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Why ‘and with your spirit’ is right

‘And with your spirit’ is a very ancient liturgical greeting used only by Christians and it was translated not only into Latin but also into Syriac and Arabic

Perhaps one of the most difficult of the changes which people will be asked to make when the new translation of the Roman Missal comes into use will be that from “And also with you” to “And with your spirit”. People have got used to the former. It makes good sense. Why change it?

“And with your spirit” is the literal translation of et cum spiritu tuo, which itself is a literal translation from the Greek. This phrase, whether in Greek or in Latin, was quite strange to the ancient world. It appears only in Christian writings. It already forms part of greetings at the end of some of the Pauline Epistles: “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit brethren. Amen” (Gal 6:18; cf Phil 4:23; Philemon 25); “The Lord be with your spirit. Grace be with you” (2 Tim 4:22).

It may be that St Paul was echoing here a liturgical formula that was already familiar to the recipients of his letters, but we have no way of knowing this for certain. The work known as The Apostolic Tradition, sometimes attributed to Hippolytus, in a passage which dates from the third or early fourth century, shows that the liturgical use of the phrase is by that time well established. Before the prayer of thanksgiving over the bread and wine the bishop greets the assembly with the words “The Lord be with you” and all reply “And with your spirit”. The same exchange accompanies the kiss given by the bishop to each of the newly baptised when he has laid hands on them and signed their foreheads with chrism.

So we are dealing with a very ancient liturgical greeting used only by Christians. In ancient times it was translated not only into Latin but also into Syriac Armenian, Georgian, Slavonic and Arabic. The Anglican Book of Common Prayer and many Protestant liturgies preserve it in literal translation. When the Roman Liturgy was being translated into modern European languages in the 1960s Italy France, Spain and Germany all retained the literal translation. Only those responsible for the English translation decided to abandon this ancient form of Christian greeting. They argued that it derived from a Semitic form which was equivalent to “and also with you”. Were they right? Does the phrase mean nothing more? But if it does mean something more, just what does it mean?

Let us begin by asking what St Paul might have meant when he used the phrase. A great deal of work has been done on this by New Testament exegetes which may help us to understand the liturgical formula.

First of all, we must ask whether St Paul is referring to the Holy Spirit or the human spirit. And at first sight it would seem that he cannot be referring to the Holy Spirit because he speaks of “your spirit”, and the Holy Spirit does not belong to any human being or group of human beings. So he must be referring to the human spirit. Paul sometimes speaks of the human being as composed of body, soul and spirit, but like the rabbis of his time he also tends to use “spirit” and “soul” as interchangeable terms. “Spirit” can designate the whole person regarded as a thinking and feeling being. So “with your spirit” could well be simply a way of saying “with you”. Certainly Paul has no intention here of speaking of the human spirit or soul as distinct from the body.
Most of the Pauline letters end with the wish that the grace of Christ may be with those to whom he has written: “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all” (2 Cor 13:13) or “The grace of the Lord Jesus be with you” (1 Cor 16:23; 1 Thess 5:28; 2 Thess 3:18) or simply “Grace be with you” (Col 4:18; 1 Tim. 6:21; Titus 3:15; cf Eph 6:13). Why then, in the four Epistles mentioned above, does he express the wish that the grace of Christ may be with their spirit. What, if anything, does this add to his greeting?

It would seem that St Paul always regards the human spirit as a God-given spirit. For the Christian it is a new thing, which, though a created part of the Christian’s nature, is received from God, set in the believer by God: “For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the spirit of sonship. When we cry “Abba! Father!” it is the Spirit himself bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God” (Rm 8:15-16; cf 1 Thess 5:23). Fundamentally there is for St Paul only one Spirit of God imparted severally to individuals (cf Rm 1:9; 2 Cor 11:4). It would seem then that in the four cases in which St Paul changes the “with you” of his final greeting to “with your spirit” he wants to do two things: he wants to remind his readers of the special human participation in the Spirit of God which they have received, and because he speaks of “your (plural) spirit” he seems to be referring to something that exists in, or has been received in common by, the whole church to which he is writing.

In several places in the Bible, however, the word “spirit” is used to refer to gifts of or effects of the Holy Spirit as in Isaiah 11:2: “And the Spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD” (RSV). St Paul also uses the word in this sense when he says, for instance, “For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays but my mind is unfruitful” (1 Cor. 14:14), where a clear distinction is made between the spirit of the one praying in a strange tongue and his or her mind, or again when he says: “And the spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets” (1 Cor. 14:32). St Justin Martyr (c 250 AD) tells us that those who believe in Christ receive gifts, when they are baptised, each one as they are worthy. “The one receives the spirit of understanding, another of counsel, another of fortitude, another of healing, Another of foreknowledge, another of teaching, and another of the fear of the Lord” (Dialogue with Trypho the Jew, c39 [PG 6, 560]).

In the ordination prayers of The Apostolic Tradition the Church prays that the bishop will receive “the spirit of leadership”, that the presbyter will receive “the spirit of grace and of council of the presbytery so that he may aid and govern your people with a pure heart”, and that the deacon will receive “the spirit of grace and zeal”.

