The phrase ‘The Lord be with you’, in various languages and in its Latin Dominus vobiscum, has been the greeting that gathers Christians together in worship for over a millennium. I might say that it is the church’s Hello, and I quite like that jolly interpretation. Nevertheless, it is important not to dumb it down: this phrase has power.
‘The Lord be with you’ is a presidential greeting, which is most often encountered at the beginning of the a liturgy and and the beginning of the eucharistic prayer. It is also found before the reading of the Gospel, before a blessing, before blessing baptismal water, in the middle of Exsultet, and before praying a collect.
The biblical references of Ruth 2.4, II Chronicles 15.2 and Matthew 28.20 are given in support of this phrase. It can be clearly dated back to the 6th century (Council of Braga and, later, Gelasian Sacramentary), but can be inferred from the Apostolic Tradition and other early texts.
Grammatically, of course, the Latin original has no verb: Dominus vobiscum means, more literally, ‘Lord with you’. English needs the verb ‘to be’ to act as a copula. An obvious choice would have been to translate the phrase with ‘The Lord is with you’ (this is in the indicative mood). Instead, our English reformers chose ‘The Lord be with you’, in the subjunctive mood. Unlike much spoken English, and indeed written English, the subjunctive mood is on quite frequent duty in the Book of Common Prayer. The subjunctive is often used in blessing formulas, and this shows an important interpretation of this phrase: it is not about stating a fact — the Lord’s presence — but is the blessing of the Lord’s presence. A major feature of a lot of liturgical language is that it is performative: it does something. This particular phrase is the greeting — the benediction — that constitutes the Christian assembly for worship.
The Eastern churches have ‘Peace to all’ / ‘And with thy spirit’, but its use is different.
And with thy spirit
The Latin response to Dominus vobiscum is Et cum spiritu tuo. The traditional English translation of this is ‘And with thy spirit’, and the agreed ecumenical translation into contemporary English is ‘And also with you’. The modern translation is clearly more of a paraphrase than a direct translation of the Latin. This paraphrase understands the use of the word ‘spirit’ as metonymy for the minister’s person or self.
The new Catholic translation of the missal has taken us back closer to the original by using ‘And with your spirit’. A friend who is a Catholic priest commented to me that he finds the former translation — ‘And also with you’ — more affirming of his whole person than the new translation.
Et cum spiritu tuo is clearly not a direct reference to the Holy Spirit, as the Spirit does not belong to the minister. At its simplest, ‘your spirit’ is metonymy for ‘you’, and avoids the short, ungainly Et tecum, ‘And with you’ (even ‘And also with you’ uses extra syllables). Other commentators have described the phrase as an acknowledgement of the spiritual grace given the ordained minister by the Holy Spirit. It is similar to the Eastern affirmation of a priest’s ordination by the acclamation of the people: axios, ‘worthy’.
It is important to speak about how we do, and should do, Dominus vobiscum. This is where I believe that the choice of the subjunctive in English is informative. The greeting is not a statement that Jesus is here so let’s get on with it. It is a benediction that recognises the icon of Christ in the assembly of the baptized, and draws out this image, verbally constituting the ekklesia. At the commencement, and at other high points of liturgy, the minister thus constitutes the church, and the people, in response, declare the human being before them to be their minister by grace.
- It is important: do not rush it or belittle it.
- It is the greeting that constitutes the liturgical assembly.
- It should not be preceded or followed by more colloquial stock phrases of greeting, like ‘hello’, ‘good morning’, etc.
- The only thing that should preface the opening greeting is the Trinitarian invocation.
- Giving notices, and even announcing a hymn, before the greeting takes away from its impact.
- It is easy to remember, so it should not be read from a book.
- It can lead into words of welcome and introduction (the ‘intention’).
- It should be accompanied by the appropriate gesture: arms open in a welcoming embrace.
- The gesture should not be either poky or overlarge.
- The gesture should not be stiff or vague.
- Traditionally, a deacon makes no gesture with these words.
- The priest or deacon should be attentive to the people’s response, and drink in their affirmation before proceeding.
Common Worship Order One begins with an optional Trinitarian invocation by the eucharistic president. This is followed by one of two presidential greetings. The first is ‘The Lord be with you’ / ‘and also with you’, while the alternative is ‘Grace, mercy and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ be with you’ / ‘and also with you’. The paschal acclamation always follows in Eastertide, but this need not be said or sung by the president.
