One of my favorite moments during our church service is the "passing of the peace." To someone who is not familiar with this tradition, "the passing of the peace" would seem very odd. After a very somber and quiet time during the service, the congregation stands up all at once and the priest exclaims in a very loud voice, “The peace of the Lord be always with you!” To which the people respond, “And also with you!” Then everyone starts hugging each other, shaking each other's hands, and saying to each other, “Peace be with you. And also with you.” It gets very loud and seems a little out of control. Visitors who are new to this tradition often wonder if the church service is over but it's not, far from it, we are only about half of the way through with the service!
What is the meaning behind this strange tradition, and why is it so significant in the life of the church?
The Meaning of the Passing of the Peace
To understand the tradition of the “passing of the peace”, we have to look at the earliest gatherings of Christians. We know that Christians have been celebrating the Eucharist (Greek for “thanksgiving”) since the time of Jesus Christ. The Eucharist, also known as the Lord's Supper or Communion in various Christian traditions, is rooted in the Last Supper that Jesus shared with his disciples shortly before his crucifixion.
Here's a brief timeline:
The Last Supper: During this meal, described in the Gospels (e.g., Matthew 26:26-28; Mark 14:22-24; Luke 22:19-20), Jesus took bread and wine, gave thanks, and shared them with his disciples, instructing them to "do this in remembrance of me." This event is considered the origin of the Eucharistic celebration.
Apostolic Age: The practice of breaking bread in remembrance of Jesus' death and resurrection became a central element of Christian gatherings soon after the resurrection. Acts 2:42 mentions that the early believers "devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers."
Pauline Letters: The Apostle Paul, writing in the mid-first century, refers to the Lord's Supper in his First Letter to the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 11:23-26), indicating that the Eucharistic celebration was already an established tradition among the early Christian communities.
Subsequent Centuries: As Christianity spread and communities grew, the Eucharistic celebration became more formalized, with set prayers, rituals, and liturgies. By the time of the early Church Fathers in the 2nd and 3rd centuries, references to the Eucharist and discussions about its meaning were frequent in Christian writings.
Early Christians believed that the Eucharist was the central act of Christian worship. The Eucharist was so holy that they believed there needed to be a time of preparation before they partook of it. Not only did they need to confess their sins before receiving but they needed to make peace with their brothers and sisters in Christ. The passing of the peace is the part of the service where we are given the opportunity to ask for forgiveness and to reenact the reconciling love of Christ with our neighbors.
At its core, the passing of the peace embodies the Christian values of reconciliation, unity, and forgiveness. It's a moment when congregants extend goodwill to one another, mirroring God's love and grace. In this act, we're reminded of our shared journey of faith, bound together by the common thread of Christ’s redeeming work in our lives and the lives of others.
Scriptural Foundation Several biblical passages underpin the significance of passing the peace in a liturgical service:
Matthew 5:23-24: "Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First, go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift." Matthew 18:15: "If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over."
1 Corinthians 1:10: "I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought."
I Corinthians 11:23-30: “For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. So then, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. Everyone ought to examine themselves before they eat of the bread and drink from the cup. For those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgment on themselves. That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep. “
2 Corinthians 13:11: "Finally, brothers and sisters, rejoice! Strive for full restoration, encourage one another, be of one mind, live in peace. And the God of love and peace will be with you."
The History of the Passing of the Peace
Originally known as the “kiss of peace,” the “passing of the peace” has been a part of the Christian liturgy since the apostolic age. By the time we have more structured liturgical documents, the kiss of peace is already a recognized part of the liturgical practice:
The Apostolic Tradition: An early Christian treatise attributed to Hippolytus of Rome, written in the early 3rd century, references the kiss of peace. This is one of the earliest liturgical documents we have that describes the rite of the Christian assembly, and it suggests that the kiss of peace was given before the presentation of the offerings and the Eucharist.
Eastern Liturgies: The kiss of peace also appears in ancient Eastern Christian liturgies. For instance, in the Divine Liturgy of St. James, one of the oldest complete liturgies we possess, there's a reference to the kiss of peace.
Western Liturgies: In the West, the kiss of peace became a standard part of the Roman rite, usually placed after the Lord's Prayer and before the distribution of the Eucharist.
A Profound Symbol
In today's liturgical services, the passing of the peace serves as a tangible reminder of our commitment to love, forgiveness, and reconciliation. It's this incredible moment when we acknowledge that, in Christ, we are one body, intricately connected and called to extend grace to one another.
As we share this sacred practice, we embody the words of Jesus in John 13:34-35: "A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this, everyone will know that you are my disciples if you love one another."
In the passing of the peace, we participate in a beautiful tradition that bridges the past with the present, connecting us to the earliest followers of Christ. It's a reminder that, in our diversity, we find unity, and in our love for one another, we reflect the boundless love of our Savior.