Charity demands shaking hands at Mass

  • August 10, 2023

One of the most oft-quoted passages of the New Testament is 1 Corinthians 13:1: “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.” The ensuing verses are probably the most popular option for the epistle in the Roman Catholic Nuptial Mass and why wouldn’t it be at an occasion when we are celebrating the love between the bride and groom?

Yet to over sentimentalize these words of the Holy Apostle Paul is to miss their evangelical power entirely.

In Greek, the language of the New Testament, there are four words for love. There is the burning love for God, eros, which is often diminished to mean simply sexual intimacy, yet when rightly ordered reflects our desire for union with God in our desire for intimate union with our spouse. Philia is the love of friendship and storgē is the natural love between parents and children. In the above words of the Holy Apostle, the love he speaks of is the highest form: agapē.

This is the all-embracing love through which we put aside ourselves to love the other; it reflects the self-sacrificing love of Our Lord Jesus Christ on the Cross. This is true charity. In his encyclical Deus Caritas Est, Pope Benedict XVI speaks of eros and agapē as two halves of complete love that involves both giving and receiving. The Holy Apostle continues to say in verse 13:2 that “if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.”

Without agapē, without charity, I am nothing. These strong words come after verse upon verse in which the Holy Apostle admonishes the Church at Corinth for not having charity, for being divided against one another, and for their immorality and idolatry. Paul’s desire is always for unity, that the Body of Christ be united in Christ. For this to exist there must be charity, there must self-giving, there must be sacrifice.

Paul tells us at the end of his first epistle to the Corinthians that we must express this charity physically. In 1 Cor 16:20 he writes, “Greet one another with a holy kiss.”  This is not a suggestion. The Holy Apostle puts it in the imperative. Not only does he write it here, but the same command is repeated in the epistle to the Romans, in the first letter to the Thessalonians, and in his second epistle to the Corinthians. Hmm, it must be important.

If it is important then why are we not practising it? Not only do we not greet each other as brothers and sisters in Christ with a holy kiss, we do not even shake hands. At a recent Sunday Mass I attended while in the UK, I turned to the people in the pew in front of me and offered my hand with “Peace be with you.” I received an incredulous stare and no hand.

After Mass they apologized: “It’s because of COVID,” they said. “Perhaps we will never shake hands again.” What? It was prudential during the height of the pandemic to not shake hands, but then again we weren’t even at church. No acceptable reason exists now to not shake hands or embrace our brothers and sisters in Christ when we are involved in the most supreme act of Christian worship and manifestation of Our Lord’s outpouring for the life of the world.

A cheerily-waved peace sign from the 1960s, or an air-fist bump or a Buddhist-ish hands-in-front bow just don’t cut it. This must end now. Bishops and priests must educate the faithful about how the Sign of Peace is a physical manifestation of Christ’s peace.

If we cannot manage a kiss or an embrace (and we Byzantines have seriously fallen down on our own responsibility to greet one another before we profess the Creed in the Divine Liturgy) then we must at a bare minimum shake hands with those around us and audibly say “Peace be with you.”

It is a scandal against charity not to do so. If we cannot touch our fellow Catholics at Mass, then how do we touch the homeless, the destitute, the poor, the sick and all those God places in our midst. If we cannot bring ourselves to offer a sincere sign of Christ’s peace, how dare we presume to touch His Most Precious and Life-Giving Body and Blood. Unity and charity demand more.

(Bennett is a deacon of the Ukrainian Catholic Eparchy of Toronto and Eastern Canada.)

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