Monday, 24 August 2009

Sign of Peace: the meaning of the Communion Rite

As promised to Rita, herewith the (long) text of a catechesis I used in June 2007, as part of a series on the different parts of the Eucharistic Liturgy. It places our understanding of the sign of peace firmly within our understanding of the nuptial nature of the moment of Holy Communion; and, by also giving it its place in terms of our understanding of the Church, it emphasises a dynamic of offering/receiving. This is indicated in the greeting of the priest and response of the congregation immediately before the sign of peace: Offering: "The peace of the Lord be always with you." Receiving: "And also with you"; and the manner of passing the sign of peace from priest to deacon to sub-deacon to servers as happens in the High Mass of the extraordinary form.

Some other Liturgical rites place the sign of peace just before or just after the offertory procession - where it does have a quite different meaning than for the Roman rite, where it is placed within the Communion rite.

Another interesting aside to this catechesis is its explanation of the significance of receiving Holy Communion under both kinds. It brings out the baptismal character of receiving Holy Communion - baptism being the first of the "sacraments of initiation" and receiving Holy Communion the last, and completion, of the "sacraments of initiation".

Sadly, catechesis of this standard on both topics is almost totally absent from typical parish experience.

Sixth Catechesis: The Communion Rite of the Mass

June is the month in which the Church particularly recalls its devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. We celebrate in this devotion the great love that God shows us in the pierced heart of his Son. The Communion Rite expresses the communication of this love to us each time we go to Mass.

Just before we receive Holy Communion, the priest holds up the Sacred Host and invites us to receive the Lord:

“This is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. Happy are those who are called to his supper.”

The second part of this invitation is based in the Book of Revelation, the last book of the Bible. It is describing the assembly of the saints around the throne of the Lamb in heaven:

“Alleluia. The reign of the Lord our God the Almighty has begun;
let us be glad and joyful and give praise to God,
because this is the time for the marriage of the Lamb.
His bride is ready, and she has been able to dress herself in dazzling white clothes,
because her clothes are made of the good deeds of the saints.
The angel said, ‘Write this: Happy are those who are invited to the wedding feast of the Lamb.’”[1]

When the celebrating priest invites us to receive Communion he is inviting us to enter into a relationship that is a “marriage” relationship between ourselves and God. The moment of receiving Holy Communion - that is, receiving Jesus the Lamb of God - is the moment of a wedding between us (individual) and God.

The Communion Rite is the point in the liturgy where the vocation of married people gains a particular expression. Before its redemption and integration into the mystery of Christ, married love is a sign of God’s love for the whole of creation:

“God built the rib he had taken from the man into a woman, and brought her to the man. The man exclaimed: ‘This at last is bone from my bones, and flesh from my flesh! This is to be called woman, for this was taken from man’.

“This is why a man leaves his father and mother and joins himself to his wife, and they become one body.”[2]

Commenting on this passage from Genesis, the Catechism of the Catholic Church says:

“Since God created him man and woman, their mutual love becomes an image of the absolute and unfailing love with which God loves man”.[3]

With the coming of Christ, this imaging of God’s love gains a specifically Christian nature as the imaging of the love of Christ for the Church and the love of the Church for Christ. This is what St Paul describes in the Letter to the Ephesians:

“Give way to one another in obedience to Christ. Wives should regard their husbands as they regard the Lord, since Christ is head of the Church and saves the whole body, so is the husband the head of his wife; and as the Church submits to Christ, so should wives to their husbands, in everything.

“Husbands should love their wives just as Christ loved the Church and sacrificed himself for her to make her holy. He made her clean by washing her in water with a form of words, so that when he took her to himself she would be glorious, with no speck or wrinkle or anything like that, but holy and faultless. In the same way, husbands must love their wives as they love their own bodies; for a man to love his wife is for him to love himself. A man never hates his own body, but he feeds it and looks after it; and that is the way Christ treats the Church, because it is his body - and we are its living parts….

“This mystery has many implications; but I am saying it applies to Christ and the Church.”[4]

In a Christian marriage, the wife stands for the Church (and for Mary, the mother of the Lord, who is the person who is a “figure” of the whole Church) and the husband is like the Lord, and their relationship is an icon of the love between Christ and the Church. At Holy Communion, we are all called, whether we are married or not, to share in the wedding of the Church (feminine, and represented in figure by the person of Mary) and her Lord (masculine, and head). For people who are married, however, this moment has a particular richness as an expression of their life vocation.[5]

The sign of peace should be understood in the context of this marriage relationship between God and the world, and between Christ and the Church. It is not a sign of reconciliation; it is a sign of the invitation to the “wedding feast of the Lamb”. This means that there is no need to shake hands with everyone. It is sufficient to offer the sign of peace to those nearby, the intention being to image the Christ/Church relationship.[6]

The peace is offered by Jesus Christ to the Church
[7] - so, in the sign of peace, one person represents Christ (and offers the sign) and the other person represents the Church (and receives the sign). This can be particularly so in families, where the husband represents Christ (who offers the sign) and the wife represents the Church (who receives the sign). Parents can offer the sign to their children, representing as they do so Christ and the Church (figured by Mary).[8]

If we return to the invitation given by the priest just before Holy Communion, and reflect on the first sentence of it, we are brought again to the Book of Revelation and its account of the saints gathered in heaven:

“… I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no man could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb…

“’These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.’”[9]

