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What does it Mean to Exchange the Peace of Christ at Mass?

July 22, 2013 by  
Filed under Fr. Bartunek, Liturgy

Dear Father John: after the Our Father, we pass the peace of Christ, and I for post on the peace of Christponder that moment and its purpose in worship. Is it not for greeting one another in Christ–‘May the peace of Christ be with you?' And that is how I pass the peace of Christ. Unfortunately, I too often come to Mass with the worries of the day swirling about me, and that little dust storm takes a while to settle down. It may not have settled completely when I pass the peace of Christ to the parishioners on either side of me. And I wonder how I possibly could be passing on to someone something which I do not have. Then, a few moments later, we ask the Lamb of God to grant us His peace. Not only did I not have it earlier, I now plead with God to grant me some share. I suppose my cheeky question is: why do we pass the peace of Christ, then turn around and ask Him for it?

Thank you for being so sincere in asking this question. Too many times we allow ourselves to ignore questions like these. Loving God with all our minds involves seeking each day a greater communion with him, and that includes a greater understanding of his inexhaustible mysteries. So you have given good example to all of us by posing the question, by seeking to clarify a point that causes you a bit of confusion.

Liturgical Richness

We could answer this question from two angles. The first would be a strictly liturgical angle. In rites that differ from the Ordinary Roman Rite of the Mass, the passing of the peace can happen at other moments. Good theological reasons abound for the various traditions. I don’t think that is the core of your question, however, and I would hate to get sidetracked with liturgical debates. So we will simply accept the reality of our Ordinary Roman Rite and reflect on the spiritual conundrum that you have laid out for us.

In the end, the richness of the liturgy surpasses any individual’s ability to keep it all in mind during the celebration of the Mass. What matters is that we learn to live each moment of the Mass consciously, finding ways to unite ourselves to the meaning of liturgy through prayerful, attentive participation. Certainly, the more we learn about the theological meaning of each aspect of the ritual, the better chance we will have of participating more consciously. Yet, it is also possible to have vast knowledge and weak faith, in which case active participation will be tough. So let’s just address your question. Some of our readers may want to comment on the different liturgical usages.

Ambiguous Terminology

I think you may be running into a snag with the term “the passing of the peace.” The phrase seems to imply that I pass peace to the person next to me the way I would pass the salt to someone next to me at the table. It’s understandable to think of it that way, because of the words we use. But something else is actually going on.

At the passing of the peace, we are not actually attempting to directly give divine peace to those around us. Rather, we are expressing our sincere desire that God will give them that gift. By saying, “peace be with you,” we are, in essence, offering a prayer on behalf of the people around us. It is very similar to saying something like, “May God bless you.” Obviously, when we say that, we are not pretending that we ourselves possess the capacity to impart divine blessings by our own strength. We are simply wishing, prayerfully, that God’s blessing will come to that person.

Proper Context

This element of the Mass is better understood when we consider its context. The exchange of peace takes place in the context of preparation for approaching the altar to offer ourselves to God and to receive Holy Communion. In St. Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus gives us a strong warning about that particular moment of worship:

Therefore, if you bring your gift to the altar, and there recall that your brother has anything against you, leave your gift there at the altar, go first and be reconciled with your brother, and then come and offer your gift (Matthew 5:23-24).

This is an application of Jesus’ admonition that the second greatest commandment (to love our neighbor as ourselves) is linked directly to the first greatest commandment (to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength). St. John the Evangelist made this connection very clear in his First Letter:

If anyone says, “I love God,” but hates his brother, he is a liar; for whoever does not love a brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen (1 John 4:20).

So we are not supposed to approach the altar unless we are living in basic charity with our neighbor. If we are holding something against or refusing reconciliation with another person, it’s as if we were doing the same thing towards God himself, that person’s creator and redeemer. And so it would be a contradiction to come to receive Holy Communion, which is an expression of our desire for union with God and a means to achieve that union, while at the same time refusing to work for reconciliation and union with our neighbor.

Through the rite of exchanging the peace of Christ, we give concrete expression to our sincere desire to love our neighbor. How could we be hating our neighbor if we are wishing them divine peace? And so, this exchange of peace becomes a beautiful expression of supernatural love for one another, which opens our hearts to receive more worthily and fruitfully the grace of God. It is a fitting preparation for our approach to the altar and to Holy Communion.

But Why “Peace”?

It is significant that we wish the peace of Christ upon others, and that we ask for Christ’s peace, instead of his blessing or grace, for example.

In the biblical tradition, peace is a very rich concept. It implies much more than simply an absence of war and strife. It implies more than simply a passing feeling of contentment, relaxation, and order. It implies the fullness of joy and life that can only be attained and experienced in a climate of justice, order, truth, respect, and good will. Saying “peace” in biblical language is akin to what we moderns might imply by the phrase “peace and prosperity.” By wishing this for those around us, and asking Jesus to give it to us, we are invoking our hope and faith in God who is the source and sustainer of all good things, material and spiritual.

