Many churches keep the tradition of “passing the peace” at a certain point in the service. In the Catholic Mass, it is done as part of the Liturgy of the Eucharist. The priest reminds the congregation of Jesus’ words, “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give you,” from John 14 and then asks everyone to extend the sign of Christ’s peace to one another. This usually consists of a few greetings, a cursory handshake, maybe a hug or two, depending on the church. In some churches it’s a lot more enthusiastic, but that’s the basic gist of most Catholic churches I’ve attended.
In Protestant churches, “passing the peace” sometimes comes during communion, but is often somewhat arbitrarily interjected at the end of the opening hymns or the call to worship. It tends to function similarly, again depending on the church, rather reserved handshakes, a chance to meet a visitor. More often than not, the words “peace be with you” are not actually spoken, it is mostly a social time. In more charismatic churches, such as more traditional black churches, the call to exchange signs with peace is like a bell being set off at a family reunion. Everyone greets everyone, old and new. Tell your neighbor “Jesus loves you and so do I,” is what the pastor of my church in Durham used to say. My church here in D.C. does something similar. Passing the peace means saying hello to the rest of the community.
I don’t think this is bad, exactly. But something is missing. Part of the reason why “passing the peace” is part of the Liturgy of Eucharist is to give us the space to be reconciled to one another before partaking of the Holy Sacrament. It wasn’t meant to be a catchy phrase to turn and say hello to each other, but was actually meant to encourage the church to seek out those whom they had conflict with and be reconciled. This is why it has to be Christ’s peace that we pass to one another, not simply “peace.” Christ’s peace is a reconciling peace, a resurrection peace. It is a peace that declares that the kingdom of God is coming.
I do my best to always say “peace be with you” in church even if I also say something else.
But there’s a catch. If actually extending peace and reconciliation becomes a part of what you have in mind when you greet those around you, it makes you especially aware of those you don’t greet. Those who are physically near you who you don’t intentionally extend peace to. Or, those who you know you have conflict with, who you know that you are not fully reconciled to. Will you offer a true sign of peace? Will I?
On days when I really, truly believe in Christ’s resurrection, I can offer peace to my neighbor. But, I am equally conscious that by choosing not to offer peace, it is on those days, in those moments where I confess my doubt that the resurrection is true and that Jesus has inaugurated the kingdom on earth.
Each Sunday offers us the chance to choose: today, do I believe that the resurrection is true and that the dividing wall of hostility has been broken? Or do I confess that I don’t believe it today, and pass on offering peace to my brother or sister?