One of the most recognizable and anticipated portions of the Mass is called the Rite of Peace. After the invitation of the priest or deacon, those present share among themselves a sign of communion and mutual charity before receiving Communion. This portion of the Mass has taken different forms over the centuries, but its significance has never changed.
As the first Christians looked to the Scriptures and their inherited synagogue practices for inspiration to form their own unique worship, they recalled one of Jesus’ teachings. Just after He gave the Beatitudes, Jesus tells His followers, “If you bring your gift to the altar, and there recall that your brother has anything against you, leave your gift there at the altar, go first and be reconciled with your brother, and then come and offer your gift.”
By the mid fifth century the practice in Rome had linked the Rite of Peace to the words of the Lord’s Prayer where believers pray, “… as we forgive those who trespass against us.” So the gesture was placed after the consecration to show better the spreading of Christ’s peace from the altar in the Eucharist to and among His members in gestures of charitable unity.
The rite always signified charitable care for the wellbeing of those with whom the Christian was worshipping. Early writings indicate that the misapplication and overindulgence to which the symbol is disposed had to be corrected. It was this, in part, that was the reason for the separation of men from women in churches so that they could worship without distraction and share appropriate gestures soberly, something our Muslim brothers and sisters still commonly do.
Recently Pope Francis issued a similar call to restraint when sharing this gesture of communion, reminding pastors that the exchange of the Rite of Peace is optional and need not always be done. When the option is employed, however, the pope reminded the faithful that the exchange of peace is to be done with quiet restraint, having no accompanying music and no movement away from one’s seat. The priest is not even to leave the altar, lest the source of our Communion be left unattended.
Perhaps the reason for the sobriety with which this gesture is to be exchanged lies in the definition of Christ’s peace. It is more than mere concord in a group, which can exist even among those who commit evil. Jesus says “ Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give it to you.” If Christian worship consists only of what the world provides, then why do it?
Divine peace is the ability of a group to be united in directing their desire to one absolute good. Just before receiving Communion, then, the faithful manifest a unified desire not as the world does, but as Jesus did in the Last Supper — with charity in leaving His presence despite the impending struggle of the Passion. Loving struggle is the essence of all sobriety.