The Sign of Peace or “holy kiss,” as St. Paul calls it (Cf. Rom. 16:16), has almost always been an important part of the Mass.
From the Early Church
In the early Church, originally, the Kiss of peace was a full, lip-on-lip act and was given to members of the same and opposite sex. The liturgical kiss was seen as an intimate gesture, the kind of thing one would only do within one’s family. Christians, those baptised in Christ, are now the new family of the children of God (Cf Gal. 3:17).
Hence, the Kiss was not given to “non-family members” such as non-Christians, those who had left the Church or even catechumens. This was quite easy to see since in the early Church the non-baptized were dismissed (made to leave the Mass) after the homily, before the kiss of peace took place at Mass; it was only those who were baptized that could stay at Mass till the end. This is why the Liturgy of the Word of the Mass was called the Mass of the Catechumens.
However, by the late second century (around AD 300), there were some “abuses” of the practice with some people “taking advantage” of the kiss on the lips. To solve the problem, men and women were separated at Mass and were seated on the opposite sides of the nave (This “separation” of sexes at Mass, though might sound strange to us today, continued in the Church for centuries. Interestingly, as late as 1917, the Code of Canon Law at the time, still recommended this practice). The Kiss of peace continued to remain a vital part of the liturgy until the mid-1200s, when it began to fall into disuse and gradually was no longer part of the Mass.
From the 1570s when the Church tried to revive the rite, the actual kissing was then no longer a part of it. Rather, the giver of the peace placed his hands on the recipient’s shoulders and leaned forward towards his left cheek saying “Pax tecum” (Peace be with you) to which the recipient replied, “Et cum spiritu tuo” (And with your spirit). The act of falling on someone’s neck betokens a kiss and comes from a biblical background of the father kissing his prodigal son in Luke 15:20 (“But while he was yet afar off, his father saw him, and was moved with compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him”). Till today, this gesture is still seen used by some clergy.
The Kiss of peace later took the form of the priest kissing a paten-like object called a “pax-brede”, and then he passed it on the Mass servers and then on to the congregation in order of rank. This too brought some challenges because of disputes within the laity over who outranked whom (“who is who”). Thus, by 1962, this form of the kiss of peace was restricted to the most notable dignitaries present; the laity as a whole, ceased taking part in it.
TO BE CONTINUED…