This reflection began back in January when I read the following Minute Meditation, one of the daily email feeds available from AmericanCatholic.org.
Eye contact is more than a polite gesture – it is a simple yet meaningful acknowledgement of Christ in the other.
— from Tweet Inspiration
There is so much truth packed into that one short sentence and I found myself returning over and over again to its simple but deep message. My first thought was of the perfunctory sharing of the peace that is typically seen at the Sunday Mass. How often have you reached out to greet a fellow worshiper only to have them quickly shake your hand while their gaze looks past you searching for their best friend, neighbor, whoever might be somewhere else in the church, basically anyone but you? Or those who quickly give you a sign of the peace while gazing downward, never making eye contact? Or worse yet, those who fiddle with their hymnal, glasses, anything available in order to avoid having to make any contact with another human being whom they might not know?
Granted there are those who have compromised immune systems, are ill, or otherwise indisposed to share the peace through physical contact. How much more important, then, is meaningful eye contact with others, a true touching of another’s soul.
It is sad and unfortunate that it is so difficult, indeed painful, for so many to lend their genuine presence to another even for a few seconds in the Sign of Peace. Or perhaps not painful, but too much trouble arising out of a life that is too busy with no time for reflection or even to pause to acknowledge Christ in the other. Or perhaps the intimacy of eye contact is too difficult, too frightening for some. Eye contact is indeed so much more than a polite gesture (although it can certainly have a polite gesture as its point of departure). True eye contact goes beyond polite to truly intimate when we are touched and touch another in that spark of recognition when we see Christ who is Love in the other.
An English Proverb aptly states, “the eyes are the window to the soul.” When we make eye contact with another we are offering them our presence. When they gaze back, they are reciprocating that presence. In that joining of two souls there we find Christ.” We read in Matthew 18:20 For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them. Truly, when we make eye contact with another, we are acknowledging their humanity and their dignity. We are proclaiming our unity in Christ and our relationship as brothers and sisters in Christ.
St. Paul tells us in Romans 16:16 to Greet one another with a holy kiss and he repeats the message in both letters to the Corinthians and in his letter to the Thessalonians. St. Peter in 1 Peter 5:14 tells Christians to Greet one another with a loving kiss. Peace to all of you who are in Christ. Although the sign of the peace is not included in the Mass in the Extraordinary Form, it evidently was a part of early Masses in the church. So, we cannot brush it off as one of those “Vatican II” reforms that “dumbed down” the Mass. In fact, Cardinal Donald Wuerl in his book The Mass: The Glory, The Mystery, The Tradition, writes that the Sign of Peace was a part of the Mass as early as the 2nd century:
In Ambrose’s day [4th century], the Sign of Peace was already a well-established part of the Mass. Saint Justin Martyr speaks of it in his description of the Mass in the second century, and Tertullian speaks of it just a little later. Saint Cyril of Jerusalem, a contemporary of Saint Ambrose, said that in his Church the deacon called out for the people to “embrace one another, and let us greet one another.” He went on to explain: “This kiss is the sign that our souls are united and that we banish all remembrance of injury.” (pp. 184-5)
The Sign of Peace commonly occurs in the Mass after the initial rites of the Liturgy of the Eucharist and follows upon our recitation of the Lord’s Prayer. The congregation has prayed to God, calling on “our” Father and, preparatory to receiving the very body and blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ, we must reconcile ourselves to one another as family, as brothers and sisters. We must truly desire peace with one another. In fact, such peace is a precondition to making a truly holy communion. Recalling Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:23-24 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.
Peace begins with acknowledging the other and such acknowledgement begins with eye contact, a genuine connection even if just for a moment. Typically the Sign of Peace is immediately shared only with those nearest us in the pews, although I have attended Mass at a parish in Pittsburgh where literally everyone (priest, altar servers and choir included) walked around and shared the peace with all present! We do well to remember that whatever sign we make to our brother and sister worshippers nearest to us in the pews, we are proclaiming our truest desire for peace with all. With a clean heart, rid of negativity and discord against others, we then present ourselves to receive Christ’s body and blood in the Eucharist. Such peace to and with others must begin with acknowledgement of God’s image in the other and that begins with true and genuine contact.
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