April 23, 2020

The Ministers and People May Greet One Another…

It’s been nearly 40 years since the 1979 Book of Common Prayer was adopted for use in The Episcopal Church. This means that nearly two generations have been raised in the church experiencing the “exchange of the Peace.” A large number of today’s Episcopalians were raised in other traditions, or in no faith tradition at all, and for them, the exchange of the Peace is part and parcel of being an Episcopalian.

The practice emulates the greeting of Jesus in the post-resurrection gospel stories. Extra-liturgical evidence can be found in the Epistles, as Christians “greet one another with a holy kiss” (I Cor 16:20), and baptismal liturgies as early as the 2nd century record the ministers exchanging the Peace with the newly baptized. It spread from there. But the practice pretty much disappeared from the liturgy in the Church of England in the 16th century, returning in the late 20th century, and in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer of The Episcopal Church. While it took a few years for many Episcopal congregations to get the hang of the practice, after nearly forty years, we are pretty good at it. We shake hands, hug, or nod. “Peace be with you,” we say, or “The Peace of the Lord be with you.”

There are many aspects of our lives and of our life together that will be changed by the Covid-19 pandemic and the upheaval and physical distancing we are all experiencing in these days. It is said that we won’t really be “back to normal” until there is a vaccination for the virus and it is available to all. That’ll be a while… In the meantime, practices, expressions, things we took for granted, or did without even really thinking before, will need to be altered, restricted, changed. One such practice will be the exchange of the Peace.

I wonder if one good thing to come out of all this Covid mess might be a rebooting of that practice. We are being given an opportunity to stop and think and be made more aware of what it is that we are doing when we say, “Peace be with you,” or “Peace of Christ be with you”.

It’s not the same as a coffee hour greeting, or a greeting at the west door. It’s not the same as a reunion. Neither is it the same as the greeting given by angels and other messengers of God in other places in the sacred story. The Angel Gabriel, and the like often lead with “Fear not!”. “Fear not” suggests that there is something that we need to be disabused of, something that needs to be cast off, put away. Namely, fear. “Fear not” is a good thing to say with a handshake, since handshakes were originally meant to show that the one offering his hand was not holding a weapon. Handshakes have also been used through the centuries as a sign of sealing a business agreement.

“Peace be with you” on the other hand, is rather an offering, something for us to receive, to take in. And when it comes from Jesus or from those who by faith and formation are the Body of Christ, the Church, the Peace that is offered is the Peace of God in Christ. This Peace is not an absence of chaos or uncertainty or violence. Rather, it is the presence of something. It is the Peace that passes all understanding. It is a deep-seated Peace in the storm, a blessed assurance. It is the Peace that God wants us to have, to know, to live, especially in times like that first week after the resurrection when the world in which those disciples lived had been turned upside down. Especially in times like these.

What if, when we get back to meeting together in person on Sunday mornings, we exchanged the Peace imagining the Risen One himself, standing in our midst?

What if, when we greet one another with the Peace of Christ, we realized in our bones that what we are offering, and what we receive, is nothing less than the Peace of God, and that really, there can be nothing more? It might require some increased liturgical headspace.