Did you know that every 31st of March is International Hug a Medievalist Day? I didn't, until a few days ago, but since hugs weren't forthcoming for yours truly, I instead thought to write about that curious public display of affection known to all of our medieval forebears: the kiss of peace. Does it sound strange and foreboding? On the contrary, many of you are already familiar with it, in a way. So before we travel back to the past, let’s take a look at our present surroundings.
On any given Sunday at your typical suburban Catholic parish down the street (or Episcopal, or Lutheran, depending), right before the moment of Communion, we’re treated to someone solemnly announcing: "let us offer one another a sign of peace". Then, to prepare to receive God almighty in the form of bread and/or wine, we turn to all the corners of the earth; north, south, east, and west; to display all around us our best Christian faces and administer the sign. In this country, we default to the venerable handshake of antiquity, but other local traditions make use of the back-pat, the first-bump, the brotherly mansqueeze, or, for the more chaste among us, the hoverhand. The traditional salute, "peace be with you", can then serve as an opening to delve further into the mysteries of Christian fellowship. "Beautiful day out, eh?", or "did you catch last night’s game?" The silent nod of understanding between two believers who know precisely which game is dwelt upon completes the preparation for modern man’s Communion.
That’s the narrative that the powers-that-be want us to believe, anyway. The "sign of peace", as we know it today, was introduced to Catholics in 1970, courtesy of the reformed order of Mass. Most ordinary believers in the pews probably had no idea what to do or even what the significance of the rite was. I can only imagine priests in those first years of the new liturgy goading their flock on by leading by example: descending from the altar of sacrifice to smack palms with everyone in the first rows. Some forty-odd years later, they still haven’t been able to convert us all. A few of the most liturgically conservative priests who still celebrate the new Mass exercise the little-known option of omitting the peace entirely. Other believers bask in the peacelessness of the traditional Latin Mass communities, gloating to the plebs stuck in Novus Ordo land that they didn’t have to make physical contact with anyone else that Sunday. Other traddies who get stuck in a modernized church to please grandma have been known to shove their hands in their pockets or kneel and play the role of the suffering servant, mentally transporting themselves onto the cross amidst the jeers and shouts of the vulgar crowds at Calvary, by all appearances as forlorn and engrossed in the great mysteries as possible.
But, what if I told you that the sign of peace is traditional? The crucial distinction is that I speak not of just any sign; not the handshake of peace, nor the bro-hug of peace, nor the fistbump of peace; but the kiss of peace. In the traditional Latin Mass's solemn form, the priest must still, after kissing the altar, embrace the deacon, who in turn embraces the subdeacon, the subdeacon the master of ceremonies, each member of the choir, and so on in a great chain of succession. It's even performed in the same place as in the modern form of Mass, after the Lord's Prayer and before the Communion. But what a difference in the spirit of the act! Gone are the awkward handshakes and jumbled "peace be with you's". In their place, the two traditional rite calls on the one giving the peace to soberly place his hands on the receiver's shoulders, lean in close to the receiver's right ear, and say, Pax tecum ("peace be with you"). The receiver answers, Et cum spiritu tuo ("and with thy spirit"), then turns to pass the peace to the next minister. And here, we learn why the rite is traditionally not called the "sign" of peace or even the "kiss" of peace, for there is no actual kiss, nor is it merely a symbol of a thing that already exists: it is an actual conferral of peace, in an unbroken line from Christ at the altar to the last receiver. It is the pax.
The origins of the pax
The kiss has been used in the Church since the first days. So Saint Paul tells the Romans, "salute one another with a holy kiss", and Saint Peter writes in his first epistle, "greet ye one another with a kiss of charity". By the second century, the kiss was a part of the liturgy. Saint Justin Martyr described divine service in his day: "when we have completed the prayers we salute one another with a kiss, whereupon there is brought to the president bread and a cup of wine". Here, and elsewhere throughout early Christendom, the kiss of peace was exchanged between the faithful before what would later come to be called the Offertory of the Mass. The reasoning is obedience to the teaching of Christ in the Gospel: "if, therefore, thou offer thy gift at the altar, and there thou remember that thy brother hath anything against thee; leave there thy offering before the altar, and go first to be reconciled to thy brother: and then coming thou shalt offer thy gift".
