Although it may be hard to remember, the re-introduction of the “Passing of the Peace” in the eucharistic liturgy was one of the most controversial of the changes effected by the revision of the Book of Common Prayer (perhaps second only to calling God “you” rather than “thou”)! There are a few hold-outs today, grim-faced folks who sit on their hands while their sisters and brothers in Christ greet one another in the name of the Lord, but most people have come to rather like it.
Whether or not they understand what they like is, of course, another matter. The liturgical exchange of the Peace is not an early coffee hour! Placed in the Roman rite (and in some Anglican usage) just before receiving Communion, the gesture is supposed to be a liturgical acting-out of our desire to “first be reconciled” to our brothers and sisters before coming forward to “offer our gift at the altar,” and to eat of the Bread and drink of the Cup.
I rather like where it is placed in most of our churches, however, which is right after the Confession and Absolution and before the Offertory. It provides a natural break in the liturgy, between the Ministry of the Word and the Preparation of the Gifts, and suggests that we are willing to DO something in response to our being forgiven for our sins against God and our neighbor.
But it is the Peace of the Lord that we are sharing with one another, not the latest parish gossip! That doesn’t mean it has to be done in a stiff or formal manner. It does not mean that we must only ritualistically utter “The Peace of the Lord be always with you.” But “Hey, Jack, what’s happening?” is probably not quite sufficient!
“God’s peace”…”Shalom”…”the Peace of the Lord”…even “God bless you”…seem a little closer to what liturgiologists (ancient and modern) had in mind when they made this part of the central act of Christian worship. Grateful and joyful that we have been forgiven from all our sins and reconciled to God through confession and absolution, the least we can do is express our willingness to be reconciled with our sisters and brothers in that same Lord.
Perhaps you have had the experience, as I have, of being “forced” to exchange that Peace with someone in the congregation with whom you really are estranged. It can be a powerful moment! That doesn’t mean one has to dash all over the nave, finding someone to be truly reconciled with! But such moments provide the context and memory of what this simple, liturgical moment is supposed to be all about. After all, we need to be reconciled to God and to one another…
That We All May Be One!