The Sign of Peace and Popular Culture

I recently noticed two different television series using the exchange of the Sign of Peace as a emblematic image of what Christians do in church. In the animated tragicomedy BoJack Horseman, the title character, in his ongoing arc of existential self-loathing, ends up attending a recreated church service in something like Colonial Williamsburg (except it’s for for anthropomorphized horses) that culminates in the sign of peace, a practice with which BoJack is clearly unfamiliar and which leaves him contemplating the possibility that it might just be possible for him to find peace and release from his own self-loathing. In the equally tragicomic Fleabag, the never-named protagonist , who uses sex as a way to numb her sense of emptiness and guilt, falls in love with a Catholic priest and finds herself—a self-professed atheist—doing odd things like attending Mass and engaging in the strange practice of shaking hands with strangers and wishing them peace.

It is worth noting that this is a practice that, in its current form of a handshake accompanied by a verbal wishing of peace, is a largely modern invention, an attempt by the modern liturgical movement to recreate something like the early Christian Kiss of Peace. Those who deride modern liturgies as “fabricated” might present the Sign of Peace as Exhibit A, since it is not something that arose from popular practice and has at best an indirect connection to historic practice. But whatever its provenance, the Sign of Peace seems to have become in the popular imagination a distinctively Christian and Catholic ritual, no less than veiled nuns and altar boys ringing bells. It is one of those weird things that Christians do.

I think there is something to the fact that this practice features in shows in which the main characters struggle with immense guilt and self-hatred, and which are largely populated by people who, while they may love their family and friends, seem to be incapable of giving expression to that love. This simple—and some critics might even say banal—Christian practice clearly speaks to the writers of these shows as something found within churches that speaks to the anguish of the human condition. In an age when so much Christian practice seems irrelevant and incomprehensible to the wider culture, it is at least worth noting that this particular practice, fabricated or not, speaks a word to that culture of hope for healing and forgiveness.

16 comments

  1. Over the many decades this time within the Mass has become one of the most convoluted moments that I can remember. In the 70’s we added a special “Peace Song” and everyone walked around, shaking hands, slapping backs, flashing 70’s V-peace symbols, clapping hands and singing until everyone was back in place. Recently, the Sign of Peace is often simply omitted.

    My one observation is that many Deacons / Priests can’t even bring themselves to utter the words “Let us offer each other the sign of peace.” We have to have some invented phrase, prescribed expression, or other explanatory sentence. “And so, my brothers and sisters, responding to the great love that God has for each of us, let us share with our neighbors an expression of ….” (cough!)

    I’ve often pondered on the meaning of “the sign” and not “a sign” or “some sign” as I hear regularly.

    Want to see things change in a hurry? Have the Priest intone the actual introduction and the Deacon intone the actual instruction. Now, watch what is going to happen. Suddenly you have a very different sign, a very different presence, a very different level of solemnity, a profound reverence in gesture and action.

    Just my personal experience.

  2. Fritz, I found your post profound and thought-provoking.

    A minor historical/philological question, though, about your assertion that the sign of peace has “at best an indirect connection to historic practice”.

    I’m not claiming that the Apostolic Constitutions are authoritative, but I hope that you would agree that they are old; a quick translation of §VIII.9 could be

    Then the deacon is to say, “Let us attend,” and the bishop is to greet the assembly [ecclesiam] and say, “The peace of God be with you all.” The people should answer, “And with your spirit”; and the deacon is to say to one and all [vero omnibus], “Greet one another with a holy kiss.” And let the clergy salute the bishop, the men of the laity salute the men, the women the women. … Other deacons should walk about and watch the men and women, to ensure that no uproar arises and that no one falters [nutum faciat, maybe this is better rendered “nods off”] or whispers or sleeps.

    The Greek text that I could find in Funk et al is not different from the Latin.

    This suggests to me that the older practice, in some communities at least, had everyone, clergy and lay, exchanging greetings. Can you comment?

    1. Jonathan, I think I could have been clearer. A congregational exchange of Peace is certainly ancient. My point was simply that its current form—a handshake—was an innovation, the ancient custom being a kiss on the lips (which is probably why we deacons had to keep an eye on things). I might have added that there is historical precedent for adapting the form; in the Middle Ages the Peace took the form of a “pax board” (or “brede”) with an image of Christ being kissed by the priest and then passed through the congregation to be kissed. As usual, innovation and tradition are not actually opposed to each other.

      1. Clement of Alexandria, The Pedagogue, quoted in J. Stevenson, A New Eusebius:
        Love is not tested by a kiss, but by kindly feeling. But there are those, that do nothing but make the church resound with a kiss, not having love itself within. For this very thing, the shameless use of the kiss, which ought to be mystic, has occasioned foul suspicions and evil reports.

      2. It was apparently the Kiss of Peace that occasioned rumors in Rome that Christians gathered for orgies. And the Eucharist occasioned rumors that they engaged in cannibalism. I don’t think those rumors argue against either practice, though.

      3. Fritz, thank you for your observation. I wonder if the handshake could be seen an an enculturated form of the historic greeting? (At least here in the UK we don’t generally go around kissing each other, even on the cheek. In fact we generally don’t shake hands much either.) Perhaps on a slightly more serious note, when I encounter quite young children reaching out their hands to greet and be greeted by strange adults, I think there is something profound, and moving, in this practice.

  3. Interesting observation. And perhaps a sign of hope that the larger culture recognizes the need for religious expression, that we all are seeking something more. Most importantly, that search leads us to Mass, even as the culture doesn’t know or even rejects why that is so necessary.

  4. A major problem with the Sign of Peace in the liturgy today is that we use a secular gesture. The perfunctory handshake comes across as a sort of liturgical “have a nice day”.

    I have two solutions for this:

    (1) Don’t use the handshake of the right hand. Instead, promote the double handclasp, with both hands and no up-and-down pumping. As well as being a non-secular gesture, this also has the benefit that left-handed people are not disadvantaged by a right-handed gesture.

    (2) Take time over it. When you exchange a sign of peace, watch and see if, while you are grasping a person’s hand, your eyes have not already moved on to the next person. I bet they have. We all tend to do it.

    I remember many years ago hearing Fr Michael Joncas saying that when you exchange a sign of peace at Mass, you are actually saying “As a Christian, I would lay down my life for you”. That is something that simply cannot be rushed. So the double handclasp, while holding the other person’s eyes, will ensure that you take the time that is needed. It will only add a second or two, but the value will be immense.

    If our Sign of Peace has permeated secular society, the need to “re-sacralize” it seems more urgent.

    Further issues:

    (3) The priest or deacon says “Let us offer each other the Sign of Peace”, as if there were only one. It should be a Sign of Peace.

    (4) We say to each other a rapid “Peace be with you”. If, combined with the double handclasp and looking into someone’s eyes, we were to say, more slowly, “The Peace of Christ”, this would make a great difference, as well as putting Christ back into the gesture.

    (5) People who are close to each other — e.g. husbands and wives, parents and children — should be able to use hugs or other human gestures of affection, rather than a formal symbol. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been at a wedding, watching a bride and groom solemnly shaking each other’s hands, and wanted to cry out “For God’s sake KISS each other!”

    1. Our priest, when he does not omit it, usually says “an appropriate sign of peace”, which leaves one free to embrace one’s spouse and then turn to others with a different gesture.

    2. I like your thoughts on the double hand clasp. I always thought the handshake was a bit profane but could never imagine a work around. Kisses, head bows, and the wave of the hand just don’t work.

    3. Interesting commentary on what people do. I don’t usually pay attention to what others do. In my own experience, hugs and hands clasping are common. I suspect that some people are going deeper than the solemn handshake and they aren’t being told what to do.

  5. 1. Who else remembers the J. B. Phillips rendering of Romans 16:16, “Give each other a hearty handshake all round for my sake”?
    2. GIRM says the invitation to the Sign of Peace is optional (Dennis Smolarski argues persuasively that the invitation is what’s optional, not the sign itself). I’m not clear why it’s still being done. Sheer force of habit? Giving the deacon something more to say? Most congregations I know ceased to need that invitation sometime around the summer of 1970.

  6. There can be no denying that a sign of peace in the liturgy goes back a long way. Sadly, when the liturgy became clericalized it was reduced to a formality and then largely vanished. The NO of Paul VI reintroduced it and made it possible for all the members of the assembly to extend to each other a sign of Christ’s own peace. This indeed became inculturated in the US into a regrettably informal “hi, how are you?” kind of thing. I discovered that with occasional catechesis many people could see deeper implications in this rite some with appropriate hugs or a kiss, others with a two hand clasp. Those who cling to the belief that the Divine Liturgy is only directed at a God who is transcendent and chiefly through the ministry of priests will always question any element which invites the active engagement of the priestly people.

  7. For our community the sign of peace is an expression of Paul’s fictive kinship. The priest and the entire congregation engage each other in a physical expression of communio, eye to eye, in whatever manner is most comfortable for the two engaged. We affirm ourselves as church, as icons of the Incarnate One. Sad that others argue about rubrics, and/or omit such a vital sign of Christian communio…

  8. Two anecdotal thoughts:
    1. A parish I worked for had a tradition of excluding the sign of peace during the season of Lent. This, in my opinion, made the already scaled-back Lenten liturgies seem awfully cold and detached. The sign of peace in relation to the liturgical seasons (& all of their theological depth) could use some reflection & unpacking.

    2. From my experience at parishes who do an opening “greet those around you” invitation at the beginning of Mass, the sign of peace simply FEELS different. I’m not saying you should do this every week, but I think the comments above suggesting that the sign of peace falls into a secular greeting are insightful… And differentiating a greeting from an intentional sign of compassion and unity is one interesting approach.

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