In the second post in our Foundations series—a celebration of the most beautiful and central aspects of the Anglican tradition—Lucas Damoff of All Saints Dallas explains why the Passing of the Peace is far more than a social interlude.
Celebrant: The peace of the Lord be always with you.
People: And also with you.
Then the Ministers and People may greet one another in the name of the Lord.
The Peace is one of those little parts of our worship service that is all too easy to overlook. Whether or not we give it much thought, it often is treated simply as a nice chance to move around (as if we needed more of that in Anglican worship) and maybe say hello to any friends we may not have seen since last Sunday or a good time to introduce ourselves to any new faces in our general vicinity.
But, of course, there are no throw-away pieces to the liturgy—all those funny little bits and sentences are actually steeped in meaning. And so it is with the Passing of the Peace. More than just a social interlude, it has at its roots a desire first articulated long before Christ ever came to earth. The Hebrew scriptures are full of mankind’s aching desire for peace being answered by God’s unrelenting promise to bring them into the Sabbath rest they so desperately crave. In the Jewish understanding, this notion of peace (in Hebrew: shalôm) has the nuance of wholeness, completion and rest. It is not merely the absence of conflict, or the cessation of hostilities. It is a life that is full of goodness and completely free from anxiety. The ancient Jewish conception has both a physical and a spiritual element. It is when every bill is paid and everyone in the family is healthy. It is having money in the bank and a job that is both fulfilling and well-paying. It is a relationship with God unsullied by sin, and being surrounded by friends who know and love you. It is internal, external, communal and Theological.
This grand and comprehensive understanding is almost certainly the background to Jesus’ words in John 14:27: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.” To fully appreciate the depth of this promise, we must remember that He said this just before He was betrayed to His death by a close friend. This may seem an unlikely time to promise peace: His disciples are about to scatter in the face of His arrest, Peter will deny Him, the rest will hide. But He promises to give them peace “not as the world gives.” He will give them peace not in spite of the cross, but through the cross.
He is leaving us, therefore, with a peace which goes beyond our ability to comprehend. Many a brilliant military leader can give peace through conquest. Politicians and executives in many times and places have created political entities and institutions that have provided abundance and an absence of conflict. But these never last, and can fracture apart in the face of adversity. The peace that Christ gives is richer, deeper and eternal. Ultimately, it is a peace that comes alongside the gift of the Holy Spirit, which means it is a peace that comes from being united into the immutable peace of God Himself. So even while we wait for the fullness that will come with His return, we have the deposit that guarantees it. It is at the same time a certainty that is already with us, even as it is an experience that is not yet fully here.
The present reality is that we are forgiven in Christ; we have union with God in Christ. And being united with Christ we are united with each other; having been forgiven we forgive. With our eternal future secure in the resurrected Christ we can face the harshest deprivations and persecutions with joy, confident that Christ will vindicate His people at His return in glory. So even in the face of loss and hardship, in response to the most vicious assault, even in the face of death, the Christian has been given access to peace. Peace which passes understanding, a peace that is given not as the world gives peace. A peace that is rooted in Christ Himself, and that is unassailable.
So, with that in mind, when the Celebrant gets up and blesses us—pronouncing the peace of our Lord Jesus over us in perpetuity—and we respond in kind, we are being reminded and are reminding each other of the promise that Jesus made to us. When we then turn to each other—to shake hands, give hugs, declaring the reality of peace—we are not just catching up with friends and meeting newcomers. We are both making peace if that is needed, and declaring the peace that Christ has made for us. If there is strife between us and a brother or sister, we are to go to them and say, “Peace.” If there is a brother or sister in distress or need, let us go to them and say, “Peace.” If there a friend who is experiencing joy and abundance, we rejoice with them and say, “Peace.” After declaring this Peace in the community of saints during our corporate worship, we are then called upon to enact that peace in those relationships: forgiving and seeking forgiveness, helping to bear the loads of those in need, rejoicing with those who rejoice. The peace is a powerful reminder of who we are in Christ, both individually and corporately. We are a people who have been given peace and have been made whole; and we are a people called to make peace and bring about wholeness.
The Peace is a powerful declaration of heaven on earth. It is declared in the hope of the resurrection even as it is already being fulfilled among us. It comes after the proclamation of the Gospel, before the fellowship of the Table. Here, between the two high points of our liturgical worship, we remember, declare and enact the peace which Jesus has given to us. We respond to the good news of Christ, receiving the peace He has accomplished for us on the Cross, and we are then able to come in the restored wholeness of the Peace of our Lord, who is Himself the Prince of Peace, to experience communion with God and his Church at the Table. Without the Peace—the peace which passes understanding won by the cross of Christ—there is no communion to be had. But Christ being infinite in love has looked upon us in our rebellion and taken into Himself all of our conflicts, has absorbed in Himself God’s wrath towards sin. He has made peace by the blood of His cross. And he bids us to enter into His Peace and Rest.