And With Your Spirit

Author: Father Edward McNamara


And With Your Spirit

ROME, 14 SEPT. 2010 (ZENIT)
Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.

Q: As in the English-speaking world, we will have to change the people's answer from "And also with you" to "And with your spirit." I have been looking for a good theological and historical-liturgical explanation for this change, in order to make it understandable for the faithful. Why this insistence on the spirit? And don't the people have the spirit as well? Apart from one short paragraph I have found no treatment of this question in the liturgical books available to me. Could you provide me with some background?" — H.T., Kundiawa, Papua New Guinea

A: As is well-known, the Holy See has asked that the Latin "Et cum spiritu tuo" said in response to greetings such as "Dominus vobiscum" should always be translated literally as "And with your spirit."

Most major world languages had already translated the expression literally, English and Brazilian Portuguese being notable exceptions.

The brief form of this dialogue ("The Lord be with you. And with your Spirit") is taken from the Book of Ruth 2:4 and 2 Timothy 2:22. Christians probably took these formulas over directly from the synagogue. There is clear evidence, for example, in St. Justin Martyr (100-165) that Christians spoke these answers from the very beginning.

The fact that from the earliest times Christians conserved these phrases in their original form, in spite of their being foreign to both Greek and Latin mentalities, is a good argument to keep them intact in our current translations. In this way, we maintain a living connection with Christianity's historical origins just as we do with the conservation of other Hebrew forms and expressions such as Amen, Alleluia and Hosanna.

The formula "be with you" is considered as a greeting, of benevolence and of recognition of a reality: The Lord is present. The Semitic response, "And with your spirit," literally means "And also with you," as "your spirit" literally means "your person." Therefore the current English translation could be considered as an accurate rendering of the Hebrew background.

Historically speaking, however, the text was quickly separated from its Jewish context, and the patristic tradition has interpreted it in the sense of the spirit that the bishop or priest has received in ordination. For example, St. John Chrysostom in his homily on 2 Timothy (in II Tim. homily, 10,3. PG LXII 659 ff), refers to the "your spirit" to the indwelling Holy Spirit: "There can be no better prayer than this. Grieve not for my departure. The Lord will be with you. And he says, not with you, but with your spirit. Thus there is a twofold assistance, the grace of the Spirit, and God helping it. And otherwise God will not be with us, if we have not spiritual grace. For if we be deserted by grace, how shall He be with us?" In his first Pentecost homily (PG L. 458 ff) John Chrysostom sees in the word "spirit" of the reply an allusion to the fact that the bishop performs the sacrifice in the power of the Holy Spirit.

Such patristic reflections are one reason why from early times the greeting "Dominus vobiscum" was reserved to those who had received major orders: bishops, priests and deacons. This restriction of the liturgical greeting to the ordained is still in force today. A layperson who leads, for example, a celebration of the Word with distribution of Holy Communion, or an office of the Liturgy of the Hours, may not use the greeting "The Lord be with you" with its response.

This does not mean that the faithful are lacking the Spirit or that they are mere passive attendants at the liturgical action. Actually, through its response to the priest the congregation constitutes itself as a liturgical assembly presided over by the priest in the name of the Lord and responding in this way to his call. As the great Jesuit liturgist J.A. Jungmann wrote:

"We can best understand the 'Et cum spiritu tuo' as a popular consensus in the work of the priest, not that the congregation here gives the priest authority or power to act in its stead, but that the congregation once more acknowledges him as the speaker under whose leadership the united group will approach almighty God. Thus in the greeting and its response we have the same double note that reappears at the end of the oration [opening prayer]; the 'Dominus vobiscum' seems to anticipate the 'per Christum' of the close of the oration, and the 'et cum spiritu tuo' is a forerunner of the people's agreement expressed in the Amen" (The Mass of the Roman Rite, Volume 1, Page 365).

Although the dynamism contained in this brief exchange is difficult for us to grasp today, the fact of the new translation could present an excellent teaching moment to underline the faithful's active participation in the liturgy and the true theological sense of hierarchical communion.

* * *

Follow-up: "And With Your Spirit" [9-28-2010]

After our explanation of the reason behind the response "And with your spirit" (see Sept. 14), a Missouri reader respectfully disagreed with my comment that the current translation, "And also with you," was a fairly accurate rendering of the Hebrew. Although this point was not the main thrust of our earlier article, I believe that our reader's comments offer a valid complement. To wit: "According to an article by Paulinus Milner, 'Et Cum Spiritu Tuo,' in Studies in Pastoral Liturgy, Volume 3, edited by Placid Murray, OSB (Dublin: The Furrow Trust, 1967), the Hebrew word nephesh means soul or spirit, but can also mean self. The closest examples we have of this translation into a Semitic language, however, does not use the equivalent of nephesh but rather ruah, which only means breath or spirit (cf. the Syriac translation of The Apostolic Tradition). Plus, the Greek pneuma is never used in the LXX [the Septuagint] to render the Hebrew nephesh, but ruah. Therefore, 'And also with you' is [not] an accurate rendering of the Hebrew background to this liturgical phrase."

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