Revised from the original article “Pass the Peace – Not the Germs” (November 2014)
As we approach another flu season, let us once again consider what it means to share the Peace of Christ – from the standpoint both of worship practice and of health awareness.
First, let us consider what it means for us to share the Peace of Christ as a worshipping congregation of Christian believers. Theologian James White says, “we cannot touch God, but each of us can touch others in God’s name … the passing of the peace has again become a prominent sign of reconciliation and love as Christians embrace one another or shake hands during worship.” The exchange of peace is different from the “greet your neighbor time.” It is a specific act of worship meant to encourage one another in the comforting thought that Christ is present and among us – bringing peace (Matthew 18:20). This act of worship actually comes from the New Testament practice of sharing the Kiss of Peace, in which fellow Christians offered one another a simple kiss in worship to signify reconciliation and oneness (see, for example, Romans 16:16; 1 Corinthians 16:20; and 1 Peter 5:14). One of the early church fathers, Cyril of Jerusalem (314-387 A.D.) gives specific pastoral instruction for the Kiss of Peace. “Do not think of this kiss as being like the kiss people exchange in the public squares when they meet friends. No, this kiss is not of that kind. It unites souls, it requires that we forget all grudges. This kiss thus signifies the union of souls with one another, and the forgetfulness of all wrongs done us.” This kiss, then, paralleling the words of Christ in Matthew 5:23-24, is an act of reconciliation. For this reason, the Kiss of Peace (or Sharing of Peace) can most often be found near the Confession and Pardon in the order of worship. Participating in this act of worship is meant to stretch us. After all, forgiveness is not always easy. Perhaps this is why early Christians chose to symbolize this sort of risky vulnerability—and gracious acceptance—with the sharing of kiss. Augustine of Hippo (354-430 A.D.) describes it thusly: “This is a sign of peace; as the lips indicate, let peace be made in your conscience, that is, when your lips draw near to those of your brother, do not let your heart withdraw from his. Hence, these are great and powerful sacraments.” Sharing signs of peace and love in worship should compel us to do the same outside the church. In worship every week, we practice and, in a sense, reenact God’s story of salvation—a story filled with love and peace, hope and joy—so that, as the body of Christ, we are better prepared to go out and boldly share these signs of God’s grace with the world.
That’s some background on how Sharing the Peace of Christ became a part of traditional Christian worship. Nevertheless, with the weather turning colder and people inevitably getting sick, the practical question remains: How then are we to share signs of peace (handshakes, kisses, hugs) without sharing each other’s germs? The best thing for us to do, I think, is to use our common sense—and trust others to do the same. Be aware of your surroundings, and take care of yourselves. I could elaborate here, but I think we all know the importance of good health awareness. Finally, allow others their space. If you sense someone is holding back, perhaps they are simply extending the courtesy of not sharing unwanted “guests” with you.
But, what of our time together in worship? Understanding the historical significance of the gesture, how then are we to supplement during this time of year? Perhaps we can look past the gesture alone and focus our attention on the words we use during this act of worship. There can be such wonderful compassion and love by speaking kind words of peace to our neighbors in worship while looking them in the eyes. It signifies that you are present with them in that moment and that all other things (at least for this brief time) can wait. While there is great importance in the combination of sign and spoken word, it seems obvious during this time of year that we place our emphasis on the latter. Just as the Apostle Paul encouraged the Christians in Rome to not be stumbling blocks for one another, so, too, can we seek to proactively “pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding” (Romans 14:19).
It is my hope that you will find renewal and reconciliation as you share these loving words: May the Peace of Christ be always with you.