The short answer to your question, then, is simply this: By expressing our sincere desire that those around us might receive the fullness of God’s blessings, we open our hearts to be better able to receive that fullness ourselves. And by asking God to grant it to us before we approach the altar to receive Holy Communion, we humbly admit our absolute need for God’s grace in order to experience the happiness we long for.

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Art for this post on exchanging peace of Christ at Mass:  The Embrace of Elizabeth and the Virgin Mary, artist unknown, 1191, PD copyright expired pursuant to the Yugoslav copyright act of 1978, Wikimedia Commons.

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About Fr. John Bartunek, LC

Fr. John Bartunek, LC, S.Th.D, received his BA in History from Stanford University in 1990. He comes from an evangelical Christian background and became a member of the Catholic Church in 1991. After college, he worked as a high school history teacher, drama director, and baseball coach. He then spent a year as a professional actor in Chicago before entering the religious Congregation of the Legionaries of Christ in 1993. He was ordained a Catholic priest in 2003 and earned his doctorate in moral theology in 2010. He provided spiritual support on the set of Mel Gibson’s "The Passion of the Christ" while researching the 2005 Catholic best seller, "Inside the Passion"--the only authorized, behind-the-scene explanation of the film. Fr. John has contributed news commentary regarding religious issues on NBC, CNN, Fox, and the BBC. He also served as the English-language press liaison for the Vatican’s 2005 Synod of Bishops on the Eucharist. His most widely known book is called: "The Better Part: A Christ-Centered Resource for Personal Prayer". His most recent books are "Spring Meditations", "Seeking First the Kingdom: 30 Meditations on How to Love God with All Your Heart, Soul, Mind and Strength", and "Answers: Catholic Advice for Your Spiritual Questions". Fr. John currently splits his time between Michigan (where he continues his writing apostolate and serves as a confessor and spiritual director at the Queen of the Family Retreat Center) and Rome, where he teaches theology at Regina Apostolorum. His online, do-it-yourself retreats are available at RCSpirituality.org, and he answers questions about the spiritual life at SpiritualDirection.com.

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  • Yule

    It is my favorite part of the mass saying and receiving “Peace be with you.” (though the communion is the best part.)

    I love the feeling of saying it to others and receiving also the same phrase from them. It’s as significant for me as receiving an I love you from someone I loved… and as I am also a great believer that words are powerful.

    Peace be with you.

    • Yes, Yule. We wish God’s Peace to our “Neighbours” in Church and then, before we receive Jesus, we pray to Him to grant us His Peace. As Father John states, it is a reminder to Christ’s Teaching in (Matthew 5:23-24)

  • Erin Pascal

    For me, this is definitely one of the best moments in a mass because you just see a smile on every face wherever you look and all the people are just happy wishing everyone well. Thank you for sharing this very informative post!

  • joxxer

    There are many people who do not care for the enforcement of the Sign of Peace, but they are not given a choice. Then there are those that like it so much, that they want to shake hands with everyone in the parish. I think we should remember that Christ has become present on the altar (a miracle) and that He should be our focus and not our neighbor at that time. We go to to Mass for Him, and of course we expect HIS PEACE, and not an enforced demonstration. It also reminds me of the Protestant way of doing things with their “fellowship” thinking. I prefer to focus on Our Lord during Mass and afterward greet other members of the parish and at least have a choice…

    • mariano3

      I really share your concerns on this issue; I think there are two sides of the coin here; the extreme rigid straight face Catholicism and the Overly protestanism fellowship I am nice I want to greet everyone, this is the balance we have to see done! Christ has come on the altar aren’t we supposed to be excited ofcourse with reverence? Should our sorrows and concerns not pass away at this time? And has been explained here what a beuatiful to say to the next person to us, I wish you the peace of Christ! I think the problem is that most of us Catholics don’t understand the real essence of this moment, we all think its just a greeting time, I guess this might be the reasons of the extreme, so I suggest we have more enlightment in our parishes concerning this.
      I have gained a lot from this question and explanation

      • joxxer

        If it were to vanish tomorrow–one would never miss it. Not if they already are friendly to fellow parishioners before or after Mass…

  • patricia

    Thank you Father John for explaining the gesture of the sign of peace being instruments of Gods peace and blessing. I wondered why too after an intense moment in the mass we do the sign of peace. I now understand from your post the sign of peace is Christ’s peace. So at the moment and other moments we can become instruments of his peace. I love that part!

  • LizEst

    May I make a suggestion?

    When it comes time for the sign of peace and you are seated next to an elderly person (even if it’s someone you don’t know), instead of just shaking hands give them a sincere hug (don’t crush them!) along with the greeting “peace be with you.” I can’t tell you how many times, when I’ve done this, they light up and thank me, sometimes with tears in their eyes. Makes me believe most don’t get as many hugs as they used to. This also is a way to “wishing, prayerfully, that God’s blessing will come to that person” as Fr. John stated.

    • Nice! I like that! In high school, friends used to hug each other during the sign of peace.
      A number of elderly people attend daily Mass at school. It’s wonderful how a friendship can form when we see each other in the area. 🙂
      I remember one time, I attend Sunday Mass at my parish and sat next to a poor elderly lady who was at Mass alone. I felt sorry seeing her alone. I normally just hold hands during the Our Father with family and friends. But that day, I offered her my hand during the Our Father. Greeting her a while later, I saw such joy and peace in her loving eyes! Christ’s peace was truly present at that moment! Thank You Lord!

