Dear St. Paul’s family,
One of the highest-energy moments in our Sunday service is often the exchange of the Peace, when friends greet one another with a handshake or kiss. The 1979 Book of Common Prayer restored the Peace to this midpoint of the service after it had been lost to our Anglican tradition for centuries. Have you ever thought about why we exchange the Peace of Christ? Consider this sentence from the Book of Common Prayer:
“Ye that do truly and earnestly repent you of your sins, and are in love and charity with your neighbors, and intend to lead a new life, following the commandments of God, and walking from henceforth in his holy ways: draw near with faith …”
This statement, in Holy Eucharist Rite One, comes before the confession, which immediately precedes the Peace. There’s a clear implication that we should be at peace with our neighbors before we approach the table of the Lord. This isn’t a new idea. In the earliest days of the church, the Peace marked the point at which those who were not yet admitted to Communion departed, having heard the Word of God, and the baptized then turned their attention to preparing for Communion.
Exchanging the Peace isn’t the seventh innings stretch, or an opportunity to welcome visitors, or a chance to say hello to our friends (although it can seem like all of these). It is an opportunity to offer and receive reconciliation with your fellow Christians before you kneel at the altar with them. We should be “in love and charity with [our] neighbors” before we dare to approach the throne of grace and receive the sacramental proof of what God has done for us.
The Roman Catholic Church has a long tradition of exchanging the Peace immediately before the Sacrament is distributed: this makes the point even more clearly that exchanging a sign of peace is a prerequisite for receiving Communion.
One liturgical scholar puts it this way: “The Peace … is a ritual sign that the community is reconciled and can approach the Lord’s Table in good conscience. It is the Body recognizing the Body … The core of this rite is a simple human greeting that acknowledges the dignity of the others and accepts them, no matter who they happen to be.” (Patrick Malloy, Celebrating the Eucharist, Church Publishing, 2007, p. 127). So, by exchanging the Peace, we are living into our mission statement to “Welcome All”.
Even more profoundly, another scholar, Leonel Mitchell, states that we exchange the Peace before beginning the Eucharistic Prayer so that we may together become one in Christ and be joint celebrants of the Eucharist. So, exchanging the Peace means that the congregation isn’t simply receiving Communion from the priest but actively participating in making the bread and wine into the body and blood of our Lord.
So, when you next exchange the Peace, think about those to whom you need to be reconciled. You may not choose to go in search of them, but remember that in all the connections made during the Peace we are in fact offering Christ’s Peace to everyone present. And remember what Jesus taught in the Gospel of Matthew: “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)
Your sister in Christ,