As Presbyterians, our liturgical tradition falls somewhere in between the high liturgical structure of Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians, and the low liturgical structure of Baptist and non-denominational churches. If you attended a Roman Catholic service one week, a Presbyterian the next, and a non-denominational service the following, you may conclude that you have worshiped with three completely different religious groups. The liturgy and order of worship has an enormous effect on how we participate in the service. And while liturgy can vary drastically within different traditions, there is one practice that remains consistent throughout them all; the passing of the peace. Though it has taken many different forms throughout the history of the Church, you would be hard pressed to find a congregation that does not include some variation of the practice. But is this simply a time where we are able to greet those around us, or is there something deeper and more sacred about this practice that we are
The worship team has spent the last several months looking over the liturgy that we practice here at FPCH, with the goal of helping us all recognize that what we do on a Sunday morning – from the prelude to the sermon – is more than just symbolic, but is filled with historical and spiritual significance. Unfortunately, the passing of the peace has become one of the most misunderstood elements of our service. We often do not associate any deeper meaning to the practice other than the fact that it gives us a chance to great old friends or new attendees and gives us introverts a chance to feel thoroughly uncomfortable. But this has not always been the case. The passing of the peace has been a central element of the Christian tradition almost as long as there has been a Christian tradition.
Though some trace it back to various Jewish traditions in the Old Testament, the Christian practice finds its origins in the majority of Paul’s letters. A common instruction from Paul to his audience is that they are to “Greet one another with a holy kiss” (Rom. 16:16, 1 Cor. 16:20, 2 Cor. 13:12, 1 Thess. 5:26). This was the greeting that Paul and Peter instructed their Christian audiences to bestow on fellow believers. The kiss was a common greeting in Rome and Greece, but Paul characterizes this kiss as holy because it represents the purest form of Christian love: one that wishes for the peace of Christ to be passed on to all in their community. In some of the places that Paul and other Christians were living, they were not welcomed or met with any form of peace. On the contrary, they were often persecuted and cast out by those who did not share in their faith. Thus, the kiss of peace between believers acknowledged the embracing of a new community and the hope that God would send his peace to be among them.
The kiss of peace soon developed into liturgical practice in the early church and was typically affiliated with the Eucharist. While explaining the purpose of the practice, St. Augustine said, “Following [the Eucharist and Lord’s Prayer], the ‘Peace be with you’ is said, and the 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, this is a great and powerful sacrament.” Augustine and other early Christians recognized that the peace of Christ that comes to us through the cross is deeper and richer than any worldly peace that we are able to obtain or pass on our own. The kiss was tied to the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper because it was recognized that it carried with it a similar power. When we pass the peace of Christ, we are expressing that the very nature of our community is one that is founded in the love, grace, and peace that Christ continually extends to us through the cross.
Over time, the passing of the peace has lost much of its significance in our contemporary worship services. It has unfortunately been reduced to another opportunity to catch up with friends or greet those who we have not yet been introduced to. Of course, I do not mean to say that there should be no time on Sunday in which we converse with the members of our congregation; for this aspect of community is also an important part of our worship. However, this is not the aim that the passing of the peace is meant to serve. Rather, it is a sacred extension of the grace that Christ offers, and an expression of the values that we wish to define our community. It is for this reason that it should be closely connected with the sacrament of the Eucharist; for in each, we humbly receive that which God extends down to us.
So instead of reducing the passing of the peace to a simple greeting, let us take the opportunity to thoughtfully reflect on the sacred practice that has been passed down to us by our Christian sisters and brothers who have gone before us. Let us embrace the peace and grace that has been lovingly extended to us by our Lord, and offer that same peace to those who we worship alongside. May the peace of Christ be with us all.