Please Pass the Peace ... or Not
Q: I’m an Episcopalian — old fashioned, I’ll admit — who was somewhat alarmed when “the peace” was engrafted into our “new” prayer book. My collection of old prayer books going back to the 17th century (reprints, granted) have no mention of the peace, or passing it. I recently attended services at a local ELCA church. There, the Peace was quite vigorous — the pastor shook hands with everyone in the house. When and how did “the peace” come into the service, and from what source?
A: It certainly seems that “the Peace” isn’t all that peaceful for you. As we continue, you’ll see that others share your perspective. However, its origins are much older than you suspect. This exchange has ancient roots although it wasn’t much used for years.
While rooted in a different practice, some worship orders treat it as a response to the Pax Domini, the blessing pronounced by the priest or pastor immediately following the Consecration: “The peace of the Lord be with you.” This expression of divine peace is standard in the Communion services of much of Christendom, including the Lutheran Church. Traditionally, we Lutherans heard our pastors speak these words and responded either with a simple “Amen” or by saying, “And with your spirit.” After addressing your question in detail, I’ll close with a few more words about the Pax Domini.
An expanded form of the Peace entered our hymnals in the final decades of the 20th Century. Lutheran Worship, the 1982 hymnal of The Lutheran Church — Missouri Synod, included this rubric immediately after the Pax Domini: “The ministers and congregation may greet one another in the name of the Lord.” When an exchange of the Peace is suggested, Lutheran Service Book, our newest hymnal, moves the congregational exchange to a point immediately following the prayers. LSB suggests that each person simply say to those nearby, “Peace be with you.” As we’ll see, this Peace is different from the Pax Domini.
While an exchange of the Peace among the worshipers may be fairly new to many of us, it flows from the practice of the Jews. It appeared in some of the earliest liturgies of the Christian Church, although the exact placement of the words varied. At the time of Justin Martyr, it occurred between the Prayers and the Offertory, as LSB places it.
However, modern manifestations of the Peace fall short of ancient practices. Along with a greeting bestowing the Peace of the Lord, the ancient Church practiced the “Kiss of Peace.” Even today, many who live around the Mediterranean greet friends and guests with formal kisses upon the cheek or lips. This communal, affectionate greeting is not practiced across the sexes. Men kiss men and women kiss women. The Kiss of Peace was based in this tradition.
Kissing entered into Jesus’ rebuke of Simon the Leper, who complained to himself about the Lord’s reaction to the sinful woman: “You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not ceased to kiss my feet. (Luke 7:45)” This greeting was extended to rivals or enemies. Remembering this underscores the hypocrisy of Judas in the garden, when “Jesus said to him, ‘Judas, would you betray the Son of Man with a kiss?’ (Luke 22:48)”
Christians soon adopted a formalized Kiss of Peace as part of the Communion Liturgy. In four of his epistles, Saint Paul urged believers to greet each other “with a holy kiss” while 1 Peter 5:14 calls for greeting “with the kiss of love.” This wasn’t a haphazard, “Give each other a fond ‘hello’ when you come to church.” Since these letters were probably read during worship, possibly at the time of the Sermon, closing with the Kiss anticipates the Offering and the celebration of the Lord’s Supper.
The connection with the Offering comes from Matthew 5:23-24. Jesus warned that those bringing offerings should “first be reconciled” to their brothers. At that time, the reconciliation would almost always include a kiss. Likewise, before receiving the Sacrament, Christians are to examine themselves (see 1 Corinthians 11:27-31). This certainly includes making sure that we hold no grudge against others and that we have repented of our own sins against fellow believers. After all, Jesus said, “If you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses. (Matthew 6:15)”
The early Church took the warning seriously. The Kiss wasn’t used haphazardly. I’ve read that in some ancient congregations, the deacons would walk among the people. They paid special attention to individuals whose sins against others in the church were known or who’d been involved in some sort of dispute with other believers. If any of these refused to grant or receive the Kiss of Peace, they would not be allowed to commune.
Saint Augustine approved of the practice, saying, “Christians embrace one another with the holy kiss. This is a sign of peace; as the lips indicate, let peace be made in your conscience, that is, when your lips draw near to those of your brother, do not let your heart withdraw from his. Hence, these are great and powerful sacraments.”
Unless we’re as hypocritical as Judas, how could we kiss another with whom we were not reconciled? Yet the casualness of the contemporary “Passing of the Peace” doesn’t force us to ponder so deeply what might estrange us from our fellow Christians. Shouldn’t any exchange of the Peace during a solemn worship service entail more than swapping cheerful greetings that could be exchanged before or after the service? Because the Peace has lost much of its original meaning, some Christians would rather see it vanish. Others wish that it would again become a time of true reconciliation.
Personal piety also causes many worshipers discomfort with Passing the Peace. It distracts these believers from readying themselves for the Lord’s Supper. The handshakes, hugs, and gushed greetings that break out in the midst of reverent preparation to receive our Savior’s body and blood distract them from worship and obscure the value of Jesus’ sacrifice. To such Christians — and I suspect that you are one such — the Peace is more an interruption than part of one’s prayerful preparation to commune.
Additionally — and you may also fit this category — a fair number of people simply dislike giving others the opportunity to encroach upon their personal space. Rather than celebrating contact with fellow believers, they cringe at what they consider a violation of their privacy. They feel forced into an artificial, superficial relationship. Instead, they prefer maintaining certain boundaries, opening themselves to others’ proximity only by invitation and mutual consent.
This brings us back to the Pax Domini. While any exchange of peace among Christians is a divine gift, the Pax refers specifically to the total peace between God and man that Christ purchased and won by shedding His blood, suffering, and dying. The Liturgy emphasizes this understanding of the Peace since it has the worshipers sing the Agnus Dei immediately after the Pax Domini. Notice how this brief song celebrates “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding (Philippians 4:7)”
Lamb of God, You take away the sin of the world;This Peace is God’s invitation to come before Him without dreading divine retribution. Instead of promising death as punishment for our sins, He tells us that we can commune fearlessly in His presence as did the elders of Israel on Sinai, when the Lord “did not lay his hand on the chief men of the people of Israel; they beheld God, and ate and drank. (Exodus 24:11)”
have mercy on us.
Lamb of God, You take away the sin of the world;
have mercy on us.
Lamb of God, You take away the sin of the world;
grant us peace.
Scripture quoted from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version™, © 2001 by Crossway Bibles.
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Walter Snyder is the pastor of Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Emma, Missouri and coauthor of the book What Do Lutherans Believe.
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Newspaper column #565