In the middle of each of our worship services, everything grinds to a halt. We stand up, and start shaking hands. People hug. They get out of their pews and cut across the room to greet one another, forming a scrum in the middle of the sanctuary. It’s absolute chaos. “What is this?” newcomers might ask, “is the service over already?” No, not yet; we’re just passing the Peace.
For instance, we do it because Jesus told us to. In the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:23-24), Jesus said, “if you are offering your gift at the altar, and there, you remember that your brother has something against you, leave your offering there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and present your offering.” Passing the Peace began as a way for people in the Christian community to be reconciled to one another before making their offering at the altar. It is for this reason that the Peace always comes before Communion.
We also pass the Peace because at the Last Supper, Jesus said “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you” (John 14:27), and later he said, “My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you.” (John 15:12). When Jesus himself appeared to the disciples after his resurrection, he greeted them by saying, “peace be with you” (Luke 24:36; John 20:19, 26) We bring these two together: just as Jesus shared his peace with us, so we should share peace with one another.
Sharing “peace” with one another is an ancient Christian tradition, not only in the words of Jesus, but also in the practices of the Christian community. Paul begins every one of his letters by saying, “Grace to you, and peace” (Romans 1:7; 1 Corinthians 1:3; 2 Corinthians 1:2; Galatians 1:3; Ephesians 1:2; Philippians 1:2; Colossians 1:2; 1 Thessalonians 1:1, etc.). This suggests that in the very early Church, “Grace to you and peace” was the way Christians greeted one another; it was their secret handshake.
The surprising thing is not that we pass the Peace during our services; it is that we lost the tradition for so long. In some ways, it was lost for centuries. Anglicans who grew up with the old Book of Common Prayer (last published in 1962 in Canada) will have grown up without the passing of the peace. Sure, it was there, in the midst of the Communion service, but it was reduced to a simple sentence from the priest at the altar, and a plain response from the congregation. No handshaking, no hugging, no undignified scrum. It had lost its meaning.
It was thanks to growing interest in the middle of the 20th century that we have recovered a number of “lost” ancient spiritual practices, including the Peace. Scholars reminded us of the history and power of these practices, and we began to incorporate them once again into our services.
There’s still more to be done to recover the incredible power of this ritual. Many of us shake hands or hug on Sunday mornings without thinking about what the symbol means. We “cross our fingers” as we say “peace!” with people we don’t like, and keep bland, expressionless faces as we shake hands with someone we don’t yet forgive. The Peace calls us to go deeper than that.
“Before you offer your gift at the altar,” Jesus says, “be reconciled.” Now days, the Peace always comes after the Prayers of the People and the Confession and Absolution. We are called to prepare ourselves to go to the altar: to pray for those we’ve hurt, and those who have hurt us; to confess the sins we need to confess, and to receive God’s forgiveness; and then to be reconciled, one with another, as a symbol of our new life in Christ.
Then, truly, we can go to the Altar with clean hands and a ready heart, and receive truly the gift Christ makes available to us all: his body and blood given in love for us.