So recently if you didn’t hear the The Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments headed by Spanish Cardinal Antonio Canizares Llovera, have a letter out to all Catholics about what we are doing during the part of Mass we call the “sign of peace”. If you have not been following, in 2005 some bishops were worried that the particular section of Mass before we say the “Lamb of God…” is turning into more than it should be. Sighting things like priests descending from the alter for hugs, people singing (‘the song of peace’), and people tossing out the 1970’s hippie peace symbol at each other.
As the dust clears from this letter, it seems apparent that in the last 9 years not much has changed, since the conversation started. The biggest issued was the bishops had considered to moving the sign of peace back to the end of the Liturgy, where there at one time was a “Kiss of Peace“, so we were not moving around while Jesus was present on the alter. In the letter they note the idea but have concluded to leave the sign of peace where it is at. Honestly I have had enough liturgical changes to last a lifetime, and I can’t imagine how confused my parents generation feels after Vatican II, and then the more recent vernacular changes.
Cantering at Mass a few weeks ago, during the sign of peace a server and I were right next to each other yet separated by chairs, an amplifier, and speaker, we could not shake hands, instead we exchanged two different hand gestures. I mouthed “Peace be with you” (Cantor… microphone… I think you get it) and the hand gesture I made was my index finger and middle finger touching extended with my thumb holding my ring finger and my pinky down. He responded with the 1970’s peace symbol.
Now what did I mean and he mean? I ask this because I think we meant different things:
My hand gesture was a profession of my faith in the Trinity. Our Orthodox brethren use the hand posture to make the sign of the cross. The hand gesture I used is seen all over iconography and in famous picture and statues of the saints. It is a teaching tool that these icons artists have purposely placed, much like St. Peter holding keys or St. Paul holding scrolls of his epistles. The thumb and two smaller fingers (in some images touching in some not) denote the three persons of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The two extended fingers denote that Jesus is both 100% God and 100% Man as one. The servers response was, “Oh that is the hip catechist teacher in our parish trying to be hip and cool and reach out to me with a peace sign, I should throw back.” So some things got lost in translation.
I guess I know what the bishops are talking about when it comes to abuses. I guess I am guilty of abusing the moment. I probably should refrain from such hand motions in the future.
Lets look at the traditional peace hand symbol. Its origins as a peaceful gesture do seem to come from the United States in the late 1950’s, where it was popularized as a symbol of nuclear disarmament. By the 1970’s it had grown into the culture as an anti-war symbol. Before that the gesture is rooted in British history. It is often said that the British archers use to denote that they have their drawing fingers and they can still fire their bow to shoot at the French (lovely). Asian culture refers to the same sign as the victory sign. If you look it up there are hundreds of ancient uses for the gesture. Seems like the symbol has bounced back and forth between war and peace, regardless the average person today would consider it means an end to war. Unless you throw it upside-down or back of your hand out, in which case it is almost always an obscene gesture in most cultures.
So why do the bishops not want us tossing up the peace sign? It has to do with the solemness of the Mass itself. The Mass is steeped in the beauty of the beatific vision, it is not a place for secular rap music, pop singers, or twerking dancers all of which will come and go in popularity and style. While we are free to bring some of the aspects of our culture into the Mass, there is a time and a place, and at this particular moment Jesus is very present at the alter. It is a time to recognize that Jesus loved us and wants to be part of our community; not just you and Him, but everyone and Him. It is also a moment for us to stop and make peace with our brothers and sisters, if there is something between you, before eating at the heavenly feast.