The sign of peace, an integral part of every Mass, is one of the most misunderstood (or under-understood) actions in the Liturgy of the Eucharist. This gesture, sometimes referred to as the “Kiss of Peace”, was part of the liturgy in the early church, but by the 17th century had become restricted to only those within the sanctuary. After Vatican II, the ancient practice was once again made available to all the faithful. The “new” addition to the Mass is outlined in the following account from the second century by St. Justin Martyr:
“On the day we call the day of the sun, all who dwell in the city or country gather in the same place.
The memoirs of the apostles and the writings of the prophets are read, as much as time permits.
When the reader has finished, he who presides over those gathered admonishes and challenges them to imitate these beautiful things.
Then we all rise together and offer prayers* for ourselves... and for all others, wherever they may be, so that we may be found righteous by our life and actions, and faithful to the commandments, so as to obtain eternal salvation.
When the prayers are concluded we exchange the kiss.” (CCC 1345)
The “kiss” was exchanged as an acknowledgement of God’s active presence and peace, empowering our “life and actions” to further the mission of the church. If we “fast forward” to the present, the Sign of Peace can easily be mistaken for a greeting, and some have even suggested placing it at the beginning of the Mass for that reason. If we pray for the grace to look through the “eyes of faith”, we can “look below the surface” to find the breadth and depth of the peace that Christ offers us at every Mass. The following account from John’s Gospel underscores the association between the reception of God’s peace and the “strength for the journey” given to fulfill the Gospel mandate to the church:
“Jesus came and stood in their midst and said to them, “Peace be with you.” When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. The disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. [Jesus] said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.” (John 20:19-23)
The dismissal at the end of Mass (also under-understood), is actually a sending forth into the mission territory that is home, community, school and work. May we always be “at the ready” to share the peace of Christ with all we meet along the way to our next Sunday gathering.