Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of April 16, 2001
Why do we have the sign of peace?
By SR. LOUISE ZDUNICH, NDC
I read in a paper that the handshake is a Roman custom showing open
hands so that both parties can see the other is not armed with weapons
and that this is the reason the handshake was included in the Mass. Is
the handshake goes back to pre-historic times and originated for the
very reason you mentioned.
But weapons could have been carried in the left hand so it would have
been more logical to hold both hands palms up to prove no weapons were
being carried. Such a practice seems to have been the case in the Middle
Ages indicating that those advancing were coming in peace.
If the handshake was included in the Mass for this reason, it seems
to me, we would have it as soon as we come in to the church and not so
late in the Mass.
The handshake is one of the many gestures (bodily movements) made by
humans to communicate with one another. The meaning of gestures is
dependent on culture, sometimes the same gesture having different
meanings in different cultures.
A handshake is a greeting but is also used for legal purposes, to
make a business deal or a sale. Basically, the handshake conveys trust.
Studies show that people remember those whose hands they have shaken.
In early Christianity, a greeting kiss was a common symbolic gesture.
In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus admonishes Simon for not welcoming him with
a kiss when he comes to dine. Paul tells the Corinthians to live in
peace, greeting one another with a kiss.
In Romans, Paul tells Christians they should greet one another with a
holy kiss. After confirming someone, the bishop welcomed the adult into
the Church with a kiss. To the early beleaguered Christians, a kiss
probably meant affection, love, a oneness in Christ much the same as
when family members kiss or hug.
The kiss of peace was part of the liturgy of the Mass from earliest
times. The first record of it is in Justin's mid-second century
description. However, it later deteriorated to a rather perfunctory
semi-hug and was exchanged only among the clergy in pre-Vatican II
The liturgical renewal in the 1970s gave this custom its rightful
place in the liturgy, extending it to the faithful. Because today's
Christians may not be comfortable kissing or hugging strangers, the form
was changed to a handshake.
The placement of this sign in the liturgy has had a varied history
because of the meaning given to it. In the middle of the second century,
according to Justin's description, it followed the Liturgy of the Word
and before the gifts were brought forward.
Justin does not give it a meaning but he does not use words like
peace or reconciliation; rather he calls it a "salute"
implying a greeting or acknowledgment. The two parts of the Mass were
celebrated at different times and so it concluded the Liturgy of the
Kissing at the conclusion of prayer gatherings seems to have been
common. Tertullian in the third century says, "What prayer is
complete without the holy kiss?" It was like the Amen, an assent or
affirmation, a pledge to incarnate the liturgy into their lives.
Matthew's Gospel (5:23-24) gives another meaning to this gesture -
the need for reconciliation before offering one's gift at the altar.
Therefore, when the two parts of the Mass were joined, the kiss was
placed just before the offering.
In 416 Pope Innocent wrote to a bishop telling him to follow the
Roman custom of having the kiss at the end of the Eucharistic Prayer as
a token of consent or seal of the sacred mysteries.
Gregory the Great (590-604) moved the Lord's Prayer from its position
immediately before Communion to right after the Eucharistic Prayer,
followed by the kiss of peace. Because of its proximity to "forgive
us our trespasses," it took on the meaning of reconciliation.
The prayer for peace (Lord, Jesus Christ, you said to your Apostles)
just before the kiss appeared first in Germany in the 11th century.
Here, Jesus does not speak of reconciliation but of a profound peace, a
removal of fear and distress from his Apostles.
Then the prayer asks Jesus to ignore our sins and grant us the peace
and unity of his kingdom, followed by the presider's "Peace of the
Lord be with you always," which is like a blessing or a prayer
asking that the same peace of Jesus be with us.
In the pre-Vatican II Mass, the kiss of peace came after the Agnus
Dei and its final petition "grant us peace." With Vatican II,
it was returned to its Gregorian place, that is, after the Lord's Prayer
but before the breaking of the bread and the Agnus Dei.
The kiss of peace originated in the early Church as a loving gesture
of members of the one family of Christ. It was also considered an asset
like the Amen to the sacred mysteries, as well as a sign of
reconciliation but I see no evidence of it having anything to do with
what may have been the origins of the handshake in civil society.
Remember it was a kiss, not a handshake.
Today, our use of the handshake rather than a kiss or a hug is a
concession to our being a community of strangers who happen to come to
church at the same time rather than being a closely-knit community,
members of the one body of Christ.
Let us, therefore, try to put into our sign of peace at the Sunday
liturgical celebration some of the meaning with which Christian
tradition has enriched it.