Since I last wrote in this space about the exchange, The Lord be with you / And with your spirit, it occurred to me that it may be useful to reflect a little more deeply on its layers of meaning.
My previous examination relied rather heavily upon St. John Chrysostom’s Homily on the Holy Pentecost, in which he teaches us that the priestly invocation, “The Lord be with you,” should be understood as a “prayer for the grace from the Lord;” i.e., it is in essence a blessing.
Further, St. John tells us that our response, “And with your spirit,” is one through which we “remind ourselves that [the priest] does nothing of his own power, but is it the grace of the Spirit present and hovering over all things which prepared that mystic sacrifice;” i.e., it is an acknowledgement of the Lord’s unique presence in the ordained minister.
The Lord be with you.
I think it’s readily apparent to everyone that this is not the typical manner of blessing, even within the context of the Mass itself; e.g., the priest also blesses the congregation with the familiar words, “May Almighty God Bless you, Father, Son and Holy Spirit,” during the Concluding Rite.
One must wonder, therefore, why the priest blesses the people with such words as “The Lord be with you” and “The peace of the Lord be with you always” at various times throughout the sacred liturgy? What, we may ask, makes this blessing so unique?
Well, for one, as the priest so blesses he is speaking in a particular way to the baptized as they seek to enter ever more deeply into the Sacred Mysteries.
As the Catechism tells us, “It is through Baptism that the laity are enabled to celebrate the liturgy through their participation, while those who have received Holy Orders nourish the Church with the word and grace of God in the name of Christ” (cf CCC 1119).
The priest is speaking, in other words, to those who through Baptism share in the common priesthood of the faithful and are thereby called at Holy Mass to “offer the Immaculate Victim, not only through the hands of the priest, but also with him, as well as themselves; through Christ the Mediator” (cf SC 48).
This being the case, we should realize that St. John the Baptist’s words, “The Lord must increase, but I must decrease,” (John 3:30) apply every bit as much to the faithful at Holy Mass as they do to the priest. Why? Because it is only through the operative presence of Christ within each of us that we are able to co-operate with Him and thus to participate in the sacred rite.
At the sound of the words, “The Lord be with you,” therefore, we must seek to join ourselves to the presence of the Lord in a “fully conscious” way, because it is only in Christ that “active participation” in Holy Mass is possible.
Pope Pius XII tells us, “The chief element of divine worship must be interior. For we must always live in Christ and give ourselves to Him completely, so that in Him, with Him and through Him the heavenly Father may be duly glorified” (Mediator Dei 24).
The Council Fathers expounded upon this teaching by describing the sacred liturgy – which is “above all things the worship of the divine Majesty” (SC 33) – as that through which “the human is directed and subordinated to the divine, the visible likewise to the invisible, and action to contemplation” (cf SC 2).
So where exactly does one find the Lord’s presence at Holy Mass that we might consciously give ourselves over to Him?
Well, the Council tells us that Christ is present in the Sacrifice of the Mass in four distinct ways: “most especially” in the Holy Eucharist, but also in Sacred Scripture, in the people assembled, and in the person of the ordained minister (cf SC 7).
Now let’s take a closer look at each one of these to consider how we might unite ourselves with Christ therein, beginning with the most self-evident.
To unite oneself with Christ in the Most Holy Eucharist, ideally speaking, entails receiving Him in Holy Communion while properly disposed in a state of grace. Profound for sure, but straight-forward enough.
To join oneself to Christ in His Holy Word, we must listen attentively for the voice of the Good Shepherd calling out to us personally in the readings “since it is He Himself who speaks when the Holy Scriptures are read in the Church” (SC 7). Again, a pretty straight-forward concept.
When we consider the Lord’s presence in the assembly and in the ordained minister, however, it is here that the deeper meaning of The Lord be with you / And with your spirit begins to come into sharper focus.
The Lord be with you.
