Today we have lighted the Advent candle that symbolizes peace. It’s a word we hear a lot of in this season and on into Christmas. Angels announce it. Hymns and carols sing of it. Christmas cards wish for it. But it’s a word that can be bandied about without really going into depth about just what it is we’re wishing for.
This might seem strange, but one of the things I’m really looking forward to when we’re able to be together in person for worship again is the passing of the peace. I know, not everyone likes this part of the service. But at least you get to stand up and move around a little – kind of like the seventh inning stretch, although without singing Take Me Out to the Ballgame. I admit, passing the peace can be problematic. On one hand, visitors in some churches are left standing awkwardly at their seats, watching as members go about greeting one another, seemingly oblivious to a stranger in their midst. On the other extreme are the churches where a visitor might feel startled, overwhelmed, and maybe even offended by a hug-fest, the onslaught of affection from people they don’t know.
I’ve actually gotten into the practice of giving instructions before setting the congregation loose. If there are visitors, I definitely explain what’s about to happen. I remember some guests who thought it meant the service was over and proceeded to leave. I’ve learned that there are some people who love to hug and some who don’t. Some don’t like to be touched at all. So we have to find ways to accommodate both huggers and non-huggers, introverts and extroverts.
Still, I think that in this these nine months of handwashing, disinfecting, and social distancing, many people are longing for the human connection of a handshake, hug, or fist bump. It seems like eons ago that we thought we could just change things up a little and share the peace with elbow bumps or Namaste bows. Sharing the peace on Zoom is a challenge that no one seems to have solved. All the ideas shared on social media are from March, when we were still meeting in person. So, we do our best, with chat room and visual peace signs, and verbal greetings, but it’s not the same. It’s just one of the losses we’ve suffered this year. At least it is for me. Others may not miss it at all.
So why do we even do it? We know that sharing the peace began with Jesus himself. At the Last Supper, Jesus said “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.” And when Jesus appeared to the disciples after the resurrection, he greeted them by saying, “Peace be with you.” Later on, the apostle Paul began his letters to various churches with, “Grace to you, and peace.” It may be that in the early Church this was the way Christians greeted one another, kind of like their secret handshake.
Strange as it may seem to us, especially outside of a few minutes in church – or a few seconds on Zoom – it’s very common for others. As-salamu alaykum (Arabic for Peace be upon you) is used by Muslims, but it’s also used by Arabic speakers of other religions, such as Arab and Indian Christians. These words are more than a Hi, how are you; they are meant to convey a blessing to the one being greeted.
It’s the same thing with shalom in Hebrew. Most people know that shalom can be used say both hello and goodbye and that it means peace. But again this peace isn’t just a hello or goodbye. And it’s not limited to the absence of war, or conflicts, or quarrels. The word is derived from a root that denotes harmony, wholeness, completeness. Throughout Jewish literature shalom is connected to another word, shelemut, also defined as wholeness, but also as perfection. It’s not the same as the Greek word in the Sermon on the Mount, when Jesus says, “Be perfect as God is perfect,” but the idea is similar. How much better to hear Jesus’ desire for us as wholeness and completeness, as opposed to absolute moral perfection! Then there’s shalvah, also from the same root, meaning contentment, inner calm. So, when we say “Shalom,” we are offering a blessing, an expression of divine grace.
Along with this aspect of passing the peace is the desire for reconciliation. Again from the Sermon on the Mount: “When you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that a fellow believer has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to them, and then come and offer your gift.”
The Didache, an early Christian writing encourages the community to “come together on the Lord’s day, having first confessed your sins so that your sacrifice may be pure. Anyone who has a quarrel with his fellow should not gather with you until he has been reconciled, lest your sacrifice be profaned.” This confirms that what Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount became a weekly occurrence in the early Christians’ practice of Holy Communion.
These writings don’t deny the fact that there are times we get into disagreements with others. They take seriously our need for guidance when it happens. So passing the peace takes on a deeper meaning when we do have a quarrel with another or others. Can we offer our hand in peace without the intention of really living into peace with one who has harmed you or who you have harmed?
