The passing of the peace is something we have only recently restored in our Divine Service in our congregation after years of being omitted. Our custom now is to do it only when it actually appears in the rubrics (all those red-lettered instructions) in a particular setting of the Divine Service.
The passing of the peace is the moment right after the Prayer of the Church where we turn to those nearby and greet them with the "peace of the Lord." This is one of those practices that is called "adiaphora." In other words, there's no command in Scripture that it be done nor is it forbidden. It is, however, a long-standing tradition which has its roots in the ancient kiss of peace which is mentioned in the Scriptures, such as Romans 16:16 and elsewhere. It was a common greeting which the Church continued to use and associated with the reconciliation we have with one another through Christ.
Now, I'm not totally sure about the history of how it came to be placed in our liturgy in its current place, but if I remember correctly, it is related to Jesus' discussion on anger in Matthew 5:21-24. In verses 23-24, he says, "So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift." Therefore, we pass the peace right before the Offering and as we are preparing to go to the altar for Holy Communion.
We need to remember that this is not the time for "glad-handing" and "back-slapping" and "Hi, how are ya's?" It should not interrupt the solemnity of the service. Instead, care should be taken to express God's peace to each other with a simple greeting such as "Peace be with you," "God's peace," or "The peace of the Lord." We also don't need to feel the necessity to greet as many people as possible. Greeting those in your immediate vicinity is sufficient.
Evidently the pope is concerned about this, too. He's contemplating moving it from its current location in the Mass in order "to create a more meditative climate."
Here's what one cardinal said:
"The meaning of this gesture is often not fully understood. It is thought to be a chance to shake hands with friends. Instead it is a way to tell those nearby that the peace of Christ, really present on the altar, is also with all men."
Read the full article about the discussion by clicking here.
Of course, we disagree with the Roman Catholic church over the issue of transsubstantiation and the sacrifice of the Mass. Saying that the bread and wine actually change into the body and blood of Christ is going beyond what Scripture teaches. Also, saying that Christ offers himself once again as a sacrifice in an unbloody manner through the ministry of the priest flies in the face of passages like Hebrews 10:12.
But Lutherans do believe that Christ's body and blood are really and truly present "in, with, and under" the bread and wine in a mysterious, sacramental way. Christ's gifts of his body and blood are given for our forgiveness, and where Christ's forgiveness is given, God's peace is given. This is the eternal blessing and benefit of Christ's once-for-all sacrifice distributed when we eat and drink his body and blood with faith in Christ. That's why, when I turn to the congregation after the elements have been consecrated, I hold the chalice and host before the congregation during the "Pax Domini" and say or chant "The peace of the Lord be with you always." This declaration of peace is different from the passing of the peace. Here, rather than responding "And also with you," the congregation responds with a confident, "Amen," that is, "Yes, pastor, Christ has truly earned peace between me and God because of his finished work at the cross, and I look forward to partaking of that peace and receiving that peace in the Holy Supper."
So we will continue to "pass the peace" when the rubrics call for it. And as we do, we will be reminded that we are peace with each other only because Christ has earned peace with God for us through his death and resurrection.