The Early Church Fathers on The Sign of Peace

Continuing Friday’s sign of peace theme, I had mentioned that the Early Church Fathers had some fascinating stuff on the Sign of Peace. Back then, as noted, it was a kiss. That difference might actually make a difference, because it’s likely the reason that these two examples are routinely overlooked by us, but not by the Fathers:

I. Judas’ Betrayal and the Love of God

One of the most counter-intuitive areas in which we find the Kiss of Peace is in the betrayal of Christ. Judas has shown up to the Garden in which Jesus is praying with His three most trusted Disciples, Peter, James, and John (cf. Matthew 26:37). Judas then arrives, with a “Roman cohort and officers from the chief priests and the Pharisees” (John 18:3). Judas says to this massive police force, “Whomever I kiss, He is the one; seize Him and lead Him away under guard” (Mark 14:44). Then he approaches Jesus, at which point Luke 22:47-48 tells us:

While He was still speaking, behold, a crowd came, and the one called Judas, one of the twelve, was preceding them; and he approached Jesus to kiss Him. But Jesus said to him, “Judas, are you betraying the Son of Man with a kiss?”

Strangely, Matthew 26:49 and Mark 14:45 make clear that Jesus actually lets Judas kiss Him, knowing all the while the evil within Judas’ heart, and the precise consequences that kiss of death invites. This seemingly insignificant act drew the attention of the Church Fathers, who saw it in a perfect image of the loving patience of God. For example, St. Augustine distinguished between physical and mental patience. It was this patience with mental trials, including a perfect premonition of His impending Passion, which Christ modeled perfectly by extending “the Kiss of Peace” even to His betrayer. As Augustine wrote:

By this [mental] patience, holy David bore the revilings of a railer, and, when he might easily have avenged himself, not only did it not, but even refrained another who was vexed and moved for him; and more put forth his kingly power by prohibiting than by exercising vengeance. Nor at that time was his body afflicted with any disease or wound, but there was an acknowledging of a time of humility, and a bearing of the will of God, for the sake of which there was a drinking of the bitterness of contumely with most patient mind.

This patience the Lord taught, when, the servants being moved at the mixing in of the tares and wishing to gather them up, He said that the householder answered, “Leave both to grow until the harvest” [Matthew 13:30]. That, namely, must be patience put up with, which must not be in haste put away. Of this patience Himself afforded and showed an example, when, before the passion of His Body, He so bore with His disciple Judas, that ere He pointed him out as the traitor, He endured him as a thief; and before experience of bonds and cross and death, did, to those lips so full of guile, not deny the kiss of peace. All these, and whatever else there be, which it were tedious to rehearse, belong to that manner of patience, by which the mind doth, not its own sins but any evils so ever from without, patiently endure in itself, while the body remains altogether unhurt.

St. Augustine isn’t simply showing us Christ as the perfect example of patiently enduring our enemies; he’s also showing us something about God. It’s not accidental that Augustine’s two examples involving Christ relate to God’s forbearance with the wicked, affording them every possible opportunity to repent. It is the perfect answer to the problem of evil. People often ask how an all-loving, all-powerful God can permit man to inflict evil on his fellow man; Augustine answers it here: God loves both men, and is offering sufficient opportunity for the aggressor to repent. If He did not, we’d all be damned, since every one of us have been the cause of evil and infliction upon others.

St. John Chrysostom draws a similar point as Augustine’s, that in this, we see a perfect model of Patience and Charity. He used this example to criticize those Christians who refused to give to the poor, on account of the fact that some of the needy were unsavory sorts:

Do not tell me then, that so and so hath done me grievous mischief, but just consider what Christ did near the Cross itself, wishing to amend by His kiss the traitor by whom He was on the point of being betrayed. And see with how much power to shame him. For He says, “Judas, betrayest thou the Son of Man with a kiss?” [Luke 22:28]. Who is there He would not have softened? who is there that this address would not have made yielding? What beast? what adamant? Yet not that wretched man.

Do not then say, that such an one murdered such an one, and that is why I turn aside from him. For even if he were upon the point of thrusting a sword down into thee, and to plunge his hand into thy neck itself, kiss this very right hand! since even Christ kissed that mouth which wrought His death! And therefore do not thou either hate, but bewail and pity him that plotteth against thee. For such an one deserveth pity at our hands, and tears.

For we are the servants of Him Who kissed even the traitor (I will not leave off dwelling over that continually), and spoke words unto him more gentle than the kiss. For He did not even say, O thou foul and villanous traitor, is this the sort of recompense thou returnest us for so great a benefit? But in what words? “Judas;” using his own name, which is more like a person bemoaning, and recalling him, than one wroth at him. And he does not say, thy Teacher, thy Master, and Benefactor, but, “the Son of Man.” For though He were neither Teacher nor Master, yet is it with One Who is so gently, so unfeignedly affected towards thee, as even to kiss thee at the time of betrayal, and that when a kiss too was the signal for the betrayal; is it with Him that thou playest the traitor’s part? Blessed art Thou, O Lord! What lowliness of mind, what forbearance hast Thou given us examples of! And to him He so behaved.

