The Sign of Peace during the Communion Rite
Before the Fraction, immediately following the Lord's Prayer with its accompanying embolism and doxology, we have the Rite of Peace. This is of ancient origin, that has maintained its place after the Eucharistic Prayer as early as the fifth century, so that there are three rites directly preceeding the giving of holy Communion: the Lord's Prayer, the Rite of Peace and the Fraction.
The General Instruction of the Roman Missal gives us the meaning of this rite:
82. The Rite of Peace follows, by which the Church asks for peace and unity for herself and for the whole human family, and the faithful express to each other their ecclesial communion and mutual charity before communicating in the Sacrament.
It also gives a pastoral note about the manner this rite is to be carried out:
As for the sign of peace to be given, the manner is to be established by Conferences of Bishops in accordance with the culture and customs of the peoples. It is, however, appropriate that each person offer the sign of peace only to those who are nearest and in a sober manner.
There are some practices however that seem contrary to this pastoral note:
1. When the Rite of Peace is overly extended and unduly prolonged. In our seminary for example, there is a custom of people embracing each other as a sign of peace, which is perfectly fine. The only thing is that, you do not have to embrace everybody but "only those who are nearest". The practice however is that the seminarians leave their pews and go out to embrace as many people as they can, defeating in effect also, the indication of sobriety in manner, so that most of the time, because of the undue emphasis, the connection of the rite to the reception of Communion is no longer clearly seen but instead, the sign value of "ecclesial communion and mutual charity" can be exaggerated and over-emphasized to the point that this rite, essentially linked to the Sacrament, seems like a distinct and essential rite in itself, and divorced from its essential significance.
2. Substituting secular forms for the liturgical form. The Roman Sacramentary leaves great freedom for discernment as to the manner the sign of peace is to be given. Before they have an elaborate embrace, usually familiar only to the clergy, (with such rules as to whose arms is over whose during the embrace). Now, the usual custom is to bow to one another and say 'Peace be with You' and in some places, to shake hands and embrace as well.
Some priests however have a cute but sometimes irritating way of tweaking the usual form. They substitute such greetings as "Good morning, you look beautiful today" and "You are my angel" (there are far worse examples I could not recall as of now) in place of the words of peace that come from the Risen Lord himself. This seems part of the whole phenomenon of presiders turning into performers who are ever searching for ingenious ways to modify the liturgy to make it more novel (or to make themselves appear more cute).
Much is lost however when this is done. First, the sacred character of the celebration, and indeed of this rite, is diminished, and turned into a tawdry expression of congeniality, that often fails to express the profound meaning of sharing the Lord's Peace instead of empty compliments that are cute but most the time we do not seriously mean. Again, the intimate connection of the rite with the reception of holy Communion is blurred.
On the other hand, the very simple words 'Peace be with you' easily recalls the Resurrection appearances of Christ, when he shares a meal with his disciples. It even recalls that particular apparition when the apostle Thomas, who was not there the first time the Risen Lord came, was already present, and having seen and touched the Lord, exclaimed "My Lord and my God!"
What we are supposed to be exchanding here as a sign of communion and fellowship are not mere casual greetings but the healing and transforming words of the Risen Lord himself, who alone gives true Peace, who is himself our Peace. Thus we are able to see with eyes of faith that we are truly Christ's Body, made One in our sharing the One Bread. Thus, with great faith, we are also able to exclaim, "My Lord and my God!" and recognize the presence of Christ among us.
In Korea, the usual greeting, 'annyeong haseyo' is literally translated as 'Peace be with you'. The Korean bishops however, decided to substitute another greeting for liturgical use, instead of using this very casual, practically banal, secular greeting. I think we have something important to learn here. What is fundamental in liturgy is not to try too hard to be novel but to be creative in carrying out what is given-the potential of which remains largely unexplored.