Some other Common Worship liturgies use the Grace (II Corinthians 13.14) as the greeting: ‘The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you’ / ‘and also with you’. It appears as one of the greetings in Patterns for Worship (p 64, among others), and is used as the greeting to the Maundy Thursday liturgy in Times and Seasons (p 294). This makes this greeting generally authorized for use. These three greetings, then, are the main possibilities for opening a eucharist, and correspond exactly to the three options available in the Catholic missal. Here is choice, yet I prefer the old, simple greeting.
At the beginning of the eucharistic prayer, the same first greeting is used, or replaced with a different text ‘The Lord is here’ / ‘His Spirit is with us’. The same options are given in the traditional-language version of Order One, except the traditional response ‘and with thy spirit’ follows ‘The Lord be with you’. Order Two, being based on the Prayer Book, does not begin with a greeting. However, it does suggest that the collect be introduced with the traditional greeting. It allows the use of the greeting at the beginning of the preface. Oddly, the contemporary-language version of Order Two has neither of these optional additions. Note 2 (on p 330 of the Main Volume) allows the use of traditional texts to replace contemporary ones. This means that the response ‘and with thy spirit’ is permissible in a contemporary-language service. At a push, one might deem this to include use of the new Catholic translation, ‘and with your spirit’. More relevant is note 7 (on p 331), which allows ‘The Lord be with you’ and either response at other suitable points. The note gives before the Gospel and before the blessing or dismissal as examples. The choice of placing it before the dismissal is odd, but the other positions have precedent. It does not mention the other traditional position of before the collect.
Catholic missal: new English translation
In the new English translation of the Catholic missal, after the mandatory trinitarian invocation, there are three possible greetings: ‘The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all’, ‘Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ’ or ‘The Lord be with you’. The same response — ‘And with your spirit’ – is used for each. The missal specifies a bishop’s peculiar greeting as ‘Peace be with you’ with the same response. The missal does not repeat the greeting before the collect. The greeting is, however, used before announcing the Gospel. The same greeting is used at the beginning of the eucharistic prayer, without any alternatives admitted. Before the blessing, the celebrant uses the greeting again. The Tridentine Mass uses the greeting eight times: before ascending to the altar, before the collects, before the Gospel, the offertory prayer, the eucharistic preface, the post-communion prayer, the last Gospel and the blessing.
Book of Common Prayer
The communion service of the Book of Common Prayer does not include the traditional greeting in any position. It clearly was felt to be too sacerdotal. However, Thomas Cranmer’s first Prayer Book (of 1549) has the greeting before the bidding ‘Let us pray’ to the collect. The greeting also heads the eucharistic prayer. Finally, the greeting appears before the ‘Let us pray’ that introduces the post-communion thanksgiving that begins ‘Almighty and everliving God, we most heartily thank thee…’.
One major place where the traditional greeting remained throughout the revisions of the Prayer Book is in the offices of matins and evensong. In the 1549 original, the greeting prefaces the ‘Let us pray’ before the three collects. These came after the preces. In the first revision of the Prayer Book (in 1552) the services of morning and evening prayer were completely reworked, and the traditional greeting was moved between the Apostles’ Creed and the Little Litany (kyries), a position retained through 1662.
The episcopal version of Dominus vobiscum is Pax vobis, translated ‘Peace be with you’ (literally ‘Peace to you’), with the usual response.
A layperson, traditionally a subdeacon, uses the form Domine exaudi orationem meam, ‘O Lord, hear my prayer’, with the response Et clamor noster ad te veniat, ‘And let our cry come unto thee’. This is taken from the first verse of Psalm 102.
Postscript of Latin geekery
The Latin preposition cum means ‘with’, and its object is in the ablative case. The personal pronoun vos, which is ‘you’ in the plural (when speaking to more than one person), takes the form vobis in the ablative. Unusually, cum follows and joins to personal pronouns, producing the forms mecum, tecum, secum, nobiscum, vobiscum (‘with me; you (singular); him, her, it, them; us; you (plural)’). The object phrase spiritu tuo is also in the ablative case. In the phrase Pax vobis, the pronoun is in the dative case, even though it is spelt the same as the ablative, meaning ‘to you’.
- Liturgy bits: Bosco Peters’s Thoughts (christhum.wordpress.com)