The Sign of Peace

July 3rd, 2011  |  Published in New Roman Missal

The change to the sign of peace in the revised Roman Missal is minimal. The priest will continue to say what he says now, “The peace of the Lord be with you always,” to which the congregation will respond: “And with your spirit.

Interestingly, though, this is a place in the Mass where many people would like to see change. Many pastors have heard over the years: “Hey, Father. Why don’t we move the sign of peace to the beginning of Mass so that we would greet each other as we start rather than waiting until Communion time?” The suggestion has an element of truth: We should greet one another as we gather for worship. The body of Christ needs to assemble as one body, and that means we need to be hospitable toward everyone who gathers with us.

That is not the purpose of the sign of peace, however. This ancient ritual gesture was restored to our liturgy after the Second Vatican Council. Though it had once found its place after the General Intercessions, for many centuries the Roman Rite has made it part of our preparation for Communion.

The earlier spot for this gesture placed it before the Presentation of the Gifts, linking it to Christ’s command: “Therefore, if you bring your gift to the altar, and there recall that your brother has anything against you, leave your gift there at the altar, go first and be reconciled with your brother, and then come and offer your gift” (Matt. 5:23-24). Putting the sign of peace within the Communion Rite serves a similar function. It reminds us that we dare not approach the altar of the Lord for Communion if we are not willing to be reconciled with the other members of Christ’s body. Some people have complained that the sign of peace interrupts their preparation for Communion, but this suggests that they really don’t understand the meaning of Communion. Communion unites us with every member of Christ’s body. Anything that separates us from one another needs to be surrendered before we approach the table. The sign of peace gives us an opportunity to express our unity. This may mean reconciling with someone who is estranged from us, or it may simply mean reminding ourselves that we belong to one another. In both cases, we will be better prepared to enter into Communion with one another in Christ.

The peace that we wish for one another is the peace of Christ, the peace that Christ promised those who live in him. The Hebrew word for peace, shalom, means more than the absence of war or conflict. It suggests a state of complete harmony with God, with nature, with others and with ourselves. That’s the gift we seek for ourselves and for all our brothers and sisters.

Part of the problem in understanding the sign of peace, perhaps, is our custom of using just a handshake for this ritual. This gesture suggests a standard greeting rather than a prayerful wish for Christ’s peace. The official books simply say that we should make an appropriate sign of peace according to local custom. Perhaps we might try a two-handed handclasp to remind ourselves that this means more than a simple hello.

However you make the gesture, it fulfills its function if it makes us more aware of the love of Christ that binds to one another. That’s what Communion strengthens, and the sign of peace points the way.

© 2004 Lawrence E. Mick. Revised 2006.
Distributed by the Federation of Diocesan Liturgical Commissions (FDLC),
Washington DC 20017