Reflections on the Sign of Peace

“Let us offer each other the Sign of Peace.” In most campus Masses, these words are followed by a flurry of activity (“bro-hugs,” small talk, social niceties, etc.), and someone who isn’t Catholic might be forgiven for thinking that the “Sign of Peace” constitutes a break in the liturgy, a temporary return to normal social life, before resuming the strange ritual of the Mass. However, if we look to Tradition, it becomes clear that the Sign of Peace is a natural development of the Liturgy. What is the proper place of the Sign of Peace at Mass? What does it mean for us as Christians?

The Sign of Peace, or pax, has its origins in the earliest liturgies of the Church. St. Paul writes in his epistles to “[g]reet one another with a holy kiss,” and St. Peter says to “greet one another with a kiss of love.” The origin of the kiss of peace is not completely without precedent. It may have come from the command of Christ Himself, who told those present at the Sermon on the Mount: “[…] first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.” Reconciliation did not explicitly have to be expressed through a kiss, but in ancient times the kiss was considered an affectionate sign of respect and reverence to whomever it was given.

Christ’s command to reconcile before offering gifts at the altar was originally taken literally, as Justin Martyr notes: “Having ended the prayers, we salute one another with a kiss. There is then brought to the president of the brethren bread and a cup of wine mixed with water.” This implies that the pax occurred at the end of the Liturgy of the Word, before the offering of bread and wine.

However, later in the patristic era, the pax was shifted to its current place in the liturgy. Augustine notes: “Then, after the consecration of the Holy Sacrifice of God, […] we say the Lord’s Prayer which you have received and recited. After this, the ‘Peace be with you’ is said, and the Christians embrace one another with the holy kiss.” Here the pax has been moved, becoming a sign of reconciliation amongst brethren. This, too, is a direct implementation of Christ’s command, as the reconciliation called for by the Our Father leads directly to the offering of the communicants themselves as vessels for Christ’s Sacrifice.

After the placement of the pax was established, the method of communicating it began to change. With less frequent reception of Communion in the medieval era, the prevalence of the pax began to wane as well. The Church carried on the pax through the use of paxbredes, or “peace-boards,” which were constructed of precious metals and depicted the Paschal Lamb, for congregants to kiss, an act which often took the place of communion itself. These boards fell into disuse by the Counter-Reformation, and following the Council of Trent the pax was mandated only to be given at a Solemn High Mass; however, in every Mass the priest continued to say “may the Peace of the Lord be with you always” to the entire congregation.

The pax, now known as the Sign of Peace, was re-implemented into the liturgy after the Second Vatican Council, though it remains an optional component. The General Instruction of the Roman Missal leaves the incorporation of the sign of peace to the discretion of the celebrant. The actual sign given is not specified in the Missal, but left to the decision of the local bishops conference. Vatican legislation stipulates, however, “that each one give the sign of peace only to those who are nearest and in a sober manner.” In addition, the Vatican instruction also calls upon the celebrant to remain in the sanctuary, “so as not to disturb the celebration.”

This instruction, while seemingly limiting our dorm Mass sentiments, is nevertheless a good reminder to all participating Catholics about the purpose of the pax in the liturgy. This gesture is not meant to be a break from the liturgy to act comfortably with friends and neighbors. Instead, it is an outgrowth of the Our Father, which calls for us to forgive those who trespass against us, and it provides an opportunity for communion between brethren that prefigures the deeper Communion we will experience through reception of the Body of Christ. May we always remember that this act, along with everything we do during the Holy Sacrifice of Mass, is aimed at that communion in Christ the Head, the reason for our gathering now and always.

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