February 9, 2017
Father Mark Doherty
Do you ever stop and wonder sometimes why the Mass is organized the way it is, why this or that “part” is situated as it is relative to the other “parts”? I’m thinking now especially of the ‘kiss of peace,’ that moment in the liturgy before holy Communion when the priest invites those in attendance to share the Lord’s peace with one another.
It has been suggested over the years that the sign of peace in the Roman Rite (the rite of the Mass that most of us Catholics in the archdiocese participate in) be moved to the offertory, when the gifts are brought up to the altar in the ‘middle’ of the liturgical celebration. The suggested change is not far-fetched. There are some places in the Catholic world, such as the Archdiocese of Milan in Italy (which celebrates Mass according to the Ambrosian rite) where the sign of peace is at the offertory. One of the reasons for the suggested change is that the exchange of peace is sometimes disruptive as some get ‘carried away’ in their effort to share the sign of peace with those around them. This disruption is especially problematic because it comes right before the reception of holy Communion.
While there may be merits to this argument, there are other – ultimately persuasive – reasons why the sign of peace is best left where it is. There is, for example, the fact that from time immemorial the Roman rite has situated the sign of peace before the distribution of holy Communion.
Most important, however, is the fact that in its structure, the Roman rite of the Mass teaches us that we can only offer peace to one another once the Lord has come among us, given us his peace, and then invited us to share his peace with one another. Notice that the invitation to share the sign of peace comes only after the Lord has become specially present in the Sacred Species on the altar. An ancient custom has the priest kiss the chalice containing the Precious Blood before he extends his hands to the congregation and invites those present to exchange a sign of peace. This custom is intended to communicate that the peace which we can share with one another comes to us specifically from the Lord. Without his peace we have no peace to offer or share.
This lesson from the Mass helps us to understand and embrace the commandments that the Lord imparts to us in today’s Gospel. Who among us in reading or hearing these words does not think to him or herself: “There is absolutely no way I can fulfill these commands.” Not only must our external acts conform to the law, the Lord tells us, but our inner dispositions and attitudes must as well. These commandments are impossible to follow through on.
On our own, they are indeed impossible to fulfill. The truth of it was certainly not lost on Jesus. Those around him made it clear to him on numerous occasions that the commandments he dished out were impossible to fulfill. In ourselves, they are impossible to bear; in the Lord, with his life, we can fulfill them and flourish.
Have you noticed that in our public discourse (both in the church and in the public square), in our conversations, through the newspapers and media, in our entertainment, such as television shows and movies, a stress is often placed on being “real”? For example, television shows and movies are often rated and praised based on how “real” they are, how “truthfully” they depict the “gritty” and “dark” reality of life. The more “grit,” the more “real,” the more accolades a show or movie receives. So also in the life of the church, it is sometimes said that the church needs to “get with it,” to be “real” when it comes to the realities of life in our age. There’s certainly something to be said about the church’s need to be in touch with and attentive to the difficult and complex realities that characterize the lives of the baptized, but this line of argumentation risks losing sight of the most “real” reality, namely the reality of the Lord and his grace which he is always seeking to offer us so that we might fulfill his commandments and thus find the deepest, truest, most real life there is. On our own we cannot; with God, all things are possible.
Father Doherty, who serves at St. Peter and St. Anthony parishes in San Francisco, is studying moral theology at the University of Fribourg in Switzerland.