Explaining Sign of Peace, Fraction Rite and Agnus Dei

    What is the Sign of Peace?
    After the Our Father is concluded, the priest prays a prayer directed to Jesus Christ asking him for peace for his Church. This petition for peace is made for the Church as a whole that we may more effectively spread the Gospel, but it is also made for her individual members that they may experience the peace of Christ in their own lives. It is important to link this understanding of peace with the Mass itself. We petition our Lord for peace after he becomes miraculously present in the Blessed Sacrament, which means that we must find our inner peace from Christ himself.  Surely, this is one facet of the Second Vatican Council’s declaration of the Eucharist as the “source and summit” of the Christian life. In the midst of the world’s bustle and the temptations of evil, we find the source of our tranquility, hope and faith in the Body of Christ, and we nourish this inner peace through our interior engagement in the liturgy and our fidelity to daily prayer and action.
    Why do we offer the Sign of Peace?
    Immediately following this prayer for peace, the priest may invite us to exchange a sign of peace. It is easy for us to lose sight of the meaning of this exchange and to allow it to devolve into a mere greeting and casual conversation. However, the true meaning lies in the words of the priest prior to the exchange in which he speaks the words of our Lord, “Peace I leave you, my peace I give you.” We are acknowledging Christ’s presence in each other and sharing the peace that we have received from Christ with each other. It is a deep spiritual reality that is outwardly expressed in our exchange of peace. It also serves a secondary purpose insofar as it is an expression of Christian fellowship – a unified community centered on correct worship of the Lord.
    Why does the priest break the host at Mass?
    Following this exchange of peace, the priest begins the Fraction Rite, which includes the singing of the Agnus Dei or “Lamb of God,” the Breaking of the Bread and the Commingling. The Breaking of the Bread calls to mind the great account of the Road to Emmaus in which the disciples recognized our Lord “in the breaking of the bread” (Luke 24:13-35). This account is clearly a eucharistic reference as the priest performs the same actions of the Risen Christ, who “took the bread, blessed it, and broke it, and gave it to them” (Luke 24:30). The early Church Fathers, as well as the great saints and doctors of the Church, have assigned varied and beautiful spiritual meanings to the Fraction Rite. St. Thomas Aquinas gives a beautiful threefold interpretation of the Fraction Rite, illustrating that every liturgical action has a deep spiritual significance with multiple layers of meaning that can only be drawn out through much prayer and reflection. He writes that first it is the breaking of Christ’s body in the Passion. Secondly, it denotes the various states of the mystical body of Christ, the Church. Finally, it represents the distribution of graces proceeding from Christ’s Passion. The breaking of the bread reminds us as St. Paul tells us that we are one body, yet many members, all united in Christ (1 Corinthians 10:17).
    Why does the priest place a small piece of the host into the chalice?
    After breaking the host, the priest takes a small piece of the Body of Christ and puts it into the chalice containing the Blood of Christ. As he does this, he prays, “May this mingling of the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ bring eternal life to us who receive it.” This is known as the commingling and is derived from an ancient sign of unity with Rome. The pope would have a small piece of the host which he consecrated sent out to priests in the city of Rome, who would then place the host into their own chalices as an expression of unity. While this is no longer the case, its rich history can still be called to mind as a sign of that unity with Rome. The great liturgist, Dom Guéranger, also gives us a spiritual insight into this commingling: “Its object is to show that, at the moment of our Lord’s resurrection, his blood was reunited to his body, by flowing again in his veins as before.” This link to the Resurrection is a common insight in the Church. Another less common, but still beautiful, insight is that of St. Alphonsus Ligouri: “This mingling of the holy species represents, too, the unity of divinity with humanity, which was at first effected in the womb of Mary through the incarnation of the Word, and which is renewed in the souls of the faithful when they receive him in the eucharistic Communion.”
    Why do we pray the Agnus Dei, and where does it come from?
    As the priest performs the Fraction Rite, the choir immediately intones the threefold Agnus Dei, “Lamb of God.” The words of this great prayer should focus us on the Book of Revelation, a connection that becomes more explicit when the priest, after the Agnus Dei, says, “Behold the Lamb of God…” We have already seen the connection of our Lord to the Lamb of Passover, but here we see the connection to the Book of Revelation – a vision of the heavenly Jerusalem – which declares, “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain” (Revelation 5:12). Here, in this vision, the angels praise the Lamb of God and we, who join in this heavenly liturgy by our own earthly liturgy, do the same and join with them in this praise, but also plead with him that he may show us mercy as we prepare to receive him in Communion. The priest then elevates the Body and Blood of Christ, proclaiming to all the faithful in words drawn from the Book of Revelation that truly this is the Body and Blood of Christ! How blessed are we truly to be invited to this foretaste of heaven (Revelation 19:1-9)!
    Why do we say, “Lord, I am not worthy…?”
    Now, we can truly understand the reason for our response to this bold proclamation. Here before us is the glory and grandeur of Jesus Christ, present in the Blessed Sacrament, and we have the same reaction as the Israelites when they are faced with the sight of God’s glory – we dare not look, lest we die! Our words echo the sentiments of the Roman Centurion who realizes the true nature of Christ: “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed” (Matthew 8:8). Why roof? Here we have a reference to our own bodies being temples of the Holy Spirit – we are not worthy that our Lord should enter under the roof of our own souls, the temple of the Holy Spirit. But with one word, he pours out his mercy upon us and draws us close to himself that we may be made worthy in his sight. Oh, what abundant mercy!
    Ian Bozant is a second-year theologian studying for the Archdiocese of New Orleans at Notre Dame Seminary. He can be reached at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .