The Latin literally means "Peace be with you" and then "And also with your spirit." Or as we say each and every Sunday, "The peace of the Lord be always with you," to which we respond "And also with you." But what are we really doing? What does this mean? Did you ever ponder these questions? Why would we take a liturgical "timeout" to greet each other before the Eucharist?
The 1979 Book of Common Prayer includes this exchange of greeting in both Rite 1 and Rite 2 forms of the Eucharist, but it was not to be found in the 1928 Book of Common Prayer. It was, with many other liturgical elements, a new addition to the Eucharist in the BCP79. And, in many places, it was not warmly received; rather, it was perceived as an unnecessary break in the liturgical flow and was seen to supplant the "Comfortable Words" - sentences of scripture read prior to the Eucharistic Prayer and the consecration of the bread and wine.
In other places, however, the Peace has been embraced more fully. In various congregations, the exchange of Peace can range from a brief, quiet, restrained sharing with those in close proximity to a boisterous greeting with congregants pouring out of pews for an extended period of greeting and welcome. But what is the Peace really about?
The exchange of the Peace is rooted in the New Testament (Rom. 16:16, 1 Cor. 16:20, 2 Cor. 13:12, 1 Thess. 5:26, 1 Peter 5:14). While it is an obvious outward sign of love, affection, and greeting among Christians, it is foremost a sharing of the peace bestowed by the risen Christ (John 20:19, 21, 26). Its placement just prior to the celebration of the Holy Eucharist is no accident; it is also a sign of reconciliation and in the early church, those who would not exchange this sign were prohibited from receiving the holy communion (Matt. 5:23-24). Additionally, this outward sign was quite literally a "holy kiss" (Rom. 16:16).
In today's worship, the Peace often serves as both welcome and as holy greeting. However, this can obscure the main purpose of the exchange: a deep sharing of the peace of the risen Christ and a recognition of Christ in those gathered.
At our 9:00 service, we have moved our welcome and announcements to the beginning of the service, which has yielded a joyous outburst of greeting and welcome and has, coincidentally, caused our opening hymn to be even more glorious! Now, some wonder what to do during the Peace itself.
So, having done this welcoming and greeting at the beginning of the service, I encourage you to take a step toward sharing the Peace in a more authentic, spiritual way. The "conversation" between those sharing Christ's peace with each other need be no more than "The peace of Christ be with you" or other similar greeting - in a way, this exchange is very much like another found in Eastern religions where people greet one another by simply saying Namaste to each other, meaning, "I see God in you." These words may be accompanied as they were in the early church - with a holy kiss, an embrace, or a handshake. Ultimately, at the time of the Peace in our Eucharistic Rite, it is not about us acknowledging our friends or family, the newcomer among us, a lovely outfit or a snazzy hat, or even our beloved; it IS about acknowledging Christ in them.
Give this a try...don't leave joy behind in the doing, but see how it affects you to be more intentional, spiritual and, yes, holy in your exchange of the Peace with those around you prior to Eucharist. Then come boldly to the throne of grace, to God's holy table and receive from God's own bounty the holy food which sustains the world.