At Rorate Caeli, Joe Shaw has published the latest in the series of papers for Una Voce: FIUV Position Paper: the Kiss of Peace. He has followed up with some additional comments at his own LMS Chairman blog. Both articles focus on the Kiss of Peace in the old rite, but obviously the discussion has implications for the usual practice in the modern rite.
A key point concerns the significance of kissing the altar. Many liturgists insist that in the Church the altar is the principal symbol of Christ. (The Blessed Sacrament is not a symbol of Christ but his body and blood, soul and divinity, ontologically present.) So when the celebrant kisses the altar and then turns to greet the people with Dominus vobiscum, he is not passing on his own greeting but that of Christ, in whose person he is acting when celebrating the Eucharist. In the modern rite, the priest is not directed to kiss the altar before turning to the people (if indeed he is celebrating ad orientem) and in some cases the link with Christ is completely obscured by the priest saying "Good morning everyone" or some equivalent banality.
At the Kiss of Peace in the usus antiquior, the celebrant and deacon first kiss the altar: the pax is then given in turn by the celebrant to the Deacon, by the Deacon to the Subdeacon, and by the Subdeacon to the clergy in choir. As a devotee of St Alphonsus, I was pleased to see him quoted as follows:
Before giving the peace, the priest kisses the Altar to show that he cannot give peace unless he has first received it from Jesus Christ, who is represented by the Altar.The Sign of Peace as it is usually given in the modern rite, is problematic in various ways. At a formal level, one could point to the loss of the "chain" from Christ to the celebrant and then to others - the altar is not kissed, and the celebrant often wanders about the sanctuary shaking hands, or occasionally observing the traditional way of giving the pax.
This serves to obscure the link with Christ and with Holy Communion, so that the proposal is made, for practical reasons, to lose the link all together and put the Sign of Peace back to before the Offertory, perhaps on the basis of a superficial link in the scriptures or because of a selective archaeologism in favour of the Gallican rites which placed the Pax at that point.
In practice the much more destructive aspect of the modern practice of the Sign of Peace is that it has become simply a social greeting at which people smile, shake hands, wave, wander over to people who are deprived of a handshake, chat about the arthritis, the weather, or the new nephew, and generally interrupt the sacred ritual of preparing for Holy Communion for a while until the celebrant calls a halt by tactfully but authoritatively calling "LAAAAMB of God ..." into his throat microphone.
I honestly don't think that the Sign of Peace can be rescued in the modern rite, and the absence of its use among the laity in recent centuries is well-explained in the FIUV paper (as is the use in some places of the paxbrede.) Significantly, if it is omitted, any objections (and they are not in fact that common) tend to be on the grounds of the desire for a social and charitable greeting opportunity, rather than as a desire to prepare for Holy Communion, based on a sacred bond with Christ handed on through the priest or Bishop celebrating the Mass.
The best replacement for the modern distortion of the Pax would be to have tea and coffee after Mass, or some other opportunity for people to get together and chat (after making their thanksgiving.)