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The Sign of Peace

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Philip Sheldrake

The New Testament does not provide us with a detailed description of worship in the early Church; but it is reasonable to assume from references in Romans and 1 Peter that the ‘holy kiss’ was a usage of the apostolic period which became part of liturgical celebrations during their earliest development. Certainly by the middle of the second century, the first detailed account of liturgy in the Apology of Justin Martyr (c. A.D. 150) mentions the kiss of peace as a ‘seal’ put on the prayer of the faithful (signaculumoration#) at the end of the synaxis (fore-liturgy). The same position and purpose is present in the Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus at the beginning of the third century…..

It is not clear precisely when the kiss of peace changed from a conclusion to prayers already said to a preparation for the offering of gifts. In any case this was a change in emphasis rather than in its position in the Mass. As the action of those only who would stay for the Eucharist, such an emphasis would be entirely natural in the light of Christ’s injunction to be reconciled before offering gifts to God (Mt 5,23ff). This association of the kiss of peace with a spiritual preparation for the offering of gifts remains the general practice in the Eastern Churches. However, in the Roman rite during the fifth century, it was moved to the end of the Eucharistic prayer. The main reference to this is in a letter of Pope Innocent I to the Bishop of Gubbio (A.D. 416)….

When the Pater Noster was also moved to the end of the Canon by Gregory the Great, the Kiss of Peace became associated with that prayer’s expression of fraternal peace and concord: ‘as we forgive those who sin against us’…..

Not surprisingly, the kiss of peace became linked with other elements, which belonged to the preparation for Holy Communion in the Roman Rite and were already associated with the Pater Noster: the embolism (the prayer immediately following the our Father), the breaking of the host and the ‘Lamb of God’. It is probable that the phrase in the embolism, ‘grant us peace in our day’ originates in its close proximity to the Rite of Peace. Whilst it is evident, as St Augustine writes, that the fraction was strictly functional in origin, ‘breaking the bread for distribution at Communion’, it gradually assumed a more symbolic meaning, rooted in a Pauline reminiscence: ‘The bread we break, is it not a participation in Christ’s body? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread’ (1 Cor 10,16-17). The link with the unity and reconciliation of the Kiss of Peace was not hard to find.

Whatever the original reasons for moving the Kiss of Peace to the pre-communion position, by the time of Gregory the Great, at the end of the sixth century, it was already seen as a natural preparation for Communion. Later, it became so closely linked to the reception of the Eucharist that an eighth-century directive of Theodore of Canterbury could say: qui non communicant, nec accedant ad pacem neque ad osculum in ecclesia (‘those who are not communicating, should not come up for the peace nor for the kiss in the Church’). It would seem, then, that the Kiss of Peace was understood as disposing the heart to receive the grace of devotion desirable for the reception of Communion…..

The method used in the rite of peace in the Western Church would seem to have been a kiss on the mouth until the time of Pope Innocent III (1198-1216). The rite was the same for all worshippers until more or less the same period; though with men giving it only to men, and women to women, on opposite sides of the Church. Indeed after the ninth century, there is evidence of strong reminders that the osculum pacis was a very suitable way of involving all the faithful in the liturgical action. This in itself is an indication that the participation of the laity in the liturgy in general was diminishing….

The gradual ‘sanctification’ of the kiss of peace developed into elaborated rituals of first kissing the altar, or the host, paten, or chalice as symbolizing the presence of Christ as source of the blessing. The next step was the introduction of a distinction between the clergy who continued to receive a kiss or embrace in order of precedence, and the laity who were invited to kiss the paten or missal….

As it became more stylized and gradually came to be accepted as a blessing from Christ on the altar, the kiss of peace also became more and more the privilege of the few, with consequent disputes about precedence! By the introduction of the 1570 Missal, its meaning was almost forgotten….

The movement for liturgical renewal, which began in the mid-nineteenth century and found its culmination in the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy of Vatican II, led to a rediscovery of the liturgy and theology of the early Church. What gradually emerged was that the kiss of peace, despite its later ritualization, limitation and final decline, was not, historically, an optional extra in the celebration of the Eucharist.

The sign of peace as a religious symbol is meant both to point beyond itself to a deeper meaning and also to produce an effect. It is not an empty gesture…. One problem is that many Christians do not realize that they are a community. Here, the sign of peace can be an important reminder that Christ is really present in the members of the Church which is his Body….

The liturgy is not a private event; and the ideal of christian community to which the sign of peace points is not a safe refuge from an inhospitable world. We pray at the Eucharist not only for our own peace and unity but for the peace of the world. The relevance of liturgy is that it meets the worshipper ‘where he or she is’; but far from leaving people there, points them towards not only a personal growth but a sense of mission to spread the Kingdom, whose peace and unity alone can transform the sinful fragmentation, injustice and isolation of society into something fully human.