I went to bed last night with a nagging cough.
I woke up today with a worse one, and though I keep wanting to believe that it's just allergies, I suspect that I've caught a mild cold.
Which is no big deal, of course. Except the cough is deep enough to be reminding me of the stupid bronchitis I had all summer; I'm supposed to sing a solo on Sunday (Faure's Pie Jesu) which might very well not happen now, and I'm well aware of the fact that I spent most of last winter drifting from virus to virus. And the winter before. And...
I know, I know. I need to boost my immune system. Trust me, I'm working on that.
But I'm having a little problem right now with a little thing we do each Sunday at Mass known as the Sign of Peace.
I have no problem with exchanging a Sign of Peace in theory. Turning and bowing the head to each neighbor, as is done in some countries, seems to me to be a lovely and symbolic gesture of reconciliation with one's fellow men.
In practice, though, I have two problems with it. One is the awkward location of this liturgical moment, just after the consecration and the Our Father, just before the Agnus Dei and the reception of Holy Communion. Even if the Sign of Peace involved nothing but the mild bow I describe above, it would detract a bit too much, in my laywoman's opinion, from the focus on the presence of our Lord Who is with us Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity in the Holy Eucharist. I think it ought to be moved to the beginning of Mass, especially if it involved the polite bowing thing.
But that brings me to problem two: here in America there is no mild head bowing, no mere polite gesture toward the two people one is standing closest to. No, the Sign of Peace is more like the Mosh Pit Lunge of Peace, in which people three rows apart will fling themselves across empty pew space (or, worse, across other parishioners) in order to shake hands with every single person they can possible reach in the interlude before the choir starts singing the "Lamb of God."
And heaven help the choir, should they be--as we, alas, are--not secluded in a nice choir loft in the back of the church, but sort of off-to-the-side/frontish (and believe me, we've tried to figure out a way to move, but our tiny mission parish wasn't built to accommodate a choir and we barely fit where we are). Lately it has seemed like an unofficial Wandering Contagion Committee made up of people who themselves or whose children are noticeably, demonstrably, palpably ill with nasty colds has formed a rotating schedule to a) sit as close to the choir as possible and b) leap across the aisle to shake hands with each and every choir member, even though we're getting ready to sing that Agnus Dei and sort of need to be paying attention just then. It's as though a group of people got together and decided, "Hey! The choir's being standoffish! Do you notice that they almost never leave their seats and go looking for people to shake hands with--they just stand there, acknowledge each other with a smile or so, and then turn to look at the director! They're missing out on the whole Great Mosh Pit Lunge of Peace--we have to help them feel included!
Do us a favor, O Fellow Parishioners: don't.come.over.and.shake.our.hands.
If there are one or two excessively friendly, excessively hand-shakey choir members (and there might be; I'm just saying) they will come to you. They will also jump and hurry back to their places as the music for the "Lamb of God" starts--but that's their business. Some of us like to be standing with music open and ready so we can come in strong on the first note.
And if you are sick, or your sweet children (and I mean that) are blowing their noses and coughing all through Mass as you help them with Kleenex (tm) or your sleeve or the back of your hand, please, please, please don't lunge across the aisle to shake hands because you think the choir's being standoffish, or out of habit, or whatever. My voice is my instrument, and a cold "breaks" it for at least a week. We only have three sopranos (one of whom is not available every Sunday); if you share too many illnesses with the singers you could easily wipe out a whole section of our little choir.
Of course, if you or your children are sick, you shouldn't be shaking anybody's hands at Mass. Jimmy Akin has been saying so for years, and I totally agree. The elderly, the medically fragile, the very young should be our primary concern; the Mosh Pit Lunge of Peace doesn't take precedence over simple charity.
Now, I know that readers are probably dying to point out to me that I shouldn't assume I've picked up this most recent bug at Mass. It is cold and flu season, after all, and I could just as easily have acquired my most recent mild virus just about anywhere--the grocery store, any other place where I've run errands, family gatherings, etc. True enough.
But when I find myself tensing as the Sign of Peace approaches at Mass, when I find myself reaching (discreetly or otherwise) for hand sanitizer after shaking hands with somebody who has stopped coughing into his hand just long enough to shove that hand in my direction, when I find myself thinking vastly non-peaceful and uncharitable thoughts in the very moment of all moments when I should be trying my hardest to be focused on our Lord, all I can do is admit my own weakness and the fact that the Sign of Peace itself has, ironically enough, become a near occasion of sin for me.
And I'm sure that's not what the Church has ever wanted it to be.