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.