The celebration of Mass during the months of the COVID-19 pandemic has seen the absence of Holy Communion received under the form of the Precious Blood by the faithful and the absence of the invitation for the sign of peace. The celebration of the sign of peace is beginning to occur as we gradually return to a more normal form of celebration, though in my parish it is occurring at a certain initiative of the faithful towards each other and without Father generally offering the invitation. Mass attendance is still reduced compared to pre-pandemic Sundays, and the faithful are still giving attention to social distancing and the wearing of face coverings, though both of these have been indicated as a matter of our own choice.
In the earlier days of the pandemic, it was interesting to find an enhanced sense of the significance of the sign of peace being expressed in the prayer and dialogue that immediately precede the invitation to the sign of peace itself:
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. Who live and reign for ever and ever.
The peace of the Lord be with you always.
And with your spirit.
This prayer and dialogue express a peace that is offered by the priest, in his gesture from the altar, towards the faithful; and they capture the essence of the physical sign of peace to which the faithful are then subsequently invited.
As the celebration of the sign of peace gradually returns to the liturgy, there is perhaps an opportunity for clergy to offer a catechesis on the sign of peace, so that we do not return to the situation where, because it is generally marked by such a-liturgical practices as hand shakes or (in the circumstances of retained social distancing) hand waves, it is celebrated with very little real appreciation of its significance.
There seem to me to be two key elements of such a catechesis. The first is captured by the word "offer" in the invitation to the sign of peace. The sign of peace is not something that is shared in a kind of horizontal, equal way between two people. This is one reason why the a-liturgical hand shake and wave are so poor as expressions of the sign of peace; they are unable to express a dynamic of a sign that is offered by one person and received by the other. In this dynamic of offering/receiving, the person who offers should be seen as representing the person of Christ; and the person who receives should be seen as representing the Church. This gives the same representative character to the sign celebrated between the faithful and that expressed in the dialogue between priest and faithful that precedes it. This understanding alters completely our sense of what we are doing as we celebrate the sign of peace.
The second element of this catechesis is more tricky. It is about encouraging the faithful to adopt a physical way of celebrating the sign of peace that is genuinely liturgical in its character. Perhaps, within families, the father (representing Christ) might be encouraged first to offer the sign of peace to his wife (representing the Church); and then, together, they might offer the sign of peace to their children. Perhaps a bow, such as that customary when the name of Jesus is mentioned in the liturgy, could be offered first to another person, who then, subsequently, returns the bow in receiving the sign. Or, in the spirit of mutual enrichment from the old rite, the embrace in which the person offering the sign offers their outstretched arms with the hands facing downwards to place them above the lower arms of the person receiving, who in their turn reaches out with their hands facing upwards to place them under the lower arms of the person offering.
The General Instruction on the Roman Missal (n.154) says of the sign of peace:
According to what is decided by the Conference of Bishops, all express to one another peace, communion and charity. While the Sign of Peace is being given, it is permissible to say, The peace of the Lord be with you always, to which the reply is Amen.
The second sentence here certainly suggests a dynamic in which one person offers the sign of peace and the other person receives it. The first sentence is interesting in referring to "peace, communion and charity" rather than to an idea of reconciliation (which would be the meaning of the sign of peace in those rites where it takes place at the beginning of the offertory rite); but I suspect that this is mostly read in a more social and less theological sense than I am suggesting above.