Did you know the Sign of Peace is actually optional? The missal says: “If appropriate, the Deacon or the Priest, adds: Let us offer each other the sign of peace.” So don’t be alarmed if you go to Mass somewhere else and the priest leaves it out. Mass is still valid and perfectly licit, or legal, without it. When I was in high school work, there were many times we had to invite the students to offer the sign of peace before Mass even started. In certain situations, the liturgy could easily get off the rails. It could lead to the tendency to completely forget about Jesus and the mysteries being celebrated. We are here to worship Him.
So what is the meaning of the Sign of Peace? The missal reminds us this gesture “expresses peace, communion, and charity.” We could spend years unpacking each of those. It is good for us Christians, to join ourselves to the Lord Jesus in this act of worship of the Father, who is the origin of peace, communion and charity. Jesus is our peace, we don’t manufacture it ourselves. Jesus is the source of our communion, we could not manufacture it ourselves no matter how much we tried. Since we are in communion with him, we are in communion with each other by association. He is the one that makes our communion real. Our communion with Him is the only reason we can signify it with the sign of peace in the first place.
The liturgical books further remind us that the sign of peace is not focused on the reconciliation of brothers and sisters. All of that was already signified earlier in Mass. In the Penitential Act, we said: “I confess to Almighty God and to you my brothers and sisters that I have greatly sinned.”
The important thing is that we keep in mind the Sign of Peace is a symbolic action. By making the sign of peace with the people next to us, we are saying we are at peace with everyone, not only everyone present in the building, but also with everyone in the Universal Church, and hopefully everyone in the world. Because of this symbolism, it is not necessary or proper to try to offer the sign of peace to as many people as possible.
The General Instruction of the Roman Missal reminds us: “It is, however, appropriate that each person offer the sign of peace only to those who are nearest and in a sober manner.” The people nearest us are the people on either side of us. If it’s not in a sober manner, we could be distracted from the sacred mysteries we are celebrating.
The appropriate form of the sign of peace in this country is a hand shake. Some people who are closer may embrace or even kiss each other if it is appropriate.
Looking at the big picture, we should keep in mind at that time of Mass that Jesus is exposed, and present, on the altar: Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity. Some of the faithful in some parts of the Church would be scandalized that the faithful would turn their backs to the Lord who is present in the Blessed Sacrament. This Advent season is a special time to long to be in the Lord's presence.
Since our beginnings 2,000 years ago, Catholics have always been very good at fostering community. We have always had better community building than any other faith-based group in the world. The important thing is that we remember we are at Mass to worship God.
All this being said, it is never appropriate to walk around, away from one’s place in the pews. I especially ask parents to be vigilant in keeping your children of all ages in your care. Since reconciliation between brothers was already signified at the Penitential Act at the beginning of Mass, it would not make sense to go seek out our enemies at this time, let alone our friends or the people we like the best.
Another reason for a sober sign of peace, is because of what is going to happen next. We should long to witness the liturgical action of the priest breaking the sacred host. It reminds us that Jesus’ body was broken for us in His death on the Cross. The one who is fully God and fully human went to a horrible gruesome death so we could have eternal life. That is good news, and we should desire to witness it.
This also signifies that the many faithful are made one body by receiving communion from the one bread of life which is Christ. This leads us to our ultimate sign of unity: Holy Communion.
The faithful are invited to receive Holy Communion. The word “communion” means “one with.” We are made one with Jesus because He makes us one with him. When we receive the Body and Blood of the Lord Jesus, we are one with Him if we receive in the state of grace. And if all of us are one with Him, we are one with each other. It is a unity that Jesus makes real, not one that we can fabricate, manufacture, or invent on our own.
In receiving Holy Communion, our body language is speaking volumes. We are saying our union with the Church is real. We are saying we believe everything the Church teaches. We are saying the pope is our spiritual father. We are saying we are in the state of grace and have prepared ourselves to receive. We are saying we are not conscious of any grave sin since our last confession. If these things are not true, we are telling a lie with our bodies and committing a sacrilege, treating something holy in an unholy way. If these things are not true, we should never receive communion just because everybody else does.
How do we receive? The universal, worldwide practice is to receive Holy Communion on the tongue while standing. The United States and some other countries have received special permission to receive Holy Communion in the hand, but this is not the universal practice. Other countries use the posture of kneeling for Holy Communion. So, we should be careful when traveling to other countries. We don’t want to scandalize or offend the faithful.
Holy Mother Church also asks us to make a gesture of adoration before receiving. In 2002, the bishops of this country asked us to make a bow of the head that symbolizes our adoration of the Lord who we are receiving. I think we do a really good job with that. Even though this is the preferred gesture in our country, some people genuflect or receive while kneeling. These are also acceptable.
The things I have shared with you over these past couple months are in no way exhaustive of the fullness of the mysteries being celebrated. The Lord invites all of us into the mysteries more fully in order to worship Him and encounter Him more fully. We can never finish learning this no matter how long we live.