||“Making the Rounds” at Mass|
It’s the “sign of peace,” not the “seventh inning stretch.”
As a professional speaker, I travel a lot. And, as a Catholic speaker, I travel to a lot of churches. And I’m seeing certain trends in Catholic parish life. First of all, I think Catholic parishes are getting friendlier. I see much more sense of community among the faithful, in many places, than I did ten years ago. Time was, the church was a place to slip in, “do” Mass, and slip out -- all relatively unnoticed. Now there are greeters. There’s a real push to welcome newcomers. Some parishes have “initiation” nights for new parishioners. More Catholics seem to be basing their social lives around their parishes than at any time since the ‘60’s. I think all of that is good.
But sometimes I think our friendliness gets a little out of hand. Take, for example, the sign of peace as I see it practiced in many parishes. Don’t get me wrong. I have no problem with the concept of the sign of peace. I understand the liturgical significance of acknowledging our brothers and sisters in Christ while He is present on the altar. So far, so good. The problem, as far as I’m concerned, is in what we (yes, I’m guilty too) actually do during the sign of peace, while He is present on the altar. We often seem to forget about Him altogether, distracted by an opportunity to exercise our newfound Catholic “friendliness,” or just to take a break from what is going on up on the altar.
Here are actual quotes I have heard during the sign of peace: “I love that dress. Where did you get it?” “Are you free for lunch on Tuesday?” “Meet me at the back door after Mass. We’re going out for drinks.” “Who do I make the check out to?”
Okay, now remind me one more time. Why are we doing this?
We seem to be forgetting what kind of expression this is supposed to be. It’s a time to acknowledge each other as brothers and sisters in Christ. It is, in other words, an expression of agape love. Agape love, as opposed to other kinds of love, is predicated simply on the fact that we all bear the image and likeness of God. It is applied to all equally. In the liturgy, we express that sign to those immediately around us, since it would be impractical to attempt to express agape love to each person in the church individually. But that doesn’t stop some people from trying. They’re up, out of their pews, making their rounds, pressing the flesh. They look like Congressional candidates.
Or, worse yet, they’re up looking for their friends. They’ll walk clear across the sanctuary, ignoring God-knows-how-many other images and likenesses of God, just to give one of their best buddies a hug. What’s up with that? Do we really need to interrupt our celebration of the Eucharist just to assure our friends that we still like them? Isn’t there plenty of time to hug them after Mass?
There is nothing “agape” about any of this. It’s not an expression of community with all of our brothers and sisters. It has become “affirm a friend” time, “catch up on the gossip” time, “I like you more than all of the people I just walked past” time. There’s nothing liturgical about any of that.
And, worst of all, we’re doing it all while Christ is present -- body, blood, soul and divinity -- on the altar. Tell me, if you were in a room with the actual flesh-and-blood God, the same God who created all of the heavens and the earth, the God who holds all existence in the very palm of His hand, would you be thinking about scheduling a meeting or trying to ask somebody about the cute new guy in the back? I doubt it. Your attention would be focused solely on Him. Yes, you would be aware that you were there as part of a community, and that the others around you were all created by Him and loved by Him. You might, at His direction, acknowledge that. But you wouldn’t ignore Him to ask someone how their stocks are doing or whether their dog is still sick.
And yet, we’re doing all of those same things, while Christ is present, body, blood, soul and divinity, right before our eyes. And that is not liturgically correct.
I’ve heard talk that the American Bishops are debating whether to move the sign of peace to the beginning of the Mass. As the practice of this liturgical gesture stands right now in many American parishes, I think it’s a good idea. If we’re going to be greeting our fellow parishioners in any kind of extended way during the Mass, it should happen at the beginning of the celebration, when we first come together. And, most importantly, it should happen before the Guest of honor arrives. Once He is there, our attention should be focused on Him.
Friendly is nice. But there is a time and place for friendliness. There is also a time and a place for reverence, for recollection, and for recognition of the real presence of God.
Don’t get the two mixed up.