Coronavirus constraints have changed the way we pass the Peace at the Eucharist. Currently, it is much more reserved, especially as we need to avoid shaking hands. In my parish church we remain standing where we are and smile and nod at one another, as we say “Peace be with you” or similar. I know of another church where they all wave.
I can recall the introduction of the Greeting of Peace into Eucharists in the 1970s. It met stiff resistance. Shaking your neighbour’s hand seemed artificial and almost an imposition for those who thought of the Eucharist as a private and personal affair. Clergy had to work hard to introduce the new custom and its emphasis on the corporate nature of worship.
The Greeting of Peace wasn’t new. It is a well attested ancient practice. Paul closes a number of his letters with the request to greet one another with a “holy kiss”. Maybe at end of the reading of one of his letters the assembled people exchanged a kiss of greeting and then had the Eucharist? An intriguing idea is that the practice begins not with Paul, but with Jesus. It was his distinctive way of greeting his disciples. Maybe the reason the Gospels record such a strong shock at Judas’ betrayal is because Judas did it with the kiss of peace?
By the mid-second century, the Kiss of Peace was embedded in Christian worship. Christian apologist and philosopher Justin Martyr, writing in Rome about 155 AD describes a baptism, at the end of which intercessions are said: “Having ended the prayers, we salute one another with a kiss. There is then brought to the president of those assembled bread and a cup of wine…” Justin Martyr would recognise the same sequence we follow today. In between, however, the practice was lost at the Reformation. You won’t find the Greeting of Peace in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer.
As in the early church of Justin Martyr, the Greeting of Peace is placed before the bringing of bread and wine to be blessed and shared. Its placement here seems to be a result of Jesus’ words: ‘If you are bringing your gift to the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go and be reconciled to your brother or sister and then come and offer your gift” (Matthew 5.23-24).
So the Peace is a sign of being at peace with others because we are seeking to follow Christ’s teaching and give his Peace a new foothold in the world through our own faltering attempts at reconciliation and mutual forgiveness.
The Peace is essentially a symbolic action, but we also use words to highlight the meaning: “We are the Body of Christ: His Spirit is with us. The Peace of the Lord be always with you.” The words interpret the meaning and significance of the action. The Peace is good if the action conveys this sense of fraternal concord, of being one in Christ and at peace with others.
So how is this action best done? How do we best share Christ’s peace and show that we are at peace with others? Initially when it was introduced in the 1970s, after hundreds of years of its absence in the Anglican Church, many resisted it. They felt uncomfortable sharing a handshake with others. Slowly the Peace took hold, then got a life of its own: people would mill around the pews, exchanging not only Christ’s Peace, but daily pleasantries. To some it felt more like an intermission than a sign.
So have the COVID-19 constraints allowed us to glimpse another way of symbolising the meaning of the Peace? Is smiling and nodding or waving a better way of doing the Peace, or do we lose something without the words that accompany the action and a handshake? Should we go back to former patterns as better exemplifying the Peace or will we keep the more reserved manner?
In my lectures on Christian Worship I normally stop here and ask for student responses and experiences. But, what do you think?
Bishop Jonathan Holland is Principal of St Francis College, Milton. He will be teaching ‘Christian Worship’ this year from March to June. For more information about this subject or to enrol, visit the St Francis College website or email email@example.com.Jump to next article