When these words are spoken, directed as they are in a particular way to the baptized, our attention is first drawn inward to the presence of Christ within ourselves as Baptism is the gateway to participation in Holy Mass. (Blessing ourselves with Holy Water upon entering the sacred space should have already called this to mind.)
It is fitting, therefore, that we should begin our union with Christ in Holy Mass by turning inward; as Holy Mother Church teaches, “Interior participation in the sacred liturgy is the most important; this consists in paying devout attention, and in lifting up the heart to God in prayer” (cf Musicam Sacram 22a).
Turning to the presence of Christ within ourselves, however, is not enough. Our interior participation in the sacred liturgy also compels us to become “intimately joined with the High Priest,” whom the Council Fathers tell us is made present in a unique way in the person of the ordained minister, so that “together with Him, and through Him we may offer the Sacrifice, making ourselves one with Him” (ibid).
This is where the response, “And with your spirit,” takes on special meaning.
One may have noticed how St. John Chrysostom’s homily employs a cleverly presented interplay between the word “spirit” as in the case of “And with your spirit,” and “Spirit” as in the “Holy Spirit.” This implied connection reveals something important about our response that is worthy of closer consideration.
The word “spirit” (with a lowercase “s”) is often taken to refer to one’s “inmost being.” For example, we find in Sacred Scripture, “The spirit of man is the lamp of the Lord, searching his innermost parts” (Proverbs 20:27).
This “spirit” of man is also directly related to our share in Christ’s priesthood and thus our participation in the Sacrifice of the Mass.
“You too are living stones, built as an edifice of spirit, into a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Pet 2:5).
Thanks to the sacrament of Holy Orders, the Eternal High Priest — He who alone is able to offer the Sacrifice of the Mass — is made present to us in a unique way in the “spirit” of the priest who says, “The Lord be with you.”
And so when we say, “And with your spirit,” not only are we plainly acknowledging Christ’s unique presence in the inmost being of the priest, we are also consciously saying that we hereby join ourselves in a particular way to Christ who dwells in the priest in such a profound way that he acts “in persona Christi” at Holy Mass.
This nuance becomes a bit clearer if we imagine giving our response with stress on the word “your:” And with your spirit.
Now let’s see if we can bring all of this together:
When the priest says “The Lord be with you,” he is blessing us while saying in essence, “Unite your hearts and minds with the Lord to whom you are configured in Baptism.”
To which we reply, “And with your spirit,” essentially asserting, “I recognize He who just blessed me through you, Father, and so I unite myself to the Lord within my own inmost being ‘and with your spirit’ as well.”
It is helpful to recall that the Second Vatican Council deliberately chose to speak of Lord’s presence in the Sacrifice of the Mass by naming the lay faithful and the ordained ministers separately. They did so in order to underscore the truth that Christ is present in both, but in a unique way.
How unique? Well, the Council Fathers tell us in the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church that the laity and the ordained priesthood actually “differ from one another in essence;” (LG 10) i.e., as it relates to who we are in our inmost being, or put another way, in our very “spirit.”
We acknowledge this in a particular way when we offer the response, “And with your spirit,” thereby indicating that we are moved to join ourselves to Christ who acts in a particularly profound way in the Sacrifice of the Mass through His ordained minister; the celebrant in whose spirit we encounter the Eternal High Priest.
The worshipping community, although composed of both laity and clergy, form but one body. As St. Paul says, “He who is joined to the Lord is one spirit” (1 Cor. 6:17).
This unity of “spirit” is necessary in order for us to worship as we ought at Holy Mass.
“But the hour cometh and now is, when the true adorers shall adore the Father in spirit and in truth. For the Father also seeketh such to adore him. God is a spirit: and they that adore him must adore him in spirit and in truth” (John 4:23-24).
And so we are moved to unite ourselves with Christ in all of the ways in which He deigns to come to us in the Sacrifice of the Mass: in the Most Holy Eucharist, in the Sacred Scriptures, in ourselves and one another, and in the person of the ordained minister to whom we say in faith, “And with your spirit.”