Thoughts on the Sign of Peace and the Sacrifice (and Supper) of the Mass

When I was in college, I often went to daily mass — it was easy, because the chapel faced the quad where many of my classes were. There were usually 5-10 of us there, including both chaplains. In those days, it was acceptable to celebrate mass for a small group while seated around a conference table, which is what we did. And at the sign of peace, we would all get up and progress around the table, so that everyone exchanged the sign of peace with everyone else.

Many of us exchanged hugs with the people we knew well, or with whom we were friends, instead of shaking hands. I liked that: I hadn’t grown up in a very affectionate household, and I appreciated that kind of affection. So I hugged folks, too. And of course, there was a regular crowd, so most of us knew each other.

One day, during the sign of peace, I was very surprised when one of those regulars who was a friend of mine, a fellow named Dan Shedd, shook my hand instead of hugging me. I was very taken aback, and felt a little hurt. Had I done something wrong? Was he mad at me?

He made a point of talking with me after mass was over, and explained. He’d decided to stop hugging his friends at the sign of peace, he said, because that made it more about his friendship with that person than about the peace of Christ, which we were all meant to be sharing together. Hugging some people and not others was a counter-sign, contrary to the purpose of the liturgical rite.
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That was 34 years ago, and I still remember the lesson I learned that day. Thank you, Dan, wherever you are.

This is the first thing that came to mind when I heard about the latest Vatican pronouncement on the sign of peace. I haven’t read the story, yet, but it’s all over my twitter feed, retweeted with indignant commentary by folks who are distressed that displays of emotion or affection have been deemed inappropriate for the sign of peace.

The second thing that came to mind, though, is that this seems to be grounded in a particular culturally-conditioned understanding of reverence

that excludes spontaneity, enthusiasm, and emotional display. There’s been a lot of pushing of this particular understanding of reverence from the Congregation for Divine Worship over the past few years: from the Latin cognates to the golden vessels.

Now I can understand a concern for reverence during the sign of peace. Indeed, growing up, the sign of peace confused the heck out of me in terms of liturgical rhythm. We’ve finished the solemn eucharistic prayer with the Great Amen; then we say the Lord’s Prayer together, reciting in unison “the words that Jesus gave us” ending with temptation and evil, which is kind of a downer; then we have this happy-greeting-time; then we immediately double down (and I do mean down) on the solemnity with the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world turning our attention to the substitutionary atonement: Jesus died for my sins (and I feel so guilty about it). Emotionally it never made sense to me.

And then one Sunday in college, I went to mass at a different college, while visiting friends, and was intensely startled by the upbeat drum intro that broke into the sign of peace and led into the sung Lamb of God: Wait, what?? A happy Lamb of God??

Oh. OH. Yes, a happy Lamb of God! Because aren’t we joyful, aren’t we grateful, aren’t we happy about our redemption? Isn’t Paul happy, who preaches nothing but Christ crucified? Don’t we rejoice in our Savior’s victory over sin and death? Aren’t we happy, we who are called to this banquet, to this Supper of the Lamb? And doesn’t the litany end Grant us peace? That same peace that we were just exchanging a sign of: oh, that’s the connection!

That Lamb of God called me back to Easter. It squashed my guilt and forever banished any tendency to focus on sin and death, rather than salvation and life, during the Fraction Rite (the breaking of the bread that is accompanied by the Lamb of God), and it made much more sense out of what the sign of peace was doing there, in that place in the mass.

So this might be another tension between eucharist as sacrifice and meal, Calvary and Last Supper, altar and table. If one looks through the sacrifice/Calvary/altar lens, that tends to both elicit and expect solemnity and sobriety. If one looks through the meal/Last Supper/table lens, then greeting each other with warm expressions of affection and hospitality makes perfect sense. And there’s also been a push, in recent years, to re-emphasize sacrifice over meal: largely, it appears to me, as the Catholic distinctive over against the Protestants, who don’t have altars in their churches, but have communion tables instead.

But here’s the thing: both lenses are correct, in the Catholic tradition. Both images are present. We worship our crucified-and-risen Lord, gathered around his altar-and-table, celebrating his sacrifice-and-banquet. Insisting that the sign of peace must be soberly exchanged erases the banquet that is the foretaste and promise of heaven, and leaves only the sacrifice: thus weirdly bringing us closer to those Protestants who celebrate the Lord’s Supper exclusively as a memorial of his death, and losing the distinctive Catholic both-and.

Another push in recent years has been to emphasize the distinction between the priest and the people, which I see in the statement that the priest should not leave his place at the altar to exchange the sign of peace with members of the assembly. This too looks like an attempt to retrieve a Catholic distinctive: the understanding of ordination as a sacrament, and as a sacrament that confers an ontological change.

Overall, it sounds like this is all coming from the same liturgical sensibility that produced the current missal translation. I can understand the perception that these themes of reverence and sacrifice must be re-emphasized in order to counter a pendulum swing that went too far in the other direction: but top-down proscription and prescription that suppress lively local liturgical expressions of full and conscious participation are inadequate to, and disrespectful of, the lived reality of our diverse concrete local church communities.

And that, it seems to me, is the cause of the indignation with which this story is being discussed on my Twitter feed.

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2 Responses to Thoughts on the Sign of Peace and the Sacrifice (and Supper) of the Mass

  1. You’re right, there is a definite tension between the two ideas, but the ideas are not incompatible or dichotomous. What bothers me is when I feel pressure to be “happy” at Mass.

    Personally, I agree with your friend. My favorite experience with the sign of peace was when I went to Mass in Korea. Everyone bowed to each other. It was a wonderful and I miss that dearly. It is a different experience to bow to someone than to shake hands.

    • I agree that pressure to be happy at Mass is awful – it completely erases people who are grieving and may be coming to church in search of comfort.

      The bow already has a specific but little-known liturgical place and significance, so I wouldn’t like to see it adopted as the sign of peace in our culture.

      I’ve talked to some people who think that shaking hands is just too germy, so we should move to a non-contact sign of peace. I can understand the concern but I don’t think we should uniformly move away from touching each other: I think the incarnate, enfleshed, element is very important.

      What was it that you liked so much about the experience of bowing at the sign of peace, if you can articulate it?

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