Next week, we will again be able to offer each other the Sign of Peace at Mass. With this restoration of the sign, we now have a great opportunity to re-examine the theological significance of the rite and what it means spiritually and practically. Too often, the sign of peace becomes a moment for a liturgical "Hello!" rather than manifesting the beautiful symbolism of shalom (peace).
The Rite of Peace (also called the "Kiss" or "Sign"), has been part of the Christian community since the beginning of the Church. Scripture speaks of greeting each other with a "holy kiss" (Rom 16:16; 1 Cor 16:20; 2 Cor 13:12; 1 Thess 5:26 and 1 Pt 5:14). In Rome, Tertullian (d. circa 220) viewed the kiss of peace as a "seal" placed upon communal prayer. Early on, the kiss of peace was placed after the Prayer of the Faithful (Intercessions). In this location, the symbolism was a sign of mutual love before offering the sacrifice. Recall in the Gospel of Matthew 5:23-24, Jesus says: "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." By extending the kiss or sign of peace before the gifts were offered, it symbolized forgiveness and reconciliation so that one's personal offering could be pure. The Rite of Peace remains in this location today in the Eastern Churches. In other parts of the world the kiss of peace was exchanged after the Eucharistic Prayer. By 416, Pope Saint Innocent I wrote that this was the only suitable location for the rite of peace. In this location, the rite of peace was an embodied expression of the "Great Amen" which concludes the Eucharistic Prayer. Throughout the next 1500 years in the Roman Rite, the sign changed form many times; but when it was extended, it remained in its current location.
What is the theological significance of the rite and why is it placed just before reception of Holy Communion?
Pope Benedict XVI instructs, “By its nature the Eucharist is the sacrament of peace. At Mass this dimension of the Eucharistic mystery finds specific expression in the sign of peace. Certainly this sign has great value (cf. Jn 14:27). In our times, fraught with fear and conflict, this gesture has become particularly eloquent, as the Church has become increasingly conscious of her responsibility to pray insistently for the gift of peace and unity for herself and for the whole human family. Certainly there is an irrepressible desire for peace present in every heart” (Sacramentum Caritatis, 49). In Scripture, shalom is the reconciliation of all things to God through Christ. When we have shalom, all relationships (with God, within oneself, and with others) are whole, healthy, and in right order. Saint Paul writes that "[Christ] is our peace" (Eph 2:14). For Christians, the Risen Christ is the only path to true and lasting peace; therefore it is no coincidence that the very first words the Risen Christ speaks to his apostles are, "Peace be with you." By extending shalom, Christ restores the relationship with the apostles who had abandoned him. The same Risen Christ--present Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity on the altar--is invoked to "graciously grant [his Church] peace and unity in accordance with [his] will." Then in Christ's presence, who has "reconciled everything in his person making peace through the blood of his cross" (Col 1:20), we extend his shalom to each other. When we offer each other Christ's peace, we seek forgiveness for anything we have done to cause discord in His Body and we "express to each other ecclesial communion and mutual charity before communicating in the Sacrament" (General Instruction of the Roman Missal, 82). The rite shows us that true peace and unity can only be accomplished through love of and in Christ Jesus. The rite's significance and meaning goes much deeper than a bow, handshake, or kiss! May Christ's shalom be with you!