Q: What is the right way to give the sign of peace at Mass?
A: The exchange of peace can be given in different ways; the meaning behind it is far more important than the manner in which it is expressed. When we better understand the meaning of what we are doing, we better appreciate why we do it immediately before receiving Communion.
Let’s start with the meaning of peace, which is a word that we use a lot, but not always with the same understanding.
Most of our thoughts about peace probably have to do with situations of distress — nations at war or people suffering turmoil, hostile exchanges in our civic discourse or individuals distressed with anxieties. In response to these troubling situations, people of all faiths and cultural backgrounds often wish and pray for “peace.” This type of peace really just means the absence of violence and turmoil.
As disciples of Jesus, we are called to be instruments of God’s justice and healing for all who suffer violence. This, however, is not the real peace we celebrate and pray for at Mass. This is the peace the world seeks; but as Jesus told us, he has come to bring peace “not as the world gives” it, but as God gives it. (John 14:27)
The peace that Christ brings is not merely the absence of violence; it is the fruit of justice and love (see Gaudium et Spes 78), or as Pope St. Paul VI put it, “If you want peace, work for justice.”
In the Jewish world of Jesus, people believed that peace was the result of living in right relationship with God, self, others and the world around us. To be in right relationship was to be in a state of justice by treating others with respect for their God-given dignity. Such a state of justice brought harmony to individuals and nations.
While the world may have hoped for this peace born of right relationship, such justice was not possible due to the alienating effects of sin. It was only with the birth of Jesus that angelic choirs could finally proclaim “peace on earth.” Jesus is the only one who can overcome the alienating effects of sin that divide us from God and one another.
Our Lord accomplished this great reconciliation through his death on the cross in which he conquered once and for all the power of sin and death. It is this great reconciliation that restores the lost friendship between God and humanity. That is why the cross of Christ is the source of our peace — because it is the source of our restored right relationship, our justification, with God. St. Paul echoes this truth: “But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace … and in one body he reconciled us to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility.” (Ephesians 2:13-16) This great grace Jesus accomplished for us through the cross of Calvary is one we must choose to accept and live.
After our Lord’s death and resurrection, he appeared to the disciples who were gathered in hiding. (see John 20:19-23) His first words to them were not of reprimand for denying and abandoning him, but of healing, mercy, forgiveness and reconciliation: “Peace be with you.”
In that moment, they knew that our Lord’s mercy is always greater than their sin. Jesus then shared the gift of the Holy Spirit with them and empowered them to continue his mission of forgiveness and reconciliation in the world.
We can experience the peace of Christ even in the most distressful situations of life. It is a peace that comes from knowing and experiencing the presence of God with us, forgiving us and loving us. It is the peace that allowed the great martyrs to go to their deaths with confident trust and praying for their persecutors. It is the peace that guided the great saints to faithful perseverance even when they faced great resistance and rejection. Dante expressed this truth well in the Divine Comedy: “In his will is our peace.”
When we exchange the sign of peace at Mass, we do so with the same words Jesus spoke to the disciples, “Peace be with you,” because in our baptism we became members of the body of Christ and in the Eucharist we are formed even more so into his mystical body in the church.
The exchange of peace, then, is more than wishing people to be free of violence and distress. It is even more than wishing them right relationship. Our exchange of peace is our willing response as members of the body of Christ to become ministers to one another of the reconciliation Jesus won for us on the cross. We are literally being Christ to Christ. It is also a time when we encourage one another to know and trust God’s presence, love and mercy, and to persevere in doing the Lord’s will.
This is a sacred moment when the divisions in the body of Christ are healed through the grace of God passing through us. This healing is meant to bring about a real communion among us as we prepare to receive and share our deepest communion with God in the Eucharist.
The exchange of peace is not intermission; it is inter-ministry within the body of Christ to unite us as the body of Christ so as to prepare us to fully receive the body of Christ. How we exchange this sign of peace should always help others experience this deep and profound saving grace in their lives.
Read the Spanish version of this column.
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