharist, almost inevitably, even if it’s just for a moment, sometime between the Sanctus and the Great Amen, the thought crosses your mind of who is around you and where you’ll go first for the sign of peace.
At first glace it seems completely disconnected from the other Mass parts surrounding it. We’re praying, singing, praying the Our Father (sometimes holding hands), then suddenly shaking hands and hugging, and back to singing. I want to look experientially at how we do the sign of peace as a way of showing how we often miss the beautiful liturgical significance in this moment. I’ll start with the basic structure of events for anyone unfamiliar with the Catholic liturgy and then highlight two major variations that are the most revelatory.
The Standard Model for the sign of peace: shake hands with/hug family and those in the rest of your pew, and if there’s time the pews in front and behind. Crushing handshakes are reserved for siblings. Moving more than a step from your spot is excessive, unless Grandma is there. Always move down the pew to hug Grandma.
Variation #1, a favorite of the older crowds (see any daily Mass): quickly turn, nod to everyone around you, maybe wave or throw up a couple peace signs. If it takes more than 30 seconds you’re doing it wrong. In general, speed tends to be the name of the game for daily Mass, which isn’t terrible. Those who attend daily Mass are often people on a tight schedule or lunch break. However, the sign of peace is not something than can be reduced to near non-existence without somehow changing our participation in the Eucharist. Contrary to what I said above about the sign of peace as a random event in the Mass, we don’t change gears in the sign of peace, but rather are literally enacting our prayer. We’re proclaiming our love of God through love of neighbor, extending to them the same blessing and hope for peace the newly risen Christ offered the 11 gathered in the locked, upper room. Even more directly, we just asked God to “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” We are asking God to forgive us using the same standard by which we forgive others. Personally, I hope God is far more forgiving than I have been with those who have injured me. Still, upon making this prayer to God, we then immediately get a chance to put our prayer into action by extending peace to our parents, siblings, friends, and all of those around us who have almost certainly trespassed against us. Peace. Not just forgiveness, not just a clean slate, but peace in our community. If we don’t actively extend this before receiving the Eucharist, how can we make it manifest in our world as the Body of Christ when we leave the church?
Variation #2 tends to be a favorite of young crowds (college dorm Masses are special offenders): empty the pews, form an inner and outer circle rotating in opposite directions, and proceed to bro hug everyone in the congregation. The reality of this situation is that, while it is an impressive display of love and community, we have to ask why this is really happening. In offering us peace, the priest is standing in the place of Christ in His sacrifice and extending love to us. By encouraging us to offer one another the sign of Christ’s peace, we’re sharing the love we have received from Him with one another. It is an expression of an immense filial love that shows we’re coming as a community to the feast. The problem arises when this love, brotherly love, is celebrated for its own sake and takes away our focus from the Eucharist, which is sitting consecrated on the altar waiting for the hugs and inevitable conversation to stop.
It’s as if an astronaut, after devoting so much energy and focus to training and preparation, climbed out of the cockpit with 30 seconds left on the countdown and said, “Wow, that was really something!” We’d say, but with all the effort you’ve put in, you’re supposed to go to the moon! Meanwhile, we have been prepared by the entire liturgy for so much more than the sign of peace! We have been called to the feast, to receive Christ in the Eucharist, and yet suddenly we decide we’re satisfied with just being part of the community. Yes, the sign of peace is an expression of love, but it’s not perfect or complete. It has to remain a means to the end that is communion in Christ. This in no way diminishes filial love, but rather elevates it. The best part of all this is that, by expressing our desire for peace and then participating in God’s agapic love, we’re equipped with the filial love we need to actually make this peace manifest in the world. We don’t merely leave the sign of peace behind because the Eucharist is better, the Eucharist completes the sign of peace by so uniting us with Christ and filling us with love that we are now able to live peace.
We’re talking about real peace, peace that is intimately tied to love. It isn’t peace for its own sake, it’s peace as the by-product of divine love. This is the peace we’re called to offer one another at Mass and receive in the Eucharist. It’s a strong and firm peace, not something wishy-washy. It’s beating your swords into plowshares not because we have collectively agreed to stop fighting, but rather because we love one another so completely that we no longer even recognize their previous purpose. It is easy to simply say the Eucharist is important and that we should more fully incorporate love and peace into our relationships. The thing that is hard and that is so absolutely fundamental is that we celebrate the liturgy and receive the Eucharist, not for a functional end, but out of love for God and a desire for relationship with Him and with each other in this unity. A life of love and a life of peace, a complete embodiment of the liturgy in our daily life, is the shared vocation of all humanity. Call it altruistic, call it unrealistic, call it whatever you like, because that’s exactly what God’s calling you to.