Friday, April 14, 2023

The Kiss Off: A Crisis of Meaning in the Sign of Peace

The rite of peace, which was restored to all Masses in the 1970 Missal, has fallen onto hard times. Although some Catholics wholeheartedly praise it as the “highpoint of the Mass” (as one of my priest friends has been told several times by his parishioners), others view the matter differently. The 2005 Eucharistic Synod worried that the greeting has assumed “a dimension that could be problematic,” as “when it is too prolonged” or “causes confusion.” [1] In Sacramentum Caritatis Pope Benedict XVI spoke of the peace becoming “exaggerated” by emotion and causing “a certain distraction” before Holy Communion. [2] Consequently, the Supreme Pontiff not only called for “greater restraint” in the gesture of peace but even raised the question as to whether it should be moved to another part of the Mass. [3] His question was answered in 2014 by the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments, which decided to keep the Sign of Peace in its historic place in the Roman Rite.

How could such an ostensibly bright hallmark of the new liturgy become the object of such abuse and uncertainty? And what was the rationale to keep the status quo nevertheless? As will be made clear in this essay, Paschaltide is an especially appropriate time to contemplate these issues.
The Holy Kiss
The “holy kiss,” as St. Paul calls it, [4] has almost always been an important component of the Mass. Originally the kiss—which was a full, lip-on-lip act—was given to members of the same and opposite sex; but by the late second century Church Fathers like Clement of Alexandria were complaining that a lascivious element between men and women was creeping into the proceedings. This problem was solved by segregating the sexes to different sides of the nave, a practice that was still being recommended as late as the 1917 Code of Canon Law.
The Embrace of Saints Peter and Paul, late 15th century
Similarly, like most other kinds of kissing, the liturgical kiss was seen as an intimate gesture, the kind of thing one would only do within one’s family. Hence, the kiss was not given to “non-family members” such as heretics or catechumens. This principle was relatively easy to observe, since the early Church dismissed non-initiates after the homily, before the kiss was given.
The kiss remained a vital part of the liturgy until the mid-1200s, when it began to fall into disuse, and no one is certain why. The Church tried to sustain the rite by using a paten-like object called a “pax-brede.” This object, which can to this day still be used even at a Low Mass, is kissed by the priest, then the servers, then the laity, in order of rank. Eventually—perhaps because of disputes within the laity over who outranked whom—the pax-brede was restricted to the most notable dignitaries present, as we see in the 1962 rubrics.
Pax Brede, Cluny
The ritual kiss remained as well, though the laity ceased taking part in it and though it remained limited to Solemn High Masses. It also underwent a gradual modification. By the time Pope St. Pius V codified the Missal, actual kissing was no longer a part of it. The giver of the peace placed his hands on the recipient’s shoulders and leaned forward towards his left cheek saying Pax tecum, to which the recipient replied, Et cum spiritu tuo. The rubrics state that the cheeks of giver and recipient should “lightly touch,” though rubricians interpreted this as “a moral, not a physical touch”! [5]
Moral touching only, please
While the Tridentine kiss may seem a bit rarified, it nevertheless maintains the phenomenology of a kiss while circumventing all of a kiss’s potential drawbacks, such as the moral dangers of untoward eros or the legitimate concern for physical hygiene. Indeed, the word “accolade,” which originally meant either an embrace or a kiss marking the bestowal of knighthood, comes from the Latin ad collum, “to the neck,” because the act of falling on someone’s neck betokens a kiss. (Note how the father kisses his prodigal son in Luke 15, 20). This is important, for in preserving the kiss’s form, the Roman peace was still able to evince the rich tradition from which it was derived.
The traditional kiss of peace
Moreover, the Tridentine pax preserved an already centuries-old tradition of ordered administration. In the 1962 Missal the priest kisses the altar near the Host (earlier rubrics have him kissing the Host itself) and then “kisses” the deacon who in turn “kisses” the subdeacon and so on. No one can give the peace who has not received it from someone else, including the priest, who has received it from Christ Himself.
