We are all very familiar with these words as we hear/say them at least four times each Mass. But what is the purpose? What does it actually mean? Is it just a formal greeting? Let me ask you a question. If I took a vote at Mass next sunday and said, “We are thinking about changing these antique phrases and changing them to a greeting that is more familiar to our contemporary ears. So put your hand up if you are in favor of changing this to, “Good day to you! And to you too” Would you raise your hand? Why or why not? Hopefully, you sense that there is more to this exchange of words than just simple pleasantries. There is indeed more to it, which is one reason why I like chanting this phrase at Mass. It helps me avoid any subtle temptation to embellish the way I say, “The Lord be with you” to make it sound like any other old greeting.
The Church is obviously not concerned with making it less antiquated. In fact, we all probably remember that the people’s response was changed a number of years ago from ‘and also with you’ to the more direct translation of the original Latin that we are used to today.
Where does this phrasing come from and what does it mean? To a certain extent, it is not entirely clear what it means. The first record of it in the Liturgy goes all the way back to the 3rd century, but it was most likely used long before even then. This connection to the roots of the celebration of the Mass is significant in itself. When we understand the mystical connection of each and every celebration of the Mass, we see how important it is to keep these little reminders of the antiquity of this ritual (see past Liturgy corners for more on the connection of every Mass.)
The phrase, “The Lord Be With you” has clear Biblical roots. There are a number of cases in Scripture where those words were used. Typically they were directed toward someone who was about to do something really great. God had a big plan for a lot of people in the Bible, and he has a big plan for you. When you come to Mass, God wants to do something in your heart, because when you leave Mass God wants you to do some things out there with your family, at your work, and among your neighbors.
The words, “The Lord be with you” said by the priest were heard by people like Gideon, who was the least man from the least tribe and he didn’t think God could use him at all. He was visited by an angel and the words he heard were, “The Lord is with you, you mighty man of valor” (Judges 6:12).
Maybe you feel like Gideon at times, when you don’t have anything going for you at all, and when you hear the words, “The Lord be with you,” that’s powerful. That means God wants to use you. It’s not dependent upon your strengths or your abilities or your wisdom. God wants to do something in your life.
Joshua also heard those words. Moses had died on Mt. Nebo and Joshua was going to take the people to the Promised Land, and God encouraged him with these words:
“as I was with Moses, so I will be with you; I will not fail you or forsake you.” (From Joshua). And of course, there is the greeting of the angel Gabriel to Mary, “Hail Mary full of the grace, the Lord is with you.”
The expression ‘et cum spiritu tuo’ (And with your Spirit) is only ever addressed to an ordained minister in the Liturgy. Some scholars have suggested that ‘spirit’ refers to the gift of the spirit he received at ordination. In their response, the people assure the priest of the same divine assistance of God’s spirit and, more specifically, help for the priest to use the charismatic gifts given to him in ordination and in so doing to fulfill his prophetic function in the Church.