But to those who came with staves and swords to Him, was it not so too? What can be more gentle than the words spoken to them? For when He had power to demolish them all in an instant, He did nothing of the kind, but as expostulating, addressed them in the words, “Why, are ye come out as against a thief with swords and staves?” [Matt. 26:55]. And having east them down backwards [John 18:6], as they continued insensible, He of His own accord gave Himself up next, and forbore while He saw them putting manacles upon His holy hands, while He had the power at once to confound all things, and overthrow them.

St. John Chrysostom makes explicit what Augustine suggests: that the point of this patience on the part of God is to offer yet another chance for Judas to turn back, a chance so powerful that nearly anyone else would have taken it.

II. Noah’s Ark

Genesis 8 describes the immediate aftermath of the Flood. Noah and co. are stranded on the Ark with a lot of animals, and anxious to find out if there’s any “there” out there, or just an infinite expanse of water. So in Genesis 8:6-12,

After forty days Noah opened the window he had made in the ark and sent out a raven, and it kept flying back and forth until the water had dried up from the earth. Then he sent out a dove to see if the water had receded from the surface of the ground. But the dove could find no place to set its feet because there was water over all the surface of the earth; so it returned to Noah in the ark. He reached out his hand and took the dove and brought it back to himself in the ark. He waited seven more days and again sent out the dove from the ark. When the dove returned to him in the evening, there in its beak was a freshly plucked olive leaf! Then Noah knew that the water had receded from the earth. He waited seven more days and sent the dove out again, but this time it did not return to him.

St. Augustine saw all of this as prefiguring the Church: Noah’s Ark represented the Church, while those outside the Ark (that is, outside the Church) were doomed. The waters surrounding the Ark represented the waters of Baptism. This isn’t a crazy theory. St. Peter, in 1 Peter 3:20b-22, says basically the same thing, writing of the Ark:

In it only a few people, eight in all, were saved through water, and this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also—not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a good conscience toward God. It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at God’s right hand—with angels, authorities and powers in submission to him.

If that’s true (and since the Bible says so, it is), Noah’s Ark is very much a story about the Church’s journey through a sinful world. Suddenly, other seemingly insignificant details start to pop out. St. Augustine, expounding on Genesis 8:6-12, found much of relevance to the modern Church:

That the raven sent out after forty days did not return, being either prevented by the water or attracted by some floating carcass; as men defiled by impure desire, and therefore eager for things outside in the world, are either baptized, or are led astray into the company of those to whom, as they are outside the ark, that is, outside the Church, baptism is destructive.

That the dove when sent forth found no rest, and returned; as in the New Testament rest is not promised to the saints in this world. The dove was sent forth after forty days, a period denoting the length of human life.

When again sent forth after seven days, denoting the sevenfold operation of the Spirit, the dove brought back a fruitful olive branch; as some even who are baptized outside of the Church, if not destitute of the fatness of charity, may come after all, as it were in the evening, and be brought into the one communion by the mouth of the dove in the kiss of peace.

That, when again sent forth after seven days, the dove did not return; as, at the end of the world, the rest of the saints shall no longer be in the sacrament of hope, as now, while in the communion of the Church, they drink what flowed from the side of Christ, but in the perfection of eternal safety, when the kingdom shall be delivered up to God and the Father, and when, in that unclouded contemplation of unchangeable truth, we shall no longer need natural symbols.

It’s that third parallel which pertains to the topic at hand. Once he draws attention towards it, a dove (a symbol of peace) carrying an olive branch (another symbol of peace) “in its mouth,” as the Hebrew literally reads, is a perfect image of the Kiss of Peace. And note what Augustine suggests is the desired result: that in extending this peace, even to heretics, those outside the Church may be drawn into Communion with Her.

III. Conclusion.

The connection between this Biblical accounts, as understood by the Church Fathers, and the Sign of Peace is simple enough: in offering it, we’re giving up whatever grievances we may legitimately hold. All of us have been both trespassers against our neighbors, and trespassed upon by our neighbors. In forgiving our neighbors for their trespasses, even though we might have been in the right, we’re “acknowledging of a time of humility, and a bearing of the will of God,” to use Augustine’s phrase. There are plenty of good reasons for this: the first, and most obvious, is that we pray that God “forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us,” (cf. Luke 11:4), and God has promised to us our own standard against us (Matthew 7:2). It’s not by mistake that the sign of peace occurs right after saying these words in the Our Father.

But that’s sort of the self-centered reason — being good because being bad is punished. The more selfless reason is that in showing mercy towards our enemy, or towards those who have hurt us, we provide a model to them, and a hope for repentance. In truth, those who have been hurt are often the best witnesses for Christ. It’s worth noting in passing that the Bible never views the Sign, or Kiss, of Peace as something to occur only at Mass — certainly 1 Thessalonians 5:26 doesn’t envision it being practiced only within a liturgical context. For example, when Pope John Paul II went to meet his would-be assassin in prison and forgive him in person, he gave a true opportunity for Ağca to repent of his sins, and for those around the world watching and listening to learn something about the mercy and forgiveness Christ offers us. That’s an excellent example of giving the Sign of Peace. Most of us aren’t afforded that sort of opportunity to witness the Mercy and Patience of God, but perhaps it’s worth viewing the times that we’re wronged as just that: opportunities in which God’s Grace may abound.

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