In the Gospel today Jesus spoke of leaving his peace with his disciples, so today is a good day to talk about the sharing of the peace during our worship.
Let me begin by saying what it is not. The sharing of the peace is not intermission. It is not half time. It is not the seventh inning stretch. Rather it is an integral part of the worship service. It is the hinge, the transition, between the Service of the Word (that is the reading of scripture, the sermon and the prayers) and the Service of the Table (which is the celebration of the Eucharist or Holy Communion). Like all aspects of the service it has a deeper, symbolic, even sacramental meaning.
Some form of the sharing of the peace goes back to the earliest gatherings of the Christian Community. Paul in Romans 16:16 encourages his readers to, “Greet one another with a holy kiss.” Apparent references to the sharing of the peace can be found in baptismal liturgies that go back to the second century. It was removed from the Anglican liturgy in the British Prayer Book of 1552. In 1979 as the current Episcopal Book of Common Prayer was being put together it was returned to its ancient place where we find it today.
The peace we experience as Christians is a gift from God. During the time of the sharing of the peace we have an opportunity to share this gift with others. There have been many different ways of expressing this sharing of peace. At one point a wooden plank, often with an icon of Christ or other symbol, was attached to a long rod. It was kissed by the presiding priest and then passed down the pews so each person had a chance to kiss it. Perhaps this is where the term “passing the peace” came from.
Different denomination and churches within those denominations share the peace in different ways. Sometimes it can be a kiss on the check (Paul’s kiss of peace), sometimes it is a hug, sometimes it a is silent bow to the other person, sometimes it can be shaking hands. Often there is a spoken element such as “Peace be with you” or just “Peace.” Other languages can sometimes enhance our understanding of its meaning. The word for peace in Hebrew is “Shalom”. Shalom has a deep and rich meaning that includes not only peace, but wholeness and health. It is often used as the word of greeting or goodbye in Hebrew. The Hindu word for greeting, “nameste” has a similar meaning and can be translated as “I honor the God that is within you.”
Since we are passing the “Peace of God” we do not have to directly share the peace with each individual in the congregation. When I share my peace with person A, and they share with B, my peace has been carried with them, so my peace is offered to B as well. It is something that is passed among us as a community rather than being a personal greeting to the individual members of the congregation.
It is holy time, and a sacred act. It is not a time for conversation. Anything more than “welcome” to a new comer or “glad you are back” to someone you haven’t seen for a while can wait until after the service.
The sharing of the peace is an opportunity to remember that when we worship we have come together as a community, and it is as a community that we share in the peace of God.
May the peace of the Lord be always with you.