Peace to all of goodwillKeith F. Pecklers
- 16 December 2006
As we celebrate the birth of Christ, we reflect on Pax, the ancient sign restored to the liturgy four decades ago. There still remains a tension between liturgy and life: what this sign means beyond our place of worship
For the past 40 years, the sign of peace has been a significant part of the Catholic eucharistic celebration, intended to manifest the liturgical assembly's "fraternal communion of love in the Spirit of Jesus Christ". That, of course, would be the ideal but, as we know all too well, the reality can be somewhat different. We must honestly admit that the original intent of passing on the peace of Christ one to another, or of visibly demonstrating our reconciliation in Christ, is not always self-evident.
At times there can be a fine line between the "holy kiss" and a perfunctory secular greeting that we might exchange in any number of venues. The friendly wave across the aisle, for example, is not uncommon in these post-Conciliar years. And even when the spiritual import of the Pax is maintained, it is not always clear that what is being passed from one to another is, in fact, the costly gift of Christ to his Church.
Some clergy apparently consider it important to shake as many hands as possible in the congregation which, ironically, can unintentionally give rise to a sort of clericalism that suggests it all depends on the priest. This evidently is what prompted the new Vatican directive that presiders should greet only those who are nearby rather than make their way through the assembly greeting the faithful. Conversely, even when less effusive clergy move on to the breaking of the bread it is not uncommon to find members of the assembly still making the rounds to greet neighbours and friends. Musically, a further tension comes to the fore when the choir or assembly sing an elaborate song at the Peace but then recite the Agnus Dei. The implication, of course, is that the exchange of peace takes precedence over the breaking of the bread, which is problematic at best.
When, in January 1968, the International Consilium charged with overseeing the implementation of the liturgical reforms discussed the pros and cons of restoring this ancient ritual, there was a strong suggestion that it was time to give the Peace more prominence since it would be of great value for the people of our day. Today, 40 years after the Council, the exchange of peace has become a regular part of eucharistic celebrations not only in Catholic but in most Christian communities. But should it be part of our preparation before receiving Communion, symbolising the need for us to be at peace with one another before we can be at peace with God? Or does Christ's presence among us, following the consecration, enable us to find peace with one another?
In most Anglican churches, it is customary to place it either as a bridge between the Service of the Word and the Preparation of the Altar and Gifts, while in the Roman Catholic Church, it is placed within the Communion Rite just before the breaking of the bread. Less common is the practice of placing the Peace at the beginning of Mass within the Penitential Rite or at the end of Mass as part of the Dismissal Rite.
There are strong historical foundations for each of the traditional locations for the Pax. Those who favour the practice of offering the kiss of peace before the Eucharistic Prayer argue that its placement at the conclusion of the Liturgy of the Word means the Communion Rite is more prayerful because communicants prepare themselves for receiving the sacrament with fewer social distractions. St Matthew's gospel injunction to make peace with one's brother or sister before bringing one's gifts to the altar is the biblical foundation for this placing. This tradition has also been the standard practice in the Christian East, placing the Peace after the catechumens and those in the order of penitents have been dismissed, and before the proclamation of the Anaphora (Eucharistic Prayer), both as a sealing of the Word and also as a symbol of that ecclesial charity to which the Christian community is called.
In the third century, Tertullian spoke of the kiss of peace at the conclusion of the Word service as sealing the prayer that had just been prayed. He criticised those who refused to exchange the Pax when they were fasting, presumably because they thought they would be breaking their fast if they kissed other members of the assembly during the liturgy. But by the end of the eleventh century the Byzantine tradition omitted the "holy kiss" during Lent for it was deemed inappropriate during that penitential season. In the ancient Mediterranean world a kiss was always exchanged on the lips but was limited to very close friends and family members. Thus, we can imagine how scandalous the practice would have appeared to those outside the Church when early Christians adopted it as a symbol of reconciliation among themselves.
The tradition of placing the Peace immediately before Communion expanded from North Africa to Rome by the fourth century. The classic testimony of that practice comes in the fifth century from Pope Innocent I's Letter to Decentius, Bishop of Gubbio, around the year 416. In that oft-cited text, Innocent urged that other churches within the vicinity of Rome which had retained the Peace in the original position before offering the gifts should conform to this new Roman practice of placing the Peace after the Fractio panis just before the Communion.
For Innocent, the Pax served as a sort of corporal affirmation of the mysteries that had been proclaimed in the Eucharistic Prayer. For his part, Augustine spoke of the "kiss of charity" as a good preparation for Communion. But it was Gregory the Great at the end of the sixth century who definitively placed the Peace within the Communion Rite before the breaking of the bread as a natural preparation for receiving the sacrament. In his Dialogues, Gregory makes mention of a group of monks who, threatened by shipwreck, exchanged the kiss of peace and then received the Communion which they were carrying with them.
