When I began to understand ancient liturgical practice some years ago one of the more beautiful discoveries was “The Passing of the Peace.” I had never heard the term until I was introduced to the practice in a liturgical context. Like everything else I encounter in the practice of worship I wanted to know what this term really meant and where the practice came from.
First, for those who do not know the term, it is used in many liturgical services after the reading of biblical texts, the sermon and The Lord’s Prayer. It always comes before the Eucharist or communion. The church will be led in prayer as a congregation and various ways of responding and praying are used. Following this the “passing of the peace” generally occurs. The leader says, “The peace of Christ be with you.” The congregation responds, “And also with you.” And then the leader urges the people to share the peace with one another.
Second, the “passing of the peace” occurs just before the Eucharist, for a very obvious biblical reason. In Paul’s extensive treatment of the Lord’s Supper in 1 Corinthians 11 he makes it clear that we are not to “eat the bread and drink the cup in an unworthy manner” (11:27). We are exhorted to self-examination (11:28) and “discerning the body” (11:29). Earlier Paul told the Corinthian congregation that “divisions” and “factions” in the church should not exist (11:18-19). The entire context says, in the clearest possible language, that we should make sure we are at peace with each other before we come to the Table. The “passing of the peace” is a liturgical reminder of this central truth. It is a time to search your own life and make sure that you are not communing with others in the congregation with whom you have unsettled disagreements that have created “division” and “faction.” Unity is the whole point.
Because I am deeply committed to practicing the unity of the church this practice has profound significance in my own life. And because of what I now know about “passing the peace” I find the evangelical substitute: “Greet the person next to you and say hello” to be a very weak substitute for this ancient liturgical practice. The most non-liturgical church I know could introduce this practice and it would profoundly help people to grasp the actual point of 1 Corinthians 11 in the process. Liturgical churches need a better understanding of the reason for this ancient practice if it is to have its intended purpose in the lives of their people. Next time you “pass the peace” do it with a heart that is right with God and your brothers and sisters. If your heart is not right with your brother or sister deal with that before you partake of the bread and the wine.
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The early Christian liturgies (St. James, St. Basil, etc.) did not have a “passing of the peace”. I’m guessing that is a 16th century Protestant tradition.
The early liturgies contained, rather, a “holy kiss”, with which those present greeted each other.
Romans 16:16, 1 Cor 16:20, 2 Cor 13:12, 1 Thes 5:26.
These liturgies are still used today each Sunday by Eastern Orthodox churches around the world.
Glory to God for all things.