Why do we "pass the peace"?

Dear Maggie,

Why do we exchange a sign of peace during our Eucharistic liturgy?

Peacefully Pensive

Dear Peacefully Pensive,

Me, the peace of Christ tis a beautiful thing and it is wonderful to show each other a sign of it as part of our worship.  The exchange of the peace is an ancient tradition in the church and has been a part of the Eucharistic liturgy from at least the 2nd Century. 

The tradition has its roots in the Early Christian practice of greeting one another with a holy kiss (Romans 16:16, 1 Corinthians 16:20, 2 Corinthians 13:12, 1 Thessalonians 5:26, 1 Peter 5:14).  Men and women at the time would worship in separate spaces, or sides of the room, so this kiss was most often shared men with men, women with women.  Iconography and accounts of the practice indicate it was mouth to mouth, not mouth to cheek.  It may seem strange, but it wasn’t too unusual for the culture. 

By the Middle Ages, however, the culture had changed and the peace would be passed by kissing a crucifix that was then handed around.  Today, we mostly just shake hands, but me notices that at St. Margaret’s there are also a good deal of hugs. 

This passing of the peace is to be a time when we all recognize that we are reconciled in Christ Jesus. Jesus taught that we should also be reconciled to one another, telling us that if we are going to the altar and remember that a brother or sister has something against us we should go and be reconciled with them before we try to make good with God (Matthew 5:23-24). As we pass the peace we should not only give hugs to our friends, but also make sure that we go and offer peace to anyone with whom we have a problem.  There twas a time when the Deacon would watch for unreconciled members of the congregation and tell them they couldn’t come to the communion rail until they worked out their differences!  The prayer book instructs priests that “When the priest sees that there is hatred between members of the congregation, she shall speak privately to each of them, telling them that they may not receive Communion until they have forgiven each other” (BCP 409). If one repents and the other doesn’t, that one may come to Communion, “but not those who are stubborn.”  Ah, me loves the language of the prayer book! 

Passing the peace is not, then, simply a time of friendly hellos, but is instead a time when we participate in the reconciling love of God.  We can’t love God if we can’t love on another and so it is an essential task of the church to help break down the walls of division and bring forgiveness, even in the toughest of situations.  This is what we are enacting as we pass the peace each Sunday.  It is an act of rebellion and resistance against all of the forces of division and hate in our world to simply hug someone and say “The Peace of the Lord Be with You!”  Now that is my kind of liturgy!

I hope that helps ya, Pensive. 

May God’s Peace Truly Be with Ya!