Receiving Holy Communion under both kinds also needs to be understood and practised in the context of the “wedding feast of the Lamb”:

“The widespread return to the practice of most people being able to receive the precious blood of the Lord in Holy Communion is most welcome. Yet it is a practice and a moment which I fear is still not properly understood. To receive the blood of the Lord is an act of such awesome significance that we ought to be overwhelmed by the moment. Yet it is so often a casual afterthought following the more familiar reception of the sacred host …

“(In the blood of the Lamb) we are washed clean. It is the blood of rebirth. In it we are reborn…”

“The blood of the Lamb is also the promise of the wholeness that still lies ahead. It is the foretaste of the new wine of heaven, the wine of the final marriage feast of the Lamb. The robes of the saints have been washed white in this blood, as we see in those marvellous images in the Book of Revelation”[10]

[1] Rev. 19:7-9
[2] Genesis 2: 22-25
[3] Catechism of the Catholic Church n.1604. cf also Genesis 9:21ff, where God says to Noah after the flood: “..neither will I ever again destroy every living creature as I have done … I establish my covenant with you and your descendants after you, and with every living creature that is with you …When the bow is in the clouds, I will look upon it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature…”
[4] Ephesians 5:21-33
[5] For those whose husband or wife are not believers, St Paul suggests a rich meaning that can be lived in their experience of Communion: “If a brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she is content to live with him, he must not send her away; and if a woman has an unbeliever for her husband, and he is content to live with her, she must not leave him. This is because the unbelieving husband is made one with the saints through his wife, and the unbelieiving wife is made one with the saints through her husband” 1 Cor. 7:12-14.
[6] cf the General Instruction on the Roman Missal 2000 n. 82: “The rite of peace follows, by which the Church asks for peace and unity for herself and for the whole human family, and faithful offer some sign of their ecclesial communion and mutual love for each other before communicating by receiving the Sacrament”. This refers first to the prayer ‘ Lord Jesus Christ, you said to your apostles ..” which is said by the priest and then to the sign of peace. Understanding the sign of peace as a sign of the nuptial relationship between Christ and the Church is to understand it as a sign of “ecclesial communion”.
[7] cf the dialogue between the priest and the congregation just before the invitation to offer the sign of peace.
[8]cf General Instruction on the Roman Missal 2000 n.154: “While the sign of peace is being given, the following may be said: The peace of the Lord be with you always. The response is: Amen.” The sign expresses “peace, communion and charity”.
[9] Revelation 7:9 ff
[10] Vincent Nichols Promise of Future Glory pp.135-136. Cf also General Instruction on the Roman Missal 2000 n.281: “Holy Communion has a more complete form as a sign when it is received under both kinds. For in this manner of reception a fuller sign of the Eucharistic banquet shines forth. Moreover there is a clearer expression of that will by which the new and everlasting covenant is ratified in the blood of the Lord and of the relationship of the Eucharistic banquet to the eschatological banquet in the Father’s kingdom”


Francis said...

Me again. There are a whole series of assertions here such as:

“Since God created him man and woman, their mutual love becomes an image of the absolute and unfailing love with which God loves man”.[3]

Is this 'since' (and the other injunctions) logical consequences or just assertions based on perceived parallels? I mean why does the fact that God makes men and women and men and women love each other necessarily mean that their love is an image of God's love? And whatabout if they hate each other? Could we say their hatred is an image of God's hatred?

I am reminded of Foucault's work on the archeology of knowledge which, if I remember it correctly, suggested that in earleir times knowledge was regarded as discovering parallels between the natural world and the divine.

By the way, does the sign of peace have to be a handshake?

Rita said...

Joe, your catechisis makes the sign of peace right and proper as it is in the Communion Rite. You put it across rather beautifully, thank you. The form the sign of peace takes is still open to question.

It is possible (unfortunately) to be reminded of that ghastly moment in TV soap opera weddings when the celebrant says "You may now kiss the bride".

The nature of the sign of peace is very much down to the priest saying the Mass. The priest who leaves the sanctuary to shake hands with everybody, induces a very different sign of peace between the rest of the congregation to the one who remains in the sanctuary and only acknowledges the server. The potentially "cheesy" must be avoided at all costs.

Thanks for your efforts on this.

Francis said...

Rita: you're a fan of The Chameleons. Me too!! I think we are a relatively select band.

Anonymous said...

zero says
Yes, Francis does point out does it need to be a handshake? Do you remember ,Joe , at a the World youth day cathechesis when (not, I admit ,for the sign of peace) we had to pinch each other's cheek(facial I might add!), hug each other and "bump"? It could be alot more distracting than a handshake.! For any parents don't be concerned about letting th children go to WYD!
Also, can you remember what that was all about? I think it was the Americans!

Joe said...


From the rubrical point of view, I think it was left to Bishop's Conferences to decide what form the sign of peace should take - so the English went for a handshake ... but there is a much more "liturgical" possibility.

WYD: Was that the morning when, not too much after what you described, I decided coffee was going to be more useful than the "youth ministry"? And the next morning, too, the cafes across the road from the Church hosting the catechesis did a roaring trade ... A lot of people voted with their feet over less than brilliant "youth ministry" on that morning!

Mind you, there were a couple of excellent catecheses by Bishops, who were applauded to the echo for their faithfulness to the Church.

Anonymous said...

Zero says
I think on this occasion we stayed to the end-I remember you muttering something about child protection issues!