    • joxxer

      I guess I am what you call “elderly”(70). And I CERTAINLY DO NOT WANT some stranger hugging me as if I were their backward child or pet. This is absurd… I do not need that kind of attention AT ALL!!! That would force me out the door… Nor do I like someone crunching my hand. A simple nod or peace wish will do.

      • LizEst

        Too funny, joxxer! We’re not that far from being that age ourselves (please note the white hair in my picture–thank you for the compliment in thinking that I was much, much younger). I certainly wouldn’t force you or anyone else to accept a hug. For various reasons, sometimes people don’t accept hugs: colds, illness or they just don’t feel like it. I open my arms first; I don’t force them. If they do not wish to hug, I just say OK and still wish them peace and give them a big smile. The hugs I offer are not offered to someone as a backward child or a pet. They are offered as offering them to Jesus present in his different disguise in that person, honoring the wisdom of their age and the faithfulness to the love Christ calls us to in the Gospel.

        By the way, in the early Church, this rite was referred to as the “Kiss of Peace” following the injunction in Scripture: “Greet one another with a holy kiss” (Romans 16:16a). Yes, this is exactly how the early Christians greeted their brother and sisters in Christ: with a holy kiss. And, yes, it was part of the early liturgy of the Church.

        God bless you, joxxer…may God grant you peace.

        • joxxer

          Thank you. I already have peace, thanks be to God. I have taught religion classes for years, I am aware of the history. Times have changed. Our church has become too influenced by Protestant thinking and gestures. I doubt Pope Pius XII would recognize many a parish Mass..

      • Mary G

        I like this idea, Liz! I Think the Holy Spirit would spur us to hug the right person at the right time! I have had the urge to hug the person next to me during Mass before! When I give the” kiss” of peace, I can sometimes feel hugs all around!

        • joxxer

          Well Mgwps53—-Please sit next to LizEst and enjoy a hug fest.

  • Gregory

    Rejoice in the Lord always. I say it again: rejoice! Your kindness should be known to all. The Lord is near. Have no anxiety at all, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, make your requests known to God. Then the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Philippians 4:4-7. So then, quite simply, with love and kindness, we pray this for our neighbor as we greet them ” May the peace of God be with you always “

  • $1650412

    This is a fantastic follow up concept to Dr. Lilles series on the Beatitude of Peacemaking. Brilliant!

    • LizEst

      Great observation, Jo! God is good!

  • Ursula Kiiza

    Thank you Fr. John for sharing your views about the exchange of peace. Long ago this was not done in the catholic Church!Holy Mass is Calvary repeated, I don’t see any point of people going around giggling in pretense of wishing each other peace and instead of being a distraction! When the Priest say Peace be with you! It means Jesus Christ Himself using the Priest’s mouth has wished every body in the church peace! This peace now can be wished to people you meet on the way or at home who were not in the church with. Protestantism has spoiled the holiness in the Catholic Church and we should do away with it! May the Holy Spirit enlighten us so that we give the Holy Mass its due respect!

    God bless you all .

    Ursula Kiiza

    • Dear Ursula, I don’t know where you are in the world but in the US, the guidelines are as follows: The Rite of Peace

      82. There follows the Rite of Peace, by which the Church entreats peace and unity for herself and for the whole human family, and the faithful express to each other their ecclesial communion and mutual charity before communicating in the Sacrament.

      As for the actual sign of peace to be given, the manner is to be established by the Conferences of Bishops in accordance with the culture and customs of the peoples. However, it is appropriate that each person, in a sober manner, offer the sign of peace only to those who are nearest.
      Accordingly, all faithful Catholics in the US are bound to follow these guidelines. To not do so is an act that reflects a protestant spirit with respect to personal wilfulness in rejecting the instructions we have from the magisterial authority of the Church.

      • joxxer

        “bound”—means ENFORCED. No Freedom to opt out…

    • LizEst

      In addition to what Dan quoted below, which comes from the Roman Missal, by which the priest celebrates Mass, and are, in fact, not only guidelines but also legally binding instruction for the celebration of the Mass, in the early Church, this rite was referred to as the “Kiss
      of Peace” following the injunction in Scripture: “Greet one another
      with a holy kiss” (Romans 16:16a). Yes, this is exactly how the early
      Christians greeted their brother and sisters in Christ: with a holy
      kiss. And, yes, it was part of the early liturgy of the Church. We know this from ancient documents of how the Mass was celebrated. “St. Justin Martyr (First Apology 65)…writes: ‘When we have completed the prayers we salute one another with a kiss [allelous philemati aspazometha pausamenoi ton euchon], whereupon there is brought to the president bread and a cup of wine.’ This passage clearly shows that in the middle of the second century the usage already obtained…of exchanging the kiss of peace at the beginning of what we call the Offertory” (http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/08663a.htm). You can read much more about it in the New Advent reference above. The Kiss of Peace is in many of the earliest Church documents that have survived to this day.

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