The irony is not lost on me that very often the Sign of Peace invokes a chaotic scene during the Mass. A virtual love-fest breaks out as each member of the congregation must shake hands or hug anyone else within their immediate vicinity. Adding to the chaos, the priest often leaves Jesus alone on the altar to shake hands with those in the congregation. Because of its disruptive nature, there are those traditionalists who would want to do away with it altogether. But the problem is not so much with the Sign of Peace itself. Instead, it is with the gross misunderstanding of what is actually going on.
By way of reminder, the purpose of the Mass is to re-present the Sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the altar of the Cross so that we can each actively participate in it. And because it is a Sacrament or sign of that Sacrifice, we need to wrap it in liturgical form that makes it clear as to what is happening before us. Each part of the liturgy then must be carefully constructed so that these signs within the Sign act as beacons, pointing to the Reality.
In this regard the Sign of Peace is no different. It is no mere practical greeting but instead a ritual exchange. As members of His Body, we are turning to those around us in order not to wish them well, but as a sign of the peace and unity that Christ promised to the Church. It is therefore meant to convey the truth that when the Body is united under the Head there is communion among the individual members. There is order within the Body and peace, the tranquility of order, follows. There may be strife between the members (“look not on our sins”), but the handshake of peace shows that reconciliation has happened.
The people sitting around us are not so much our nuclear family or friends, but representatives of the Body of Christ. The Sign of Peace conveys the love that the members have for each other as members of Christ’s Body—a love that has its root in the Sacrifice that we have all offered to the Father and that we are preparing to receive.
This, by the way, is one of the reasons (although certainly not the only) we should not hold hands during the Our Father. It detracts away from the meaning of the Sign of Peace.
Despite becoming a tradition in many churches, the habit of holding hands during the Lord’s Prayer is a rather recent innovation. Although it is uncertain as to how it started (some say it is borrowed from Alcoholics Anonymous or the charismatic renewal) and whether it is licit (in my own Diocese of Raleigh it is “strongly discouraged”), it detracts from the Liturgy itself. Although we begin the Prayer with the words “Our Father” it is not primarily the unity of being “sons in the Son” that places the prayer here in the Mass. Instead it is the eschatological nature of the Lord’s Prayer that bears emphasis. Dr. Brant Pitre has an excellent and accessible article on how the disciples would have viewed the prayer itself as a prayer for the definitive coming of the New Kingdom. You can read all the details here, but the point is that the Our Father is primarily a prayer we say as “we await the blessed hope and the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ.”
Once we have held hands praying the family prayer, the Sign of Peace seems superfluous and loses its nature as a sign. We now are only able to see it as something practical. Once we treat it as a practical greeting it loses its effectiveness as a sign and therefore so too does everything else leading up to the reception of the Sign. It is the Eucharist in which the unity that is expressed in the Sign of Peace becomes a reality on the basis of the biblical principle that: “Those who eat the sacrifices are partners in the altar” (1Cor 10: 18). If however we have roamed around the Church for 3 minutes greeting everyone we can get near, we forget this. The Sign of Peace becomes the basis of the Communion rather than something pointing to its real source.
There is one further practical problem that bears mentioning. The chaotic nature of the Sign of Peace has gone on long enough that most people act out of ignorance. Bearing in mind the sensitivity of those around us and not wanting to appear in any way unwelcoming, how can we turn this around?
It begins with a catechetical solution. We should instruct our children as to its true meaning. Priests and Deacons can also mention it during their homily. A quick mention with a brief explanation for several weeks can change the culture within the Parish. They can also help by staying on the altar and not roaming about, even to offer peace to the altar servers.
For those in the pews, the process of changing the chaos into true Peace means only turning to those directly beside us. Obviously if someone else offers their hand we should take it. Some may think you unfriendly, but that can easily be remedied by making it a point after Mass to speak to those around you (and no, not about why you didn’t shake their hand). Catholic churches are notoriously unfriendly and cliquish places and this habit of making sure we talk to those around us after Mass can kill two birds with one stone. Having a conversation with them will certainly dispel any whisperings in their mind that you are somehow unfriendly and they might even begin to wonder why (and even ask) you do what you do during the Sign of Peace.
As a kid, and anyone who has young boys has probably said this too, I was told to “keep your hands to yourself” by my Mom. It seems Holy Mother Church needs to tell her children the same thing during Mass, especially during the Our Father and the Sign of Peace.