Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Sign of Peace

So back in July, the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments (the Pope's people who help us understand why and how we worship in liturgy) issued a circular letter about the Sign of Peace at Mass. There had been a request that the Congregation study the Sign of Peace, possibly with an eye towards moving or changing it. The Congregation studied the rite and ultimately decided that it fits best where it currently is: right before the reception of Holy Communion. However, they did mention that we should "definitely avoid abuses" during the Sign of Peace. They then listed some of those abuses, found on page three of the primary document below (not the two page cover letter that accompanies it). The whole document is worth reading to understand this sometimes strange gesture, but if you want the meat then skip to page three.

PDF of the Congregation's Letter

The Congregation clearly highlights what they consider to be errors: priest or people leaving their places, the offering of congratulations or condolences instead of peace. It seems clear that the Sign of Peace is an important (but ultimately optional) rite, so it is worthy of our reflection so we don't make too much or too little of it. I think every week we simultaneously fall into both errors.

This is baseball, not the Sign of Peace
First, the error of excess (my term). Far too often we see the Sign of Peace become a liturgical time out, a 7th inning stretch as one friend put it, where we can collectively relax after 40 minutes of organized prayer. Then, it becomes the goal to see how many hands we can shake before the choir starts the Agnus Dei. If you don't get everybody within arms reach, you lose. My friends, the sign of peace is not a 7th inning stretch, it is not a cocktail hour where we chat and catch up with friends.

On the other hand, we have the error of insufficiency (again, my term). If our focus during the Sign of Peace is solely our friends and family, that's nice but it misses the point. Our focus should be on our enemies, those who have something against us. Our focus should be on people who in all likelihood aren't even at Mass with us. Jesus tells us "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" (Mt 5:23-24). Before we approach the altar of the Lord, we need to be at peace with our brothers and sisters. That is the purpose of the Sign of Peace. Therefore, when we offer the Sign of Peace to those physically near us at Mass, we should do an interior self-check: Is there anyone who, if they offered me a sign of peace, I couldn't return the gesture and mean it? If the Husseins, the bin Ladens, the giants of evil in our day, walked into this church and wanted to be reconciled to God and to you, could you do it. If the one who has hurt you most deeply - the spouse, parent, or child who abandoned you, the friend who betrayed you - walked into your church and wanted to be reconciled, could you offer that person the Sign of Peace? If we don't pray about that during the Sign of Peace but instead focus on how many handshakes we can get in, then we have fallen into the error of insufficiency.

Peaceful, and they didn't even leave their pews
I would really like to see us as a Church focus on not losing our prayerful attitude during the Sign of Peace. Jesus Christ is physically present on the altar, and with Him the whole Trinity is mysteriously present, veiled in the bread and the wine. This is not the time to lose focus on Him. Rather, it is the time to make sure you are at peace with your brothers and sisters so that when Jesus moves to the only place more dignified than the altar-your soul-He may find a worthy dwelling place there.

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