At Mass from September (in England and Wales) the first change in the revised Missal we will come across is right at the beginning. When the priest says “The Lord be with you”, the congregation will reply “And with your spirit”, and no longer “And also with you”. As with the new Missal in general, this is a faithful and accurate translation of the original Latin Missal: Dominus vobiscum./ Et cum spiritu tuo.
When examples of the changes in the new Missal were first revealed, this change aroused some of the greater controversy. Thankfully, this seems to have diminished. That it was so controversial is still something of a mystery. Perhaps it largely resulted from an ignorance of what is actually going on at this point of the Mass.
At this point of the Mass, but indeed at four other points in the Mass. For there are five moments when the priest’s greeting (or sometimes the deacon’s, if there is one) is answered by the congregation with “and with your spirit”: at the beginning of the Mass; immediately before the proclamation of the Gospel; at the opening of the Preface to the Eucharistic Prayer; at the Sign of Peace which precedes the reception of Holy Communion; and at the dismissal which concludes Mass. So it is apparent that this dialogue between priest and people occurs at significant moments in the Mass. Let’s take stock of these before moving on.
At the beginning of the Mass the ritual starts properly speaking with the invocation of the Trinity and the greeting, by which a disparate group of people is, as it were, called to order and to form an assembly of the Lord, an icon of the universal Church, the Body of Christ. At the Gospel Christ himself speaks to the gathered Church through the priest or deacon’s solemn proclamation of the text. The Eucharistic Prayer is the very heart of the Mass, the making present to the Church the one perfect self-offering of Christ to the Father, for us and for our salvation. The Sign of Peace is a preparation for receiving the Lord’s Body and Blood in its recognition that Christ’s sacrifice has made us one Body with him (Ephesians 2:14-16), and so being at peace with God through Christ we must be at peace with each other lest we profane his Body (see The Sign of Peace – theory and practice). The dismissal at the conclusion of Mass sees the congregation sent forth with God’s blessing to bear Christ to the world.
These five points at Mass are crucial Christ-moments. We prepare for them by invoking the presence of the Lord Jesus in a particular and focused way. Thus, while it is a greeting, it is not a greeting in the everyday sense. It is as much, if not more, a prayer that Christ might be with us in power as we prepare to do what he commanded us to do. It serves too as a reminder that what we are about to do is both in the Lord and for the Lord. It is a moment of recollection. It is not the signal for banal words of welcome or light jokes, nor a time to turn around and meet the person next to you.
So this dialogue between priest and people is at heart a mutual prayer for the Lord to be present to us, to sustain us as we do as he commanded. Insofar as it is a greeting, it might better be called the Apostolic Greeting. This refers to its origins with St Paul, who ends four of his letters (Galatians, 2 Timothy, Philemon and Philippians) with this prayerful greeting, asking that the Lord might be with the spirit of his readers. Moreover, by the time of St John Chrysostom in the fourth century (who preaches on it in his Homily for Holy Pentecost), this dialogue was seen also as involving the people’s recognition of the priest as one duly and apostolically ordained to offer the Sacrifice (n.b. that “The Lord be with you” has only ever been said liturgically by an ordained minister). The priest, representing the people to God in Christ, and Christ to the people, is conformed in a special way to Christ by the Holy Spirit through ordination, to be, as they say, an alter Christus, “another Christ”. Thus the congregation’s response to the priestly greeting-prayer, “The Lord be with you”, is their prayer-greeting that the Lord might give his minister grace to be truly and worthily an alter Christus for them, just as the priest in his greeting has prayed that the Lord might renew the congregation as the temple of his Body.
So it may be a little unfamiliar to the ears of those so used to saying “and also with you”, but no doubt it will come quite easily in a very short space of time. After all, Anglicans have said this for centuries in their Book of Common Prayer. By restoring the proper translation of this dialogue in the revised Missal the Church hopes to restore again a proper liturgical sense to the action of the Mass, which is not a public meeting but a spiritual conventicle, the Lord’s Body gathered in worship in obedience to the Lord’s command.
With its Pauline origin, “The Lord be with you; / and with your spirit” is one of the oldest elements of the Mass. In every other language, save Portuguese, it has been translated exactly from the Latin, which renders St Paul’s words exactly. In none of them has this caused any controversy. We can now join the vast majority of the universal Church that has preserved this ancient and important prayer-greeting, a tradition handed down from the earliest times of Christian history. May it strengthen even more our spiritual participation in the Mass.