The congregation’s preparation for Holy Communion continues at Mass, after the Lord’s Prayer is completed, with one of the most ancient – and today one of the most misunderstood, and hence controversial – ritual actions. I’m talking about the exchange of a sign of peace.
Christian worship from its earliest days has included an overt gesture that expresses peace shared between believers. In the style of worship that developed in Western Europe (the kind we follow) this has been associated with Holy Communion. In particular, the sign of peace is shared as a pre-requisite for receiving the Eucharist, since this Holy Gift is not shared among those who are not able to abide together “in peace.”
The biggest mistake we can make at this point is thinking of the “sign of peace” merely as some sort of greeting. It’s not a time to say “hello” or to introduce yourself. Rather, it is a ritual gesture of expressing to those immediately around both a willingness to forgive and be forgiven (just as we’ve just prayed in the Lord’s Prayer), and to soon be joined in a shared reception of the Blessed Eucharist.
Contrary to what many people wish, it seems that this exchange of a sign of peace is not really optional. First of all, it is a rule of the Lord Himself: read the Gospel of Matthew, at chapter 5, verses 23 and 24, for Jesus’ own command to do this before approaching God’s holy table. This is why our liturgical regulations make this act of reconciliation a part of the normal Eucharistic celebration. The rubrics indicate that the deacon may prompt the congregation verbally as needed, but that all nonetheless make the wish and gesture of peace.
Does knowing Jesus commanded “peace” to precede our Acommunion” with His sacrifice make any difference in your understanding of this special action?