Why the Sign of Peace Means More Now Than Ever

Young adults share the sign of peace during Mass. (CNS photo/Karen Callaway, Chicago Catholic)

A few weeks ago, I showed up to Mass with a heavy heart. Though I try not to follow the news too closely (for the sake of my mental health), I couldn’t help but notice the acrimonious Supreme Court nomination proceedings in the headlines and the outrage on social media. So many people around me seemed entrenched in an ugly us-versus-them political battle, and I felt pulled into the drama, too. Is our country falling apart? I wondered. How can we hope to heal our division?

I slipped into the pew that Sunday weighed down by the hostility of it all and hoping for an uplifting message from the homily. Certainly, the priest delivered a lovely sermon, but as Mass went on, it wasn’t his words that brought a sense of healing to my spirit. Rather, it was what happened during the Sign of Peace.

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As usual, the priest invited the congregation to “offer each other a sign of peace,” and as usual, I stood, prepared to murmur a few words and shake a few hands around me. But this time, something almost magical happened. It was as if time stood still for a moment, and I saw with spiritual eyes what was taking place around me. Strangers and loved ones alike offered gestures of harmony and truce without asking questions—or making accusations—about what might normally divide them. I couldn’t help but think of the political phrase “crossing the aisle” translated to a spiritual meaning as I watched hands extend to bridge the gap between empty spaces in the church. Simply being in a room of hundreds of people wishing each other well was a balm to my soul after all the tension in the air that week. 

This vision of people from all walks of life making human connection got me thinking. Initially, I felt an idealistic desire for the whole country (even the whole world) to come to Mass to do the same. But the real world isn’t like a commercial where we all hold hands and croon about how we’d “like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony,” and I’m lucky when I can get just one friend to try church with me. Still, what if we Catholics could take this sense of reconciliation out from Mass and into the world? What if I could do so on a personal level?

In the nitty-gritty of my own daily life, living at peace with others—even with my family—can be tough. My kids scream at each other (and I scream back) over trivial nonsense. And, often behind the veil of a screen, I harbor anger and hurt about the injustices I see online or in the news. Feeling “peace on earth, good will toward men” for those who hold radically different views than my own sounds like a tall order. But since that eye-opening Sunday, remembering the Sign of Peace has transformed my thinking.

Specifically, I’m reminded that the Sign of Peace is part of a greater ceremony of sacrifice on the altar. Maintaining peace with people I dislike or who rub me the wrong way often requires sacrifice, too—a relinquishment of my own pride, perhaps, or the need to be right. When I can summon the maturity to lay down my own self-importance, I’m far freer to wish others well. I can apologize to my kids for losing my temper. I can say a prayer of peace for people who push my buttons, or at least mentally channel Pope Benedict’s often-quoted definition of love: “It is good that you exist.”

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It’s intriguing, too, to recall Jesus’ instruction to his disciples before making an offering. He told them not just to be reconciled with people they found difficult, but with people who held something against them. “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,” he says in Matthew 5:23-24.

I was once blessed to be on the receiving end of this hard-core admonition, and it affected me profoundly. During college, I attended church with a girl I heartily disliked and had pretty flagrantly gossiped about. One Sunday during the Sign of Peace, she left her pew far ahead of me and walked all the way back to where I stood rooted in place. She looked me squarely in the eye, extended her hand, and said, “Peace be with you.”

I knew that this gesture conveyed a far greater message than those four little words. It was a powerful jolt of forgiveness that has stayed with me ever since. Am I a big enough person to do the same? Though there may not be anyone in Mass to whom I need to so pointedly give my peace, there are certainly people in my weekday life who have said cruel things about me or hurt me in other ways. Maybe something as small as sending them a Christmas card this year or a “thinking of you” text would begin to mend the cracks in those relationships.

Especially in the climate of 2018, where tensions run high and outrage spreads like a virus, I’m realizing how essential it is to take the Sign of Peace beyond my weekly hour in church. This small-but-mighty act of goodwill has so much to teach—if I can have the humility to learn.