The Sign of Peace is one of the parts of the Liturgy which extends all the way back to the Apostles. However, it’s taken a few different forms, and has had different meanings attached to it.
I. The Sign of Peace in the Bible
To begin with, the Sign of Peace was originally a kiss. In the New Testament, we are commanded to “Greet one another with a holy kiss” (or something very similar) in Romans 16:16, 1 Corinthians 16:20, 2 Corinthians 13:13, 1 Thessalonians 5:26, and 1 Peter 5:14. Kissing was a typical form of greeting in first-century Israel, but the Apostles are clearly talking about something distinct from a typical greeting – it’s called the “Kiss of Agape” and “Holy Kiss” every time. This calls to mind John 14:27, in which Jesus says, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.“
Additionally, there are hints of the Kiss of Peace elsewhere, namely, in Luke 22:47-48, which the Church Fathers are the perfect Kiss of Peace, in that Christ kissed and loved even Judas, while Judas was betraying Him to death. Of this, St. John Chrysostom says: “For even if [your enemy] 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 St. Augustine saw a prefigurement in the Kiss of Peace in Genesis 8:11. After the Flood, Noah sends out a dove, and upon her return, “in her mouth was a freshly plucked olive leaf,” a sign to Noah that the Flood was over, and that New Life was sprouting.
Nowawadays, a kiss is generally not considered a normal or appropriate greeting in this culture, so we use other signs in place of a Kiss, which is also why the term “Sign of Peace” is used today. In some countries, it’s a bow, in some, it’s a handshake, but it’s not necessary to be a literal kiss.
II. The Sign of Peace in the Liturgy
Another change has been the placement in the Liturgy. Many early liturgies are believed to have had a Sign or Kiss of Peace in some form in two places: before the Offertory, and at the end of the Lord’s Prayer. The reasons are straightforward: Matthew 5:23-24 warns us to forgive our brethren before we offer our gifts at the altar. And in the Lord’s Prayer, we ask God to “forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us,” so it seems fit to then make sure we’re forgiving them of any trespasses. Many Liturgies now only have one of the two. The Roman Canon has the Sign of Peace at the end of the Our Father, while the Penitential Rite at the start of Mass is our chance to seek forgiveness by publicly confessing our sinfulness.
Different regions in the Church seem to have settled into different liturgical orders. Although there are plenty of exceptions, the general trend was:
- The East, including Asia and Greek-speaking Europe, had (and still have, in many cases), the Kiss of Peace, Commencement, and then the Lord’s Prayer.
- The West, including both Latin-speaking Europe and North Africa, had the Lord’s Prayer, Commencement, and then the Sign of Peace. Pope Gregory rearranged the Roman Canon, moving the Lord’s Prayer, so that it became: the Commencement, the Lord’s Prayer, and then the Sign of Peace.
The East: Justin Martyr describes the Kiss of Peace as right before the Offertory in Chapter 65 of his First Apology, written in the 150s A.D.:
But we, after we have thus washed him who has been convinced and has assented to our teaching, bring him to the place where those who are called brethren are assembled, in order that we may offer hearty prayers in common for ourselves and for the baptized [illuminated] person, and for all others in every place, that we may be counted worthy, now that we have learned the truth, by our works also to be found good citizens and keepers of the commandments, so that we may be saved with an everlasting salvation. Having ended the prayers, we salute one another with a kiss. There is then brought to the president of the brethren bread and a cup of wine mixed with water; and he taking them, gives praise and glory to the Father of the universe, through the name of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, and offers thanks at considerable length for our being counted worthy to receive these things at His hands. And when he has concluded the prayers and thanksgivings, all the people present express their assent by saying Amen. This word Amen answers in the Hebrew language to γένοιτο [so be it].
So Justin Martyr, living in the East (the modern-day West Bank), is describing a classically Eastern Liturgy: the Prayers of the Faithful, Kiss of Peace, and then, once everyone has forgiven each other, the Eucharistic Liturgy begins.
The West: St. Augustine, in his Sermon 227 (found in relevant part on page 197-198 here) describes the North African Liturgy:
Then, after the consecration of the Holy Sacrifice of God, because He wished us also to be His sacrifice, a fact which was made clear when the Holy Sacrifice was first instituted, and because that Sacrifice is a sign of what we are, behold, when the Sacrifice is finished, we say the Lord’s Prayer which you have received and recited. After this, the ‘Peace be with you’ is said, and the Christians embrace one another with the holy kiss. This is a sign of peace; as the lips indicate, let peace be made in your conscience, that is, when your lips draw near to those of your brother, do not let your heart withdraw from his. Hence, these are great and powerful sacraments. Do you wish to know how they are commended? The Apostle says: “Whoever eats the body of Christ or drinks the cup of the Lord unworthily, will be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord.”