I thought about this, strangely enough, when I was binge-watching The Last Dance, the documentary about basketball legend Michael Jordan. One of the episodes went into the rivalry between the Chicago Bulls and the Detroit Pistons.
At the time of the 1991 playoffs, the Pistons (known in that era as “Bad Boys”) had scrapped their way to win the NBA championship twice. But that year they were eliminated from the playoffs by the Bulls, and they walked off the court without shaking hands with any of the Bulls players.
Then I read this commentary on peace: “Post-game handshakes are a time-honored tradition. Little League baseball players, traveling soccer teams, and NCAA athletes never miss this ritual of sportsmanship. During the game they ‘fight, engage in ‘battle,’ ‘conquer,’ or suffer ‘defeat.’ But at the end of the day athletes are not at war. By a simple hand gesture, athletes declare that they are at peace.”
The documentary, as well as interviews since its release, make it abundantly clear that there is no peace between Jordan and some of the Piston players to this day.
The commentary went on: “Communal practices like post-game handshakes are simple but profound in meaning and significance. They are actions that speak louder than words, actions that reinforce our values. Although we usually devote little thought to these actions, we are shocked when they are abandoned or perverted . . .”
It’s offering a blessing of Christ’s shalom in every circumstance. It’s offering a moment of reconciliation in the midst of a quarrel or conflict. It’s extending a hand (or elbow) in solidarity of the values we share as followers of Jesus.
This is what we are about when we pass the peace, although it’s only been since the middle of the last century that we began to reclaim the practice. And I’m not sure we’ve done well at understanding or living into the fullness of what it means. And now that we can’t shake hands or even elbow bump, we have to try to find new ways to share this blessing. An opportunity of this pandemic time is time to think about what we’re doing in the passing of the peace – both before (in person), now (online), and in the future (whatever that will be like).
I don’t have any better ideas of how to ritualize our online version. I actually like hearing everyone calling out “Peace!” It certainly feels like y’all mean it. I know I do. Perhaps all I’m suggesting is a brief pause before we do that, just to allow the blessing of the shalom that I’ve sent out to you to soak down into your soul. And allow a moment for me to do the same. So, when we’re typing in the chat room, or making the peace sign, or folded Namaste hands, or calling out “Peace,” we know that we are sending out a blessing to each and every one in our Zoom room for harmony, wholeness, completeness, contentment, inner calm, and divine grace. And I sure need all the harmony, wholeness, completeness, contentment, inner calm, and divine grace I can get. How about you?
There are a whole lot of places in the world that are in need of peace. I don’t know about you, but I’ve been so caught up the past few years with news from this country that I don’t know what’s going on in the rest of the world. But, scanning the BBC, I saw that just in the last month, police used tear gas and water canon against pro-democracy protesters in Thailand. French police clashed with protesters in Paris. Thirty people were killed by Islamist militants in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The 2020 Atlantic hurricane season finally ended, as the most active and the seventh costliest one on record. The Syrian civil War is in its 10th year, and the US has been at war in Afghanistan since 2001. Oh, yes, plenty of need for peace.
But as the Dalai Lama has said (and I am sure Jesus would agree), “We can never obtain peace in the outer world until we make peace with ourselves.”
So we’ll try it out today and see how it goes. We’ll take a brief pause before we share the peace today. In that pause, there is no need to think or figure out what to do with blessing that has come your way. Just allow it to wash over you like a gentle wave or a refreshing breeze. Then, when you hear the chime, you can send the blessing back to me. And maybe later we can share some thoughts about the experience.
Deep peace of the running wave to you.
Deep peace of the flowing air to you.
Deep peace of the quiet earth to you.
Deep peace of the shining stars to you.
Deep peace of the gentle night to you.
Moon and stars pour their healing light on you.
Deep peace of Christ,
of Christ the light of the world to you.
Deep peace of Christ to you.