Protestants probably feel more at home in one segment of the Mass than in any other. They may be suspicious when we praise God in song (Don’t sing along, Martha! When they come to the part about Mary you might accidentally sing that, too!). They may feel uncomfortable when we pray “Lord, have mercy!” (Don’t Catholics know that all our sins, past, present and future, are under the Blood??? What’s with all the servile cringing???). They may get miffed when it is explained to them that no, they can’t go forward for Holy Communion (I’ve been in churches all across America, and no one ANYWHERE has EVER told me that I can’t take communion!!!). But when the priest announces:
“The peace of the Lord be with you always.”
And we respond:
“And with your spirit!”
the Protestant is finally on familiar ground. It’s a meet-and-greet!
Well, actually, no – it’s not, but I can’t blame you for thinking that….
I’ve already written about how hard it was for me to attend my first Mass. As a Protestant, I was a stranger in a strange land. So you would think that I would have welcomed the familiar “turn around and shake hands with those nearest you” of Protestant practice. Actually, that was just one more reason for me to feel ill at ease. I’ve never been accused of being outgoing, and the one thing I never liked about Protestant services was having to pretend to be an extrovert and shake hands with total strangers as if that was going to bring us closer. If there was one Protestant custom I would have been happy to leave behind, it was that one. But nope, Catholics did it, too – although at a very weird point in their worship service. We Protestants at least did it right at the beginning and got it out of the way!
As I became more familiar with the Mass, I learned that Catholics weren’t getting all chummy at that point in the Mass for no good reason. Apparently, the practice had roots in the Bible as well as in Christian history (surprise!). Matthew 5 discusses reconciling with one’s brother, even leaving one’s gift at the altar if need be to accomplish this, before worshipping God. The early Christians greeted one another with “a holy kiss” (Rom 16:16, 1 Cor 16:20, 1 Thess 5:26, 1 Pet 5:14), a greeting along the lines of our present-day handshake, but with Christian overtones. So I assumed naturally that we were reconciling ourselves to one another with this “kiss of peace.” Of course, I didn’t know any of the folks at my first Mass, so I could hardly be said to be reconciling myself to anyone. Once I started bringing my kids with me, though, we could all kiss and make up before Holy Communion, so I figured that must be the purpose of the sign of peace.
I still didn’t like it much. It came at such an awkward time in the Mass. I became Catholic because I believed with my whole heart that the bread and wine become the Body and Blood of my Lord. He is truly present, Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity. I am in the physical presence of God, pierced with awe, barely aware of my surroundings – till the lady next to me elbows me, trying to get me to shake hands. Pleeeezzze, lady, I didn’t come to Mass to see you! I came to Mass to see HIM! I’ll meet you in the Commons for doughnuts afterwards, I promise! I’ll take you out to lunch! Would ya pleeeeezzze just get outta the way!!!
God is merciful to me. He has a way of straightening me out, eventually at least. Thus I eventually learned two things: that the lady next to me is not properly referred to as a “distraction,” and that the reconciliation spoken of in Matthew 5 does take place during the Mass, but not when we extend the sign of peace. Rather, reconciliation takes place right up front, in the Penitential Rite:
I confess to Almighty God,
and to you, my brothers and sisters,
that I have sinned through my own fault.
in my thoughts and in my words,
in what I have done,
and in what I have failed to do;
and I ask blessed Mary, ever virgin,
all the angels and saints,
and you, my brothers and sisters,
to pray for me to the Lord our God.
I tell you that I have sinned (you knew that already), and I ask you to pray for me to the Lord our God. In order to do that, you’re gonna have to forgive me if it’s you I’ve sinned against….
So if the Confiteor serves as our brotherly reconciliation, what’s this awkward sign-of-peace moment with Jesus there on the altar, just before we sing the Agnus Dei? Well, if I’d been listening, I probably would have figured it out sooner. The priest prays:
Deliver us, Lord, we pray, from every evil, graciously grant peace in our days, that, by the help of Your mercy, we may be always free from sin and safe from all distress as we await the blessed hope and the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ.
Lord Jesus Christ, who said to Your Apostles: Peace I leave you, My peace I give you;
look not on our sins, but on the faith of Your Church, and graciously grant her peace and unity in accordance with Your will. Who live and reign for ever and ever.
The peace of the Lord be with you always!
- And with your spirit!
Let us offer one another the sign of peace….
Does any of that ring a Scriptural bell? What’s all this “Peace be with you” stuff?
So when it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and when the doors were shut where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood in their midst and said to them, “Peace be with you.” And when He had said this, He showed them both His hands and His side. The disciples then rejoiced when they saw the Lord. So Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you; as the Father has sent Me, I also send you.” Jn 20:19-21
Who did we say is there upon the altar in the flesh? And when He appeared to his disciples for the first time after His resurrection, what were the first words He spoke to them – the words that were so important that He repeated them?
Peace be with you!
Back up a minute. All this “peace I leave you, My peace I give you” conflicts, doesn’t it, with the warning Jesus gave his disciples the first time He sent them to preach the Good News (Mt 10:34) –
Do not think that I came to bring peace on the earth; I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.
Why the turnaround? Peace seems to be His message now. Peace be with you; as the Father has sent Me, I also send you….
The difference, as St. Paul tells us, is that in view of the Resurrection, the Christian is now justified by faith, and thus we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ (Rom 5:1). It was God’s good pleasure through Him to reconcile all things to Himself, having made peace through the blood of His cross (Col 1:20). Through Him we are now no longer at war with one another, since as members of one body we were called to peace. Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts! (Col 3:15)
That’s HIM there on the altar, Christ Who is our Peace! That’s His Blood, the Blood of His Cross which made peace for us, peace with God and peace between the members of His body. That’s our Reconciliation there on the altar! And we now are sent, as the disciples were sent, to proclaim that Peace to our neighbor:
Let us offer one another the sign of peace.
We aren’t asking to be reconciled to our brother; that already happened at the beginning of Mass. We are proclaiming our reconciliation made possible only if He is truly risen, our reconciliation now present in Flesh and Blood. This isn’t an awkward disruption in the flow of the Mass. This shouldn’t cause an interruption in our awareness of His Presence; on the contrary, this is emphasizing it. This is the beginning of our commission, our calling to proclaim Him to the world, to the ends of the earth, and it starts by turning to Elbow Lady next to me and conveying to her, my sister, the words and the reality of the Risen One:
Peace be with you!
How lovely on the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news, who announces peace and brings good news of happiness, who announces salvation, and says to Zion, “Your God reigns!”
We are turning to our neighbor and announcing: It’s Him! He’s Real, and He’s Here!
No disruption at all – just the passing along of the One on the altar, Christ our Peace.
On the memorial of St. Rose Philippine Duchesne
Deo omnis gloria!