01 November 2007

Pleased to meet you? No, it's 'Peace be with you'!

Strolling to catch my train this morning I bumped into a friend of mine, and, time being on both of our sides, we stood chatting amidst the Piccadilly bustle. I mentioned how I'd inadvertently solved a problem of mine the previous evening, when I slipped into an evening mass only to discover to my surprise that it was in fact a vigil mass for the feast of All Saints. Today being a holy day of obligation, I'd been trying to find of way to allow for mass as well as being a good guest and actually catching my train to Holyhead; yesterday's accidental mass attendance has inadvertently solved that problem.

Anyway, we chattered away, and somehow we drifted onto the topic of the liturgy.

My friend, who has moved in just a few short years from atheism and agnosticism through Evangelical Protestantism to fairly conservative Catholicism, is - I fear - hurtling along a trajectory that will almost certainly see him joining the schismatic SSPX crowd - you know the boys who see themselves as more Catholic than the Pope?

He's not quite at the point where he'll assert that the regular mass isn't a real mass, but he's not far off it, with his mutterings about it being a concoction of experts rather than an organic development, about archaeologism being a heresy, about the Ottaviani Intervention, and about how he expects that in a hundred years time nobody will remember the mass of Paul VI.

Besides, he said, isn't the sign of peace distracting? 'I hate it,' he announced.

I'm afraid I'm no liturgist, so my defence up till this point had really consisted of little more than an arched eyebrow, but I felt I should move on this: even allowing for uncertainty in what St Paul means when he exhorts Christians to greet one another with a holy kiss, look at St Justin Martyr, I said. His First Apology contains the first real description of Christian worship, and it explicitly says that during worship Christians 'salute each other with a kiss'. This has been part of Christian worship from the beginning!

My friend wasn't convinced. It's still distracting, he said. It distracts from what's going on on the altar. And it's just not necessary.

Necessary? Well, evidently not; we coped without it for centuries, after all. But just because something's not essential doesn't mean that it's not good. There's a passage in St Matthew's Gospel, for example, that's worth bearing in mind here:
'So if you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.' (Matt. 5.23-24)
Essentially, as far as I can see, there are three stages in this: the mass basically begins with a confession of sins, a begging of forgiveness; during the Liturgy of the Eucharist we bring our gifts to the altar and recite the Lord's Prayer, in which we specifically ask to be forgiven our sins, just as we forgive those who have sinned against us; and then, reminded of our obligations in that regard, we turn to our neighbours and offer them a sign of peace, symbolically offering this to all present.

The only real question then, surely, is not whether the sign of peace should be removed from the mass, but whether it should be moved within the mass. It's a fair question, if it genuinely distracts from the consecration, but I'm not even sure that it does that. After all, St Paul describes the Church as Christ's body; it could probably be argued that including the sign of peace in the Eucharistic liturgy reminds us of that.

Anyway, my friend didn't seem remotely convinced as we realised we'd tarried too long and so, agreeing to disagree, we rushed off our separate ways.

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