This sense fits well with the liturgical response, “and with your spirit”. Up to late in the fourth century the Eucharistic prayer, and indeed the other prayers of the liturgy, were spontaneous compositions, even though they followed one of several traditional patterns. Such spontaneous prayer was related to the gift of prophecy. A Christian work of the end of the first century called The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles says that at the Eucharist the prophets should be allowed to give thanks as much as they desire. Thus when the assembled people replied to the presider’s blessing, they prayed that the Lord would be with the charism he has received. By the end of the fourth century this spontaneous prayer had been replaced by the use of written prayers. In the church of Antioch and Syria preachers like St John Chrysostom and Theodore of Mopsuestia were saying that the word “spirit” in the response referred to the charism or grace of the priesthood which the bishop or presbyter had received.

“In saying ‘and with your spirit’,” says Theodore, “they do not refer to his soul, but to the grace of the Holy Spirit by which his people believe that he is called to the priesthood” (Baptismal Homilies, 15, 37). In the Syriac liturgy of the fifth century the greeting is translated “with you and with your spirit”. By translating it in this way these Semitic people, who spoke a language very close to that spoken by Our Lord and his disciples, made it clear that they thought it meant more than a simple “and with you”.

In the late fifth century we find the following explanation in some homilies attributed to Narsi of Nisibis: “The people answer the priest lovingly and say: ‘With you, O priest, and with that priestly spirit of yours.’ They call ‘spirit’ not that soul which is in the priest, but the spirit which the priest has received by the laying on of hands. By the laying on of hands the priest receives the power of the Spirit so that he may be able to perform the divine mysteries. That grace the people call the spirit of the priest and they pray that he may attain peace with it and it with him” (Exposition of the Mysteries Homily 17 A).

In the seventh or eighth century another Syrian writer, Abraham bar Lipheh, commenting on the greeting of peace by the bishop, gives the same interpretation: “And afterwards the people reply to the priest: ‘to you also be peace with the spirit of the priesthood which you have received’ ” (Interpretation of the Offices).

Some today object that such an interpretation of the response gives too much emphasis to the priesthood of the one who presides to the detriment to the priesthood of the whole assembly. But this was certainly not the intention of Theodore of Mopsuestia or St John Chrysostom.

The former says in the homily already quoted: “It is in this sense that the phrase ‘And with your spirit’ is addressed to the priest by the congregation according to the regulations found in the Church from the beginning. The reason for it being that when the conduct of the priest is good it is a gain for the whole body of the Church, and when the conduct of the priest is unholy it is a loss to all. All of them pray that through peace the grace of the Holy Spirit may be accorded to him, so that he may strive to perform his service to the public suitably.”

And St John Chrysostom in a homily on Pentecost says: “If there was no Holy Spirit there would be no shepherds or teachers in the Church, for these also come through the Spirit. As St Paul says: ‘In which [flock] the Holy Spirit has established you shepherds and bishops’ (Acts 20:28). Do you not see how this also comes about through the Spirit? For if the Holy Spirit was not in the common father and teacher when just now he went up into the sanctuary and gave all of you the peace, you would not all have answered: ‘And with your Spirit.’

“For this reason, not only when he goes up into the sanctuary and when he addresses you and when he prays for you do you shout this answer, but when he stands at the sacred table and when he begins to offer the awe-inspiring sacrifice – the initiates will understand what I say – he does not touch the offerings before he himself has begged for you the grace of the Lord and you cry in answer to him: ‘And with your spirit.’ By this reply you are also reminded that he who is there does nothing, and that the right offering of the gifts is not a work of human nature, but that the mystic sacrifice is brought about by the grace of the Holy Spirit and his hovering over all. For he who is there is a man, it is God who works though him. Do not attend to the nature of the one you see, but understand the grace which is invisible. Nothing human takes place in this sacred sanctuary. If the spirit was not present there would be no Church assisting, but if the Church stands round it is clear that the Spirit is present” (PG 50,458-459).

This Syrian interpretation of “And with your spirit” is by no means the only one to be found in the various commentators on the liturgy, both eastern and western. But the fact that from the end of the fourth century this reply was only made to those in major orders confirms that it was a very widespread understanding.

So to conclude, when we begin again to say “And with your Spirit” instead of the banal “And also with you”, we should understand that we are not referring to the soul of the priest as distinct from his bodily existence. We are making reference to the awe-inspiring mystery of our common redemption and healing through the Holy Spirit whom the resurrected Jesus has sent into our hearts. In particular we are referring to the special grace gift of the Spirit by which men are made priests, praying that that grace will continue to enable them to perform all their duties in holiness in the service of the priestly people of God, and reminding ourselves that, as St John Chrysostom puts it, the minister at the altar “does nothing, and that the right offering of the gifts is not a work of human nature, but that the mystic sacrifice is brought about by the grace of the Holy Spirit and his hovering over all.”

Fr Milner died in December, a few months after writing this article. It is published with the kind permission of the Dominican order