In the churches where I hang out, it’s customary to pause in the liturgy somewhere between confessing our sins and receiving the body and blood of Christ, and wish our neighbors “Peace.” I’ve noticed clergy often struggle to herd their kitties back into the pews to continue the service, as the Peace threatens to become a prelude to coffee hour. My own parish is a small but close-knit community, and during the Peace there tends to be a lot of enthusiastic hugging and chatting with family and friends. We don’t usually go so far as to start exchanging recipes, but it can go on a while.

Yet every now and then, in my own parish and elsewhere, I’ll get someone who grasps my hand, wishes me peace, and never makes eye contact. They’re looking straight past me, scanning the room to see (I imagine) who’s up next and whether they might be more interesting or important.

I think both these extremes may come from the same problem, namely our failure to understand what we’re doing when we wish someone “Peace.” The Hebrew word shalom means peace, of course, but it’s much richer than our English word. Shalom is not just the absence of conflict; it means wholeness, completeness, total physical, material, emotional and spiritual well-being. It’s the first thing the risen Christ said to his disciples, and his deepest desire for every one of us, a desire he gave his life to fulfill.

C.S. Lewis observed somewhere that the most joyful occasions are often solemn ones, and that there’s no conflict because there’s a joy that goes deeper than joking around. When we wish someone “Peace,” we’re not saying “Hi, nice to see you.” We’re not even saying “I hope you’ve cleared up that spat with your spouse/stopped competing with your brother-in-law/brought that obnoxious, defiant teen to heel.”

Instead, we are saying something like this: “May you be healed of every wound; may your every need be met; may the deepest desires of your heart be fulfilled; may you glorify and rejoice in the God who made you and desires your perfect wholeness.” If we’re aware of this, then the Peace will be a moment that is both joyful and solemn: joyful because we know these things have been promised to us by One who can deliver, and solemn because a joy that deep brings with it a touch of awe.