The symbolism is both beautiful and clear. All true peace comes from Christ through the ministration of His Church. Grace cascades from the Eucharist through Christ’s ministers to His people, forming a “chain of love” that both binds and elevates. This is further echoed in the etiquette governing the ritual. While it is common in the Tridentine rite to bow to one’s ecclesiastical superior at incensations, one does not acknowledge the rank of the peace-giver before it is administered, for, as the rubrics put it, “there is consideration not for the minister bringing it but for the Peace [itself].” [6]
Placing the Kiss
Another important feature of the kiss in the early Church is that there were two different places where it was given. All Eastern rites and several Western rites placed the kiss somewhere around the Offertory, while the churches in Rome and North Africa placed it after the Consecration. This divergence has caused considerable confusion among liturgists, some of whom see the Roman and North African usage as an unwarranted departure from apostolic times. The kiss of peace, they claim, is inspired by our Lord’s admonition to “be reconciled to thy brother” before offering “thy gift at the altar” (Matt. 5, 23-24), and hence the Roman rite should, following the example of the East, have the kiss at the Offertory.
The Paschal Kiss
What these authors overlook, however, is that there is not one theological rationale undergirding the kiss but two. While the Eastern kiss, which we may call the “conciliatory kiss,” is indeed grounded in Matthew 5, 23-24, the Roman kiss, which we may label the “Paschal kiss,” takes its bearings not from the Sermon on the Mount but from the Paschal mystery stretching from the Last Supper to the Resurrection. That Paschal kiss has at least four distinct meanings.
First and foremost, the Roman kiss not only betokens peace but confers it. The kiss was seen not a “sign of peace” or even the sign of peace—it was peace. The Roman liturgical books simply refer to the kiss as the pax. While this may certainly include reconciliation and forgiveness, the peace itself, as the 2004 Redemptionis Sacramentum explicitly states, is not done primarily for this reason. [7]
The Risen Christ
Second, the Paschal kiss symbolizes the Paschal Lamb, the resurrected and glorified Christ. In St. John’s Gospel, the risen Jesus appears to the Apostles and, after saying “Peace be with you,” breathes the Holy Spirit onto them, a breath that gives them the power to forgive sins (John 20, 20-23). Although the Latin Fathers rightly interpreted this passage as the institution of the sacrament of penance, they also saw Christ’s communication of the Holy Spirit through His breath as a kind of kiss. Hence the whole scene is redolent of the kiss of peace.
Similarly, in the story of the disciples of Emmaus, the risen Lord meets two men, explains the Scriptures to them, and is recognized by them only in the breaking of the bread. Significantly, the text does not state that they went on to eat but that they raced back to Jerusalem to tell the Apostles, and that when they were describing what had happened, Jesus stood in their midst and said, “Peace be to you” (Luke 24:35-36). The story then ends by stating that Christ, to prove that He was not a ghost, ate some food and gave it to the others to eat. In other words, the Emmaus Resurrection story recapitulates the traditional Roman order of the Mass, from the Mass of the catechumens to the fractio panis to the rite of peace to the communion rite.
Pontormo, Cena in Emmaus, 1525
The traditional allegorical interpretations of the Mass are also telling in this regard. Just as the Canon was seen to signify not simply the Last Supper but the various stages of our Lord’s Passion, the kiss of peace was tied to the glory of the first Easter Sunday. “Peace be with you,” as St. Thomas Aquinas notes, is our Lord’s signature greeting only after rising from the dead, and thus he interprets the three signs of the cross the priest makes when saying “May the peace of the Lord be ever with you” as a mystical representation of the Resurrection on the third day. [8]
Moreover, in the traditional Roman rite the breaking of the Host and the subsequent dropping of a Particle into the Chalice take place immediately before the peace. The medieval doctors were quick to see in the fractio panis “the rending of Christ’s body” during the Passion [9] or the separation of His soul and body at the moment of His death. Similarly, they noted how the commingling of the Species aptly signifies the Resurrection, for the commingling of the sacred Body and Blood calls to mind the Easter reunion of all that had been sundered on Good Friday. [10]
The Holy Spirit
Third, drawing from John 20, 23, the pax represents the breath of the Holy Spirit. In a particularly charming sermon, St. Augustine expatiates about how the tender kisses of doves, symbols of the Holy Ghost, are examples of how Christians should administer the Paschal kiss, and he contrasts their chaste necking with the unkind kisses of ravens, who purportedly lacerate each other when they engage in osculation. [11]
Byzantine mosaic, 5th century, Beiteddine Palace, Lebanon
Chilling Counterexample
Fourth, the allegedly nasty way that ravens smooch was also for Augustine the perfect emblem for Judas Iscariot’s notorious greeting to our Lord in Gethsemane. The irony that Christ was betrayed by the same sign that is paradigmatic of peace and fraternal charity was not lost on the Church Fathers, and thus the Judas kiss served as a chilling reminder of the grave danger of hypocrisy. It is for this reason that the kiss of peace is not given on Maundy Thursday in the traditional rite, as the bitter aftertaste of the traitor’s kiss is too fresh, too vivid, for those who take seriously the kiss of peace.