But in Rome, perhaps after Pope Gregory the Great’s reordering of the Canon, or even earlier, the pax was moved to its current place after the Lord’s Prayer and before Communion, and given a new significance. No longer was the pax merely an act of reconciliation to one's brother, though it was still that. But now, it led directly into the paschal mystery, forming part of the preparation for Communion. In those early medieval days, the pax was still clearly intertwined with the act of receiving the body and blood of the Lord. Michael Foley's abstract on the pax cites two examples: first, a homily from Gregory the Great of some monks who are convinced they are about to be shipwrecked, then make to exchange the pax and receive Communion in preparation for their deaths. And second, the example of Saint Mary of Egypt, who gave the monk that brought her the Eucharist the pax. Until recently, the pax was omitted at the requiem Mass and the Good Friday liturgy, probably because the Communion of the faithful, too, was absent on these days.
In those first centuries of Christianity, the pax was a kiss on the lips. The fact that such a gesture between two men in our society today is inescapably homoerotic is a major reason why the architects of the Vatican II liturgical reforms suggested the handshake in its place. But in the 1st century AD, it was not so. When the Passion says that Judas betrayed Jesus with a kiss, we can know that Christ Himself wasn't averse to the practice. But as the years went on, and the first fire, the innocency of Christians' faith waned, problems arose. The kiss on the lips was still considered an intimate act between either family members (of which the entire Church was considered one's spiritual family then) or lovers. Saint Clement of Alexandria complained of what the kiss had become in his day: disruptive and lascivious when exchanged between men and women. The pax was then forbidden to be exchanged between the sexes. By the Middle Ages, it had become customary to see this enforced by keeping men and women on separate sides of the church. I'm not sure when this practice fell out of use in the west, but the 1917 Code of Canon Law still recommends it. And, of course, many eastern rite churches maintain the separation of the sexes, with men on the right and women on the left, to this day.
The pax had a second period of decline at the turn of the second millennium, when Christians in the west gradually fell out of the habit of receiving Communion every Sunday. Whether this was out of increasing reverence for the sacrament's purity and a heightened sense of their own unworthiness, a spirit of toward the act of actually receiving the Eucharist, or a combination of both, I can't say. But as regular communing of the faithful declined, so too did the pax since, at this time, it was still viewed chiefly as an act of preparation. But, whereas the medieval Church made no serious measures to promote regular Communions, it did make great efforts to keep the people exchanging the pax. The English introduced a new way of exchanging it: the pax-brede, an icon of the lamb of God, which the people could come forward to kiss at the rood screen almost in lieu of receiving Communion. The paxbredes were typically of silver, but could also be made of ivory or other precious materials. Poorer churches that couldn't afford to order one would substitute a crucifix or book of the Gospels in its place. The English pax-brede caught on quickly and thence spread to the rest of western Europe.
Alas, man's fallen nature got the best of him yet again, and there was yet another period of abuse and decline in the 15th and 16th centuries, at the eve of the Reformation. You'll recall earlier how I described the hierarchical order of the pax in the traditional Latin Mass today: priest, deacon, subdeacon, and so on through the rest of the sanctuary according to rank. This was true in the medieval world, too; but when an entire congregation is to exchange it, now it suddenly becomes a lot more complicated. Who's to say whether the baker ought to kiss the pax before the miller's daughter? What was meant to establish peace between the members of Christ's Church instead became a point of division. So Eamon Duffy writes in his essential work, The Stripping of the Altars:
'In 1494 the wardens of the parish of All Saints, Stanyng, presented Joanna Dyaca for breaking the paxbrede by throwing it on the ground, "because another woman of the parish had kissed it before her." On All Saints Day 1522 Master John Browne of the parish of Theydon-Garnon in Essex, having kissed the pax-brede at the parish Mass, smashed it over the head of Richard Pond, the holy-water clerk who had tendered it to him, "causing streams of blood to run to the ground." Brown was enraged because the pax had first been offered to Francis Hamden and his wife Margery, despite the fact that the previous Sunday he had warned Pond, "Clerke, if thou here after givest not me the pax first I shall breke it on thy hedd."'
The pax-brede fell out of the mainstream later into the Counter-Reformation, and in the few places where it's still used today, it tends to be restricted only to the clergy or special dignitaries.
