"Peace I leave with you"
For a number of years, I wrote a column concerned only with liturgical matters. From time to time, I like to return to such topics. And one of the liturgical matters that I feel needs attention is the sign of peace.
Most liturgical actions have a certain ambiguity about them. So the Church gives us prayers to accompany the action to put the action into a context. The text which the Roman liturgy gives us to interpret the sign of peace is “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you.”
Let’s look at that saying and see how it might inform and fill out the meaning of the sign of peace. These words were spoken at the Last Supper. Jesus will leave that meal to go to the cross and death. What He is telling His disciples is that they should not be shocked by His arrest and His crucifixion, saying, "Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid." In fact, at least in John's Gospel, Jesus seems at peace with His impending suffering and death. He even says that they should be "glad to know that I am going to the Father."
This context sheds important light on the meaning of the gift of peace Jesus says He is giving them. This peace, as commentator Herman Ridderbos put it, is not “a cheap wish. He is now at the point of going away on a journey in which He will have to fight for that peace against the powers of darkness and violence, a peace that He will have to bring back from the depths of death (The Gospel of John: A Theological Commentary). This is peace He is willing to march into hell to gain for them. And this is the text that the Church gives us in the Mass to help interpret the gesture of the sign of peace.
Sometimes, I watch folks exchanging the sign of peace and I wonder what they understand by the gesture. Surely, it is not a greeting. After all, you have already been sitting side by side for 30-40 minutes. I trust you greeted each other when you first took your seat, long before the sign of peace comes along. Sometimes, from what I hear as the congregation exchanges the sign of peace, I get the impression that some folks think of this as a lighthearted moment and maybe a rather superficial one. “Good to see ya!” “How’s it going?” “Hey, I like your new haircut.” Flash a peace sign across the aisle. “Have a nice day!”
But the sign of peace is much more than that. It is not “a cheap wish.” But, it is the expression of a willingness “to fight for that peace” for the one to whom you make this gesture against the powers of darkness and violence. It is a peace that you are willing “to bring back from the depths of death” if need be, just as it was when Jesus first said those words. Now, that does not mean that the gesture should be a dark and somber or a melancholy thing. Indeed, Jesus tells them they should rejoice in His gift. But it does mean that it is a serious and sober commitment, a promise and a pledge, something that comes from your heart and touches the heart of the other. It is certainly not, “Have a nice day.”
Let the sign of peace challenge you to a new level of commitment to each other and a deeper love for your brothers and sisters in Christ, a more intimate unity in the one Body of Christ which we celebrate and receive in the Communion which immediately follows.