Kiss of Peace

25Jul07

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“Behold, I will spread peace over her like a river…” (Is 66); “On entering any house, first say, ‘Peace to this house.’” (Lk 10). “Deliver us, Lord, from every evil and grant us peace in our day.”

It is striking how often the word “peace” occurs in the prayers for Mass and in the New Testament. It is clearly an important Christian idea. It is also an important gesture. A recent German movie called “Into Great Silence” presents the life of the monks of the Grand Chartreuse, the chief monastery of the small and very austere Carthusian Order. In one scene, two new members are welcomed by the rest of the community. The new member goes before each monk, kneels, and then is lifted up by him and given a ritual embrace. This ceremony is called the Pax, the Latin word for “peace,” which is also the Latin word for the “Sign of Peace” we give at Mass before communion. The idea and the gesture are important enough to think about for a bit.

The gesture of the “kiss of peace” goes back to early Christian times. The people of the Roman Empire did a considerable amount of kissing, and for them kissing was not so specifically an erotic act as it tends to be in modern society. A kiss, in Roman society and among the early Christians, had at least four non-erotic meanings. First, members of extended families kissed often, and so did friends. So, Christians, as God’s family, kissed each other also. Unlike their pagan neighbors, Christians extended the kiss to everyone in their communities, whether slave or free. They saw the kiss as something new: it expressed not biological bonds, but a spiritual communion. A second meaning of the kiss among the Romans was spiritual exchange. The Latin word spiritus meant breath, but also spirit. So, when people mingled their breath when they kissed, they mingled their spirits, shared the same spirit. So, for example, a dying Roman might kiss his family members in hopes of imparting his spirit to them. Christians applied this to the Holy Spirit, who dwells in each of the baptized. Thus, in the traditional Latin Mass, and maybe again in the English Mass if some proposed changes are adopted, the presider often said “The Lord be with you” and the celebrating congregation replied “And with your spirit.” The connotation of this reply is that the Holy Spirit who dwells in your spirit may keep you one with the Lord. Thirdly, starting in the second century, Christians began linking the “kiss of peace” with reconciliation. This was not a biblical or a Roman idea, but it quickly became deeply embedded in Christian practice. At the same time the kiss of peace was placed before communion. Thus, before receiving communion, Christians had a way of expressing the reconciliation and forgiveness that Jesus said should precede bringing a gift to the altar. Fourth and finally, Christians thought of themselves as the body of Christ, a communion that was spiritual, but also institutional and social, a communion of people living bodily in the world. The “kiss of peace” was a tangible, physical way of expressing both dimensions of their communion with each other.

Over time the use of “the kiss of peace” changed. Gradually, kissing on the lips was replaced by other gestures, and little by little these were used less frequently at Mass, and finally not at all. “The sign of peace” was restored to the Mass after Vatican II. There are four possible places where it has at some time or other been exchanged at Mass: at the beginning, where it should serve not just as a “hi” or “howdy,” but as a gesture of solidarity in Christ and in the church. A second place, favored by the Eastern churches and which may be recommended for us in the proposed liturgical changes, is between the office or readings and the Eucharist prayer, that is, at the preparation of the gifts, which marks that transition. Having heard the word of God, we will now offer our gifts, and before we do that we need to express reconciliation and solidarity. Or thirdly, it can occur before communion as it does now, and has in the Roman rite since the fourth century. Finally, it can be exchanged at the end of Mass.

So, what does all this mean for us? First, it is the peace of Christ that we exchange. The sign of peace starts at the altar, which stands for Christ. Peace is something we work for, but above all it is a gift, a grace. Secondly, the kiss in all its forms and settings, reminds us that we are the body of Christ, a spiritual, but also a social, institutional and embodied community. For us, to be spiritual is to be indwelt by the Spirit, and the spirit does not dwell in disembodied, isolated souls. That is why we join together to celebrate Mass, as well as pray individually. Thirdly, “the sign of peace” reminds us that there is something phoney and self-contradictory about our participation at Mass if we have unreconciled differences with others. In the Byzantine liturgy, instead of saying “Let us offer one another a sign of peace,” the presider says “Let us love one another.” If we have come to the Eucharist unreconciled, the celebration itself is meant to reconcile us, because it is nothing else than the making presence of Christ’s cross, which reconciled us to God and to each other. We need to let the Eucharist work its reconciling effect in us. Finally, the sign of peace is not just an “in-group” hug; it is a pledge for us the baptized to be peacemakers once we leave church. When we give each other “the sign of peace,” we are giving encouragement to forgive those who have wronged us and pledging to work to break down hostility, resentment, polarization and animosity in our families, communities, church, nation and world. Only then can “the peace of the Lord be always with us.”

Father Hugh Feiss is a Benedictine Monk at the Monastery of the Ascension in Jerome Idaho. He has served as both retreat master and spiritual director for Boise Catholic Worker.

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