Among icons of Americana, baseball is at the forefront. Many of us can recall happy afternoons spent in the stands of our favorite teams, the familiar smells of ballpark food wafting our way as the cheers and catcalls of enthusiastic fans overwhelm our senses. An integral part of baseball experience is the seventh-inning stretch; that point in the game when the whole stadium rises to its feet, ostensibly to relieve sore bottoms and stretch cramped limbs, but also to memorialize this crowning achievement of American sporting culture with a rousing rendition of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.”
If you think about it, our worship services have a similar time where we all stand and mill around after hearing the readings and the sermon and sharing prayers and songs. We shake hands or hug, saying something like “Peace be with you,” sometimes sharing more than peace (dinner plans, anyone?). It’s called “The Sharing of the Peace,” and have you ever wondered about the significance of this ancient liturgical practice?
For ancient it is…the roots of this curious tradition date back to the early church, when fellow believers upon coming together for worship would share “a kiss of peace.” You may remember Paul ending his letters with a request to “greet one another with a holy kiss.” This was a sign of the churches unity and solidarity in a time when many questioned the validity of the Christian faith and opposed those who practiced it. Of course we don’t go around kissing each other, but a hand shake is a similar expression of companionship in our culture, though not as intimate.
That may explain why we go around saying “peace” and shaking hands, but why do we do it after the prayers and before the offerings? We turn to Matthew 5:23-24 for that explanation, where Jesus urges us to be reconciled with one another before bringing our gifts to the altar. He was referring to the Hebrew sacrificial system where one would bring animals for sacrifice and gifts for the well-being of the priesthood, but we have a similar practice in our churches, of collecting and presenting our tithes to God. But there is an even more important gift that we bring.
Before we offer a tithe of our income, we bring a tithe of the earth, a gift assembled from the labor and produce of the world and our community, presented in order that Christ might sanctify it to a new and holy purpose as he gives it, along with himself, back to us. That gift is the bread and wine of the Eucharist (which means ‘thanksgiving’). And so this is a most holy time, for us to ensure that we are united with one another in peace and love as we prepare to receive into our bodies the very embodiment of peace and love himself.
So how does this understanding influence the way we “share the peace”? Is it appropriate to play the “how many hands we can shake” game, or to discuss our exciting dinner plans? Or rather, should we approach this time with a holy mindset? Maybe it is a time to give thanks for our community. To make right with those we’ve offended (or who have offended us). To share a comforting touch and an encouraging word with one we know is suffering in some significant way. To prepare our hearts to receive the body and blood of Christ, allowing him to transform us from the inside out. Now that would be holy seventh-inning stretch.