In the Carolingian period, even as the gap continued to widen between sanctuary and nave, we do find at least some encouragement for continuing the Pax among the faithful before Communion, including when giving Communion to the sick. The reforming Synod of Mainz held in 813 bears testimony to this. In fact, in medieval monasteries as late as 1000 monks and nuns exchanged the Pax as a preparation for receiving the sacrament on Communion days, and in the late eleventh century at Cluny, the Pax became a kind of substitute for receiving the Eucharist.
In the Missal of Pius V (1570) and also the Ceremoniale Episcoporum of 1600, the kiss of peace was provided for, allowing the possibility of extending it also to the laity. But the Pax shared by the congregation was more the exception than the norm as it came to be viewed less an act of social reconciliation and more as an honorific gesture passed exclusively among the clergy. Thus, sharing the kiss of peace with the entire assembly gradually fell into disuse in the post-Reformation Catholic West and would remain so until the Second Vatican Council.
The situation was not much different within the Church of England. While the 1549 Book of Common Prayer placed the Peace within the Communion Rite consistent with standard Roman practice, it was removed three years later in the 1552 edition. With the 1928 edition of the Book of Common Prayer, the Peace returned to the same position as an option within the Communion Rite. The Church of England's Common Worship published in 2000 restored the Peace to its ancient position at the Conclusion of the Word Service, although it allows for the possibility of placing it before Communion, or at the very beginning of the Eucharist, or as part of the Dismissal Rite as in the classic Cathedral form of the Liturgy of the Hours.
During his recent visit to Rome and presiding at the festal Anglican Eucharist celebrated in the fifth-century Basilica of Santa Sabina, the Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams followed the ancient Roman practice of the Pax that proceeds from the altar. Before inviting the assembly to exchange the Peace prior to the Preparation of the Gifts, the Archbishop first kissed the altar - symbol of Christ - and from that altar the Peace was then extended to the assembly.
A major problem is the ongoing dichotomy between liturgy and life - what our gesture of exchanging peace actually signifies outside Mass. What does it mean, in other words, to wish the peace of Christ upon someone with whom I am at odds outside the worship space? It is clear that, if a parish or religious community is divided but gathers for the liturgy none the less, politely wishing "Christ's peace" to one's neighbour as required but nothing more, then the body of Christ remains divided and the Pax is nothing more than an empty gesture devoid of meaning. This sort of dichotomy reminds us of Paul's rebuke of the Corinthian community for their scandalous lack of charity toward one another outside the Eucharist. In other words, if we are not united with ourselves, with our communities, and with Christ's body in the world before we enter the worshipping assembly, we will not miraculously encounter Christ's peace in the Eucharist.
That great divide between liturgy and life also reveals itself in a sort of liturgical isolationism in which our worship potentially becomes idiosyncratic and self-referential. This can happen to such an extent that the community risks celebrating nothing more than itself, ignoring the strangers in our midst and oblivious to the global crises that cry out for our attention.
If the peace that we offer one to another is only about "us" in this particular parish or neighbourhood, then our liturgy is severely anaemic, the body of Christ remains divided, and our Catholicity suffers as a result. As we exchange Christ's costly gift of Peace, we do so in communion with the whole of God's world - with the people of Iraq and Afghanistan, Congo and Sudan, Lebanon, Palestine and Israel, because those countries or regions and those people matter deeply to the heart of God.
At the end of the day, it is less significant whether the Peace is placed at the end of the Liturgy of the Word or within the Communion Rite, as there are quite valid arguments on both sides of the debate, and indeed in celebrating the paschal mystery of Christ, the Eucharist itself is a rite of peace from start to finish. What is particularly important, however, is that in the ritual offering of the Pax, Christians recognise their need to be reconciled in Christ so that they might actually become the sacrament of his peace for a world that is desperately in search of it. The goal of our eucharistic participation, then, is that we be transformed into agents of peace - bridge-builders - always looking across our borders to immigrants and refugees and all those who call out to us from the other side of the fence, themselves longing to bestow God's gift of peace upon us if we are humbly willing to receive it.
On the pastoral level, the great challenge, of course, is how to recover that dimension of social reconciliation inherent within the Pax and to grow in understanding that what we exchange is God's gift to the Church, not something that we could ever initiate ourselves. On 8 December 1967, Pope Paul VI instituted the "World Day of Peace" to be observed annually 1 January 1968 as a gesture of eschatological hope and promise for a world healed of discord and renewed by love. In subsequent years, papal statements on themes of world peace and human solidarity in works of justice have been issued on New Year's Day.
In the middle of our global conflicts and division we need to have our eyes opened so as to accept God's gift of peace that is set before us. Introduced in the Byzantine Divine Liturgy with the words "Let us love one another", the kiss of peace is intended to be a foretaste and promise of that unity which can only be found in God, that unending bond of charity which will one day be a reality. This is the Pax Christi that we celebrate and for which we long as we "wait in joyful hope" for the full coming of God's reign of peace and justice among us.