Giotto, Kiss of Judas
Finally, as Aquinas notes, the Paschal kiss helps us prepare for Holy Communion. [12] This might sound odd given that today it is held in suspicion precisely because it seems to distract more than prepare, but this may have less to do with its placement than with the way it is currently observed.
In sum, these various meanings illustrate how the Roman kiss is a Paschal kiss, a kiss that flows from the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ rather than from His Sermon on the Mount. While this in no way deprecates the value of the Eastern conciliatory kiss, it does suggest that the two traditions are not interchangeable.
Peace in the New Missal
Vatican II’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy does not mention the kiss of peace, though it robustly affirms the Mass as “a sacrament of love, a sign of unity, a bond of charity, a Paschal banquet” (47), characterizations which elide nicely with the symbolic meanings of the pax we have been exploring.
Rather than restore the traditional Paschal kiss to those outside the sanctuary, however, the 1970 Novus Ordo mandates a different arrangement. The priest now says to the people: “Offer the peace to yourselves.” [13] The following is then supposed to happen: “And all signify to each other peace and charity, in accordance with local custom. The priest gives the peace to the deacon or server.” [14] 
By mentioning the priest’s actions after those of the people, the new rubrics do not presuppose a causal relationship between the two. No longer is there expected a hierarchical cascading of peace from the Empty Tomb that is the high altar; rather, in instructing the congregation to offer the peace to each other, there is a more or less spontaneous eruption of peace in the pews.
Even aside from the excesses that Pope Benedict laments have come from this arrangement, it is now more difficult to trace the link between the risen Eucharistic Christ and the peace that He diffuses to His Church, for the “chain of love” has ceased to be visible. The vertical mediation of Christ’s peace has been replaced by a horizontal immediacy. It is therefore not surprising that contemporary liturgiology has tended to emphasize the conciliatory function of the peace, thus conflating the two traditions.
Further complicating the new pax is the decision to let its gesture be determined by local custom. [15] In many respects this is not unreasonable, for there are several places that associate public kisses with lewdness. [16] Yet as we have already seen, what became the Roman form of the kiss can hardly be considered lascivious by even the most prudish culture, since not the even the cheeks of the participants touch.
In America, the form that came quickly came to dominate is the handshake. Again, prima facie this is not an unreasonable choice: as an indication that one is unarmed, the handshake is certainly a sign of peace. Unfortunately, though, it is a better sign of the peace that comes from the earthly city rather than from the city of God. Handshaking signifies a truce or deal, the kind of agreement one makes in politics and business. It is not primarily a sign of love or intimacy. Indeed, unlike the kiss and every other sacred gesture, it has undergone no modification that would mark it as distinctive from the “profane” handshakes outside the liturgy, and thus it essentially retains its worldly resonance.
Handshake of Paolo Gentiloni and Moussa Faki during the 43rd G7 summit
Moreover, a handshake is not a kiss in any form, and hence its liturgical use marks a break not only from a previously unbroken apostolic custom but from the rich cluster of meanings that came with it. It is for these reasons that a more pugnacious commentator than I might be tempted to conclude that regrettably, the current Roman kiss of peace is neither Roman nor a kiss nor about Christian peace.
