I was once told that giving and receiving the Sign of Peace at Mass is founded on giving and receiving forgiveness. As I understood it, whoever was at the other end of that handshake was, by default, forgiving you of all wrongs you may have committed against him or her.
I was a lot younger when I was told this and the idea of exchanging forgiveness for a handshake was pretty appealing. You mean I didn’t have to actually apologize? I just briefly grab the other person’s hand, maybe give a quick hug, and that was it?
More than fifteen years have passed, and I have—hopefully—developed a more mature understanding of what it means to give and receive forgiveness. I haven’t heard of this blank-slate forgiveness handshake ever since. But the idea has stuck with me.
That’s a pretty powerful thing, isn’t it, that we could approach the exchange of peace as God approaches us in the Sacrament of Reconciliation—as an all-encompassing, no-questions-asked offering of forgiveness?
What is it we hear at Mass right before we exchange the Sign of Peace?
“Lord Jesus Christ, who said to your Apostles, ‘Peace I leave you, my peace I give you;’ look not on our sins, but on the faith of your Church, and graciously grant her peace and unity in accordance with your will.”
Peace and forgiveness are tightly interwoven; one is inseparable from the other. We’re reminded of this each and every time we go to Mass. We recognize that peace starts from within—that we ourselves are imperfect yet loved by God—and that that very same peace is to be extended to every member of our community. We build peace together, but only if we forgive one another—and ourselves. But it is often all too easy to step out of Mass on Sunday as though you’re entering a separate world; what happened in the chapel stays in the chapel.
If we’re called to be salt for the world, then this cannot be so. The world must see that it is not so—each and every person we encounter must recognize us as a person of peace, a person who is motivated and challenged by a God of peace.
In part, this is why I’m fascinated by faith-based peacebuilding. I spend a lot of my graduate school career researching how a religious imagination can impact the common good, and to me, there are fewer places so powerfully open to the role of faith as peacebuilding.
But as a Catholic, I often ask myself: What does my faith tradition offer in this great interreligious effort?
I do not claim to be an expert—I’ve barely scratched the surface of the literature. But in my research I keep coming back to the role of ritual. There is power in ritual, in repetition, in coming together as a community to grapple with the unknowable from the nitty-grittiness of our lived reality.
Those of all religious traditions can attest to this. Certainly, a brief look at tragedies over the last several months will reveal faith communities of all varieties gathering to mourn, to pray, to remember.
When we come together before God in community ready and willing to grapple with mysteries divine and unknown, we must necessarily come together ready to forgive, ready to build peace. How can we allow the People of God—gathered in Christ’s name—to stand and pray together and do anything less?
And yet, we know that so often that all-important Sign of Peace is reduced to something perfunctory, half-hearted, something my younger self might find appealing. I know I’m guilty of this more often than not. How many unrelated, far-from-peaceful thoughts are on my mind as I spin around in my chair in the chapel and shake the hands of strangers?
Peace and forgiveness can begin with the Sign of Peace. But they don’t end there. That first step out of the chapel is not a step away from that Sign of Peace, but a further entering into it.
Ritual is powerful, and there are few rituals quite so unique in the spiritual tools offered to build a more peaceful world than the Mass.
What, then, do we bring to the altar in our own prayer? How do we use rituals of all kinds to build peace, to extend and receive forgiveness? A good piece of Scripture for our reflection might be Matthew 5:23-24:
Therefore, 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.