But that’s not what I see happening.
The sign of peace, in many parishes, is beginning to look more like the “seventh inning stretch.” People bolt from their seats. They search for their friends. They hug. They make lunch plans. They make deals. They look less like worshippers at a Catholic Mass, and more like Al Gore at a Buddhist Temple.
Is this really the point?
The sign of peace is intended to be an expression of agape love. Agape is an all-inclusive Greek term for love. It is the love we have for every image and likeness of God. It is not tied to emotion, or attachment, or family bonds. That is the love we are supposed to be expressing during the “sign of peace.” But is that what we are doing? What are we really saying when we use the sign of peace as an opportunity to walk right past ten or twenty or fifty brothers and sisters in Christ to go hug a friend? Is that agape love?
(A note from your parish’s single people: We generally fumble with our song sheets as the sign of peace begins, knowing that all the couples around us will immediately turn to each other and spend some time smooching and exchanging “I love you’s.” We know you love each other and we’re glad and all, but for Pete’s sake, could you maybe put the lovey-dovey on hold for a minute here?)
The point is that we have plenty of time, all week long, to express our love for our family and friends. I maintain that that’s not what the sign of peace is for. Ancient liturgists didn’t say, “Hmm, why don’t we put a nice little Hallmark moment right here in the middle of the Eucharistic Rite?” No, the sign of peace is a symbolic acknowledgment of community and communion with the rest of the members of the Mystical Body of Christ, and the fact that Christ wants us to forgive our brothers and sisters from the heart before we approach the altar to receive the Eucharist.
But far more important in the scheme of things, of course, is the fact that Jesus Christ is truly present on the altar. Hello? A major miracle just happened here. The Creator of the heavens and the earth, the One who loved us enough to die for us, is right there in front of us — Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity. Isn’t that where our attention is supposed to be focused?
If you were standing in the presence of God, what would you be thinking about? Asking Luanne how much you owe her for the PTA luncheon? Telling your buddy how cool his new shoes are? I doubt it. But, in fact, you are in the presence of God every time you attend Mass.
Of course, since we can’t actually see His face at that moment, and He actually bears a stunning resemblance to bread and wine, we sometimes have a hard time remembering that He’s there. But the goal is to keep that reality uppermost in our minds. And that doesn’t happen when we’re racing around, conducting our own private little I-love-you festivals.
I’m as guilty as anyone else here. I get chatty and forget Christ is on the altar. I turn the sign of peace into “affirm my loved ones” time. But I’m trying to be better. I’m trying to focus my attention on those immediately around me, extend Christ’s peace, and then turn my attention back to Him. I’m trying to see and enter into the sign of peace for what it is: a part of the Mass, and not a break from the Mass.
I’m hoping you’ll do the same.
(This article can also be found at envoymagazine.com)