Sacralizing the secular, secularizing the sacred
Before we shake our heads at this litany of failure and consign the pax forever into the dustbin of liturgical history, I'd be remiss if I didn't at least mention how this rite transformed medieval society itself. The kiss found its highest expression in the pax, but it permeated other rites as well. The new initiate into the faith was given the kiss after baptism. The newly ordained priest, or the consecrated bishop, completed his elevation to holy orders with the kiss. But then, the secular world started to adopt it, too. Alongside the priest, the newly dubbed knight completed his oath to his lord with the kiss of peace. The kingdoms and principalities of this turbulent era also adopted the kiss of peace as an alternative to taking an oath to end hostilities. When King Henry II and Saint Thomas Becket finally came to a settlement after years of fighting over the rights of the see of Canterbury, Thomas demanded that they, and his safe passage back to England, be guaranteed not by oath, but by a kiss of peace.Even though everything was arranged, Henry backed out over this one condition, saying that he had sworn an oath never to give the kiss of peace to Becket ever again. For whatever reason, Henry wouldn't relent, even though the Pope offered to absolve the king of his oath, and so, the reconciliation was stalled for over a year over what would call a trifling matter of ceremony today. Eventually, Becket consigned himself to return to Canterbury without the kiss. Days later, without the guarantee of security that the kiss granted by sheer power of social custom, he was murdered by four of Henry's knights in his own cathedral.
In our modern world, as with so many other things, it looks like we've got this one backwards now. The medieval Church brought the truce of God to the tables of kings and sanctified diplomacy with the kiss of peace. The modern Church, following the Second Vatican Council reforms, chose to restore this tradition in a debased form by substituting the common handshake (or bow, or other secular gesture of respect) in the kiss's place. The effects, as I described in the beginning of this post, are apparently intentional. (See this article by Father Thomas Reese, who writes with approval, "The kiss at the end of the Liturgy of the Word symbolizes the community acceptance of the message they have just heard. They are 'shaking on a deal.'")
G.K. Chesterton once said, "The reformer is always right about what is wrong. He is generally wrong about what is right." The liturgical progressives were right that we couldn't possibly go back to full kiss on the lips in this culture; but they were wrong to artificially restore this rite by imposing it upon the laity in a dumbed-down fashion. Even in the Church's first years, it was spoken of as the "holy kiss", set apart from the salutations of the world.
The pre-conciliar Church isn't entirely without fault. The rubrics of the old Missal mandated the pax by amplexus (the embrace) only at solemn high Mass, but by the 20th century, this form was rare enough that many Catholics lived and died without ever having attended one. It permitted the choir and lower ministers to receive the pax by use of the pax-brede at sung and low Mass, the more commonly attended forms, but it was rarely ever taken into action. What did the Church's leaders after Vatican II think would happen to the peace if the vast majority of laypeople had never seen it exchanged properly, other than total chaos?
My solution is simple. It's based on the premise that a venerable tradition like the pax ought to be preserved. First, for traditional Latin Mass communities, to celebrate solemn high Mass as often as possible and see that the pax is exchanged by all vested ministers and choristers in the sanctuary. But, if sung or low Mass is offered, take advantage of the old Missal's permissions and see that the pax is exchanged between the priest and all other ministers by the use of a pax-brede (or crucifix or similar icon) at all Masses, even if there's just the one lowly server present. Second, for the reformed order of Mass, omitting the pax entirely seems like a mere stopgap solution, a temporary fix for that seems good in the short term, but ultimately amounts to another total removal, just like the prayers at the foot of the altar, the Last Gospel, and a whole host of other so-called medieval accretions (as though that were a bad thing). Omit the deacon's invitation for all to "offer one another a sign of peace", yes. But let the priest and all the ministers be taught to exchange the pax just as in the traditional order of Mass, as though there were nothing abnormal about it at all. Then, after the course of years, when the people have seen the gravity and solemnity of the traditional pax as a step in the paschal mystery, emanating from Christ's peace at the altar, perhaps we would all walk away with a better understanding of those words of the liturgy:
"O Lord Jesus Christ, who saidst to Thine Apostles, 'Peace I leave with you, My peace I give unto you': regard not my sins, but the faith of Thy Church: and vouchsafe to grant her peace and unity according to thy will"