Sadly, the Sign of Peace, in recent years, has lead to ironic in-fighting amongst Christians. The fight has been largely over the meaning of the Sign of Peace, and how it should be done. There are largely two schools of thought:
- The Sign of Peace is an expression of our love for one another, and is best expressed through warmly embracing one another in some way. This is something of the 1 Peter 5:14, where a warm greeting is extended between Christians.
- The Sign of Peace is an expression of God’s Love for us, and is best expressed by the priest extending a sign of peace to us (and the congregation returning it), as the priest stands as a representation of Christ for us in this role. This is the school of thought which focuses on how the Sign of Peace is given in John 14:27: the Presider (Christ) extending it to the Apostles, instead of “how the world gives it,” by Christ having the Apostles shake hands.
Of course, there’s no reason both camps can’t be right. After all, if the 1 Peter 5:14 is truly extending a Kiss of Agape, a Holy Kiss of Peace, they can do so only because it’s not peace as the world gives it. Much of the debate is embittered by broader post-Vatican II fights within the Roman Rite, namely because the Extraordinary Form of the Mass is very much in the John 14:27 camp, while in practice, the Ordinary Form of the Mass often takes the 1 Peter 5:14 view to an extreme, with the priest leaving the sanctuary to gladhand the congregation, while the Body of Christ is left on the altar. Additionally, lots of people are uncomfortable with strangers or shaking hands.
This is one area, however, where there is a lot of Patristic and Biblical support for the reform of the Mass. Augustine, for example, is clearly in the 1 Peter 5:14 camp. But there may be a way to extract the best of both worlds. That may be what the Vatican has in the works, in fact. Cardinal Arinze suggested in 2008 that the pope might consider moving the Sign of Peace to before the Offertory. The idea is simple: the 1 Peter 5:14 version of the Sign of Peace is great, but it’s pretty out-of-place at its current place in the Mass, because it disrupts the Eucharistic Liturgy. We’re on our knees, worshiping God in near silence with all eyes on the priest, and on the Host, and then we stand up, say the Our Father, and shake hands with one another, in some cases, welcoming them to a Mass now 90% over.
IV. A Possible Solution?
Here’s my idea:
- Keep the Penitential Rite: we confess our sinfulness here to both God and “you, my brothers and sisters.” This is a good start, and an important time to reflect on any sins we may need to ask forgiveness for
- Sign of Peace before the Offertory: in the 1 Peter 5:14 sense, with a sharing of a Sign of Peace between neighbors. Give people a moment to genuinely recount their faults and ask forgiveness of their neighbors. This fulfills Matthew 5:23-24, by ensuring clean hearts before we offer the Sacrifice of Christ to His Father.
- Sign of Peace after the Lord’s Prayer, before Communion: here, in the John 14:27 sense. In other words, should be reverted to its classic Latin Rite form, in which it’s just between the priest, representing Christ, and the congregation. This is more appropriate for the place in Mass. It also is in keeping with 1 Corinthians 11:28, as St. Augustine notes, by providing a moment of self-examination right before Communion.
Having two signs of peace is nothing new. In fact, the Liturgy which gave me the idea was perhaps the oldest existent Liturgy Holy Qurbana of Addai and Mari, also known as the Liturgy of the Blessed Apostles. It was composed by two of St. Thomas’ disciples in India, and has, in some form, has been in use since the generation after the Apostles up until today. Since it’s of Syriac Indian origin, it’s distinct from the liturgical trends both in the Latin West and Greek East. It has a Sign of Peace before the Consecration, like the East, (in part X of the Liturgy, in the link above). For this one, the people give the Kiss of Peace to one another. Then, after the consecration, the priest, and then the people, pray the Our Father, the priest says, “Peace be with you,” and the people respond, “With thee and with thy spirit,” but it’s exclusively between the priest and the people, not the people and each other. This second one is very close to the practice of the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite. That’s exactly what I think should be done.
Another example, admittedly at the extreme, is the Divine Liturgy of St. James (which is believed to date back, in some form to 60 A.D.), in which the priest says “peace be with you” to the congregation seven times, and the deacon two more. On the fifth of these nine times, the congregation exchanges a Kiss of Peace. At this point, it’s shortly before the Consecration. The eighth time the priest extends the Sign of Peace to the people, it’s right before both the priest and people receive Communion, and is to ensure that their hearts are clean before coming to receive Christ.
The advantage to both of these is that it takes the best of both worlds.