For the season of Advent, our worship committee has decided to re-introduce a worship practice that hasn’t been used at Bethlehem in the past several years: The Passing of the Peace. Believe it or not, this is one of the most ancient parts of the liturgy. Far from just a time to meet and greet, this practice caries an important meaning, and holds an important part in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. Hopefully, with a little knowledge, and a little practice, the Passing of the Peace can be an enriching moment for you and for our community as we worship together.
In the early church, the Peace of Christ was announced and then shared among worshipers with the words “Greet one another with a holy kiss,” after which the people would actually kiss one another! Over time, this practice evolved to a highly symbolic one where the priest kissed the altar and then a ritual item called the “pax-board” (pax means peace in Latin) which would then be carried around for worshipers to kiss. Eventually, the practice became less regular, and would happen between the priest and deacon only on special occasions. Luther, however, thought that the peace should be proclaimed at every Communion celebration, as “a public absolution of the sins of the communicants, and the true voice of the gospel announcing remission of sins.”(Luther’s Works 53:28) Luckily, by our time, the practice has evolved to a much less frightening (and more sanitary) handshake accompanied by the words “Peace be with you.”
While in some congregations the Passing of the Peace seems to become a time to say hello and have a quick conversation with your neighbor (isn’t that what coffee hour is for?) its meaning is actually quite a bit more significant. The Passing of the Peace occurs right at the beginning of the Communion celebration, and is a time for reconciliation and coming together as a community. Jesus said “If you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.” (Matthew 5:23-24) The Passing of the Peace is a moment for us to reflect on our own relationships with those around us, and to offer the reconciliation to one another that we have already received from Christ. It’s putting into action the “as we forgive those who sin against us” part of the Lord’s Prayer.
The Passing of the Peace is a way for us to put aside our differences, if only for a moment, and come together, as one community, united by the forgiving power of Christ. As a unified, forgiven community, we come forward to receive Communion—to participate in the unity we share through Jesus Christ with those next to us and those around the world. The Passing of the Peace can be a powerful moment for reconciliation and is a time for us all to connect, physically, with one another. If you’re chatting, your missing something. Instead, look your neighbor in the eye, grasp his or her hand and say “Peace be with you”. You are preaching to your neighbor the love of Christ, letting them know that whatever they have done to you or someone else is forgiven, by God and by you, and that all are welcome to come to Christ’s table. What could be more important? The peace of the Lord be with you always!