Finally, the new rite places the kiss before the fraction and commingling, an innovation that blurs and confuses the figurative significance of this part of the liturgy. According to one Instrumentum laboris, the fractio panis still “denotes the Body of Christ broken for us;” similarly, the commingling is still a tupos or figura of the Resurrection (the 2005 synod lineamentum with regard to the commingling ends with the exclamation, “Now Christ is risen!”). Consequently, under the current arrangement, the sign of the risen Christ’s peace is now being exchanged before the sign that Christ is risen from the dead; the people of God are savoring the joys of the resurrection while Christ still lies mystically suffering and dying on the altar.
Vatican Intervention
Although the Vatican has not addressed these problems directly, it has reasserted the Paschal meaning of the Roman kiss:
In the Roman liturgical tradition, the exchange of peace is placed before Holy Communion with its own specific theological significance. Its point of reference is found in the Eucharistic contemplation of the Paschal mystery as the "Paschal kiss" of the Risen Christ present on the altar as in contradistinction to that done by other liturgical traditions which are inspired by the Gospel passage from St. Matthew (cf. Mt 5: 23). The rites which prepare for Communion constitute a well expressed unity in which each ritual element has its own significance and which contributes to the overall ritual sequence of sacramental participation in the mystery being celebrated. The sign of peace, therefore, is placed between the Lord's Prayer, to which is joined the embolism which prepares for the gesture of peace, and the breaking of the bread, in the course of which the Lamb of God is implored to give us his peace. With this gesture, whose «function is to manifest peace, communion and charity», the Church «implores peace and unity for herself and for the whole human family, and the faithful express to each other their ecclesial communion and mutual charity before communicating in the Sacrament», that is, the Body of Christ the Lord. [17]
It will be interesting to see whether in these trying times the kiss in the traditional rite will ever be shared again with the laity or if the pax-brede will make a comeback. On the other hand, the crisis in the Novus Ordo appears to require a swifter return to tradition. Re-embracing the Paschal meaning of the Roman rite of peace could considerably enhance the new Mass, just as replacing the horizontally spontaneous handshake with the hierarchically mediated accolade would recapture not only a sense of emotional restraint and gracefulness but a powerful theology of the Paschal mystery. Indeed, helping the new Mass rediscover rather than reinvent the kiss could be one of the traditional rite’s greatest gifts to it, and thus it would contribute to the Pope Benedict XVI's goal of the two missals “mutually enriching” each other. [18] How sweet a kiss that would be.

An earlier version of this essay appeared “A Crisis of Meaning in the Sign of Peace,” The Latin Mass magazine 16:5 (Advent/Christmas 2007), pp. 36-39. Many thanks to the editors of TLM for allowing its publication here. A more exhaustive study is my article "The Whence and Whither of the Kiss of Peace in the Roman Rite," Antiphon: A Journal of Liturgical Renewal 14:1 (2010), 45-94.

[1] Propositio 23.
[2] Par. 49.
[3] Fn 150.
[4] Cf. Rom. 16:16; I Cor. 16:20; II Cor. 13:12; I Thess. 5:26.
[5] J.B. O’Connell, The Celebration of the Mass, p. 499, fn 11. The rubrics are to be found in Caeremoniale Episcoporum, II.viii.75.
[6] Caeremoniale Episcoporum, I.xxix.8, trans. mine.
[7] No. 71.
[8] ST 3.
[9] ST 7.
[10] Therefore, it is reasonable that the kiss of peace, which represents the fruits of the Resurrection, follow that part of the Mass which mystically signifies the Resurrection itself.
[11] In Ioannis evangelium tractatus 6.4.
[12] ST III.83.
[13] This is my literal translation of the Latin, Offerte vobis pacem.
[14] Trans. mine.
[15] No. 82 of the new GIRM also states that the particular sign must be determined by the Conference of Bishops. To my knowledge this has never been done in the U.S.
[16] Actor Richard Gere found this out the hard way when in April 2007 he kissed an Indian actress on the cheek during a fundraiser in her homeland and was immediately burned in effigy by angry mobs in Bombay (“Gere Kiss Sparks India Protests,” BBC News, 16 April 2007).
[17] Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, circular letter Pacem relinquo vobis, Pentecost Sunday, June 8, 2014 (Prot. n. 414/14). See here.
[18] From the letter to the bishops accompanying Summorum Pontificum.

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