Sunday, March 21, 2010

When the Sign of Peace Goes Ker-flu-ey



The posts you've been reading the last few days were originally printed by America Magazine about a year ago. Although it had been written far earlier, it's final date of publication ended up being not too long after the first reports of the bird flu. Not my best timing. One of the repeated comments I received was that this whole idea of the sign of peace seemed a little, well, dangerous in the world today, and did I really want to push it? And if so, did I want to be held responsible for the deaths of millions? (A good America letter always has a certain amount of hyperbole.)

It was an important point, though. Can we practice the sign of peace in the midst of health concerns? I'd say, of course we can. At its heart, the practice of the sign of peace is not physicality. It's not about whether or not we actually hold hands or embrace -- at least, not in the abstract; in some cultures, a certain amount of physical contact might be necessary to convey that sense of communion that we're talking about.

No, the point I've been writing about is intentionality. It's about whether we will take the time to actually step outside of our own little comfort zones and make a connection with one another. I have absolutely no doubt that we can have just as meaningful experience of the sign of peace if we simply take the time to look one another in the eye and exchange a greeting, or if we make eye contact and bow, or hold our palms together. The question is whether we're willing to take the time to let people in in this small way. It's only a couple seconds extra when you add it all up, but it makes a huge difference.

Having said all that, let me also note, I've been to a number of dioceses in recent months where they continue to abstain from the sign of peace (and from reception of the cup) on account of H1N1 anxieties. At some point, that has to be reconsidered. The H1N1 season has been over for months now, and there are as far as I can tell no health professionals, including the C.D.C., are calling for this sort of ongoing abstinence. (Lord above, in any day we probably shake hands with a dozen strangers through the doors that we open and close, and stand in close proximity at least as much.) In some quarters there is concern as well that this health-consciousness is becoming a cover for the general elimination of the cup, and as a means to "move the Mass along". As though we're manufacturing cars here, rather than exchanging and receiving blessings.

Clearly there are times when the practices need to be more stringent, but a certain discerning flexibility is also required, lest we end up inadvertently eliminating a significant opportunity for God's grace.

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