The substitute priest, so the story goes, was leading the service in an unfamiliar church. The microphone didn’t seem to be working right, so he paused, looked down toward the contraption and asked, "Is this thing on?"
Hearing no response, he fiddled with the buttons, finally shouting, "Something is wrong with this mic!" In unison, the congregation replies: "And also with you!"
The joke, of course, is based on a truism that regular Sunday worshipers will know well. If the priest turns to say something to you and you’re not quite sure how to answer, the right response is usually “and also with you”--or maybe, at Saint Francis, “and with thy spirit.”
After about a year and half of switching between Rites One and Two during your interim period at the principal Sunday service, you could be excused for not knowing exactly how to answer. For this season of our life, though, we have settled into praying together in what has been, for you, the most familiar way. Using the traditional language of Anglican worship, you now always answer me “and with thy spirit.” A few of you have remarked on this, asking me why “thy spirit.”
The traditional phrase means the corny joke doesn’t work so well any more. But like so many features of the liturgy, it also reveals to us some deeper truths of our faith that are easily lost in the more pedestrian response.
Both parts of the response come directly from the Scriptures, like so many other phrases in our liturgy. Boaz uses the phrase “The Lord be with you” to greet the reapers gathered to harvest his field in Ruth 2:4. The context suggests that it is a common greeting, not uncommon in Christian cultures—think of “Goodbye,” which was once “God be with you.” Boaz is a pious and dutiful man, but not a religious official. The setting is domestic, not liturgical. The reapers respond to Boaz with “the Lord bless thee.”
Thee and thy are the second person singular pronouns in traditional English. As in many other European languages, they were generally used between people who were significantly familiar with each other, family members or close friends. The fact that the reapers respond to Boaz in the “thee” form shows that he is not a proud and distant master, but someone who takes a concern in their lives, who knows them as friends.
God, throughout Scripture, is generally addressed in the second person singular form. We take this for granted, but really it is a surprising sign of God’s nearness and accessibility to His own people. It may sound formal and distant when you answer me in the thee form, but it technically means exactly the opposite. I am not your master in the faith, but one called to be to you as a father and a friend. The thee form points to the fact that we are all brothers and sisters in Christ, children of one heavenly Father.
The reapers’ response to Boaz, curiously, did not catch on in Christian liturgy. Instead, from our earliest complete Christian liturgy, the Apostolic Tradition, which dates from the third century, Christians have paired Boaz’ greeting with another phrase, also Scriptural, “and with thy spirit.” The phrase is consistent in all the ancient liturgical languages: Greek, Armenian, Slavonic, Arabic, and Latin, from which it was translated literally into modern liturgical use in languages like German, Spanish and English.
This phrase “and with thy spirit” does not appear to have been common in any of the languages spoken in the ancient world. It may have originated with Saint Paul, who closes three of his Epistles with the phrase “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit, [brethren].” (Gal 6:18; Phil 4:23; Philemon 25). He also bids his beloved spiritual son Timothy, “the Lord be with thy Spirit” (II Tim. 4:2).
At first glance, we could assume that the “spirit” Saint Paul had in mind was the human spirit, as he commonly speaks of people as being body, soul and spirit, and the one Holy Spirit can never be the possession of a single individual. The more modern liturgical greeting “and also with you” seems to make that assumption, essentially leaving our response to one another in the liturgy as a slightly pious way of saying hello (perhaps with a distant reminder that the Lord has brought us together).
But it’s more likely that Saint Paul is actually speaking here of the Holy Spirit, who dwells in each member of the Church, binding us together into one. In Romans 8:15-16 he describes the Spirit as the source of new life for each of us, and also the One who enables us to address God the Father. “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.”
Similarly, in I Corinthians 12:13, he describes the Holy Spirit as the One who unites all believers and enables their participation in God through the sacramental life: “For by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body, whether we be Jews or Gentiles, whether we be bond or free; and have been all made to drink into one Spirit.”
To invoke the Name of the Holy Spirit each time we address each other in our common prayers is to remind ourselves that we can only pray to God through the Spirit’s presence and activity. The Holy Spirit also binds us together in love, making us one united body. Anthony Sparrow, a seventeenth century Anglican bishop, expressed the latter emphasis elegantly in his A Rationale Upon the Book of Common Prayer of the Church of England when he wrote:
“Such mutual Salutations and Prayers as this and those that follow, where Priest and people interchangeably pray for each other, are excellent expressions of the Communion of Saints. Both acknowledging thus that they are all one body and each one members one of another, mutually caring for one another’s good, and mutually praying for one another, which must needs be, if well considered and duly performed, excellent Incentives and provocations to Charity and love of one another. If these solemn mutual salutations were religiously performed, it were almost impossible that Priest and people should be at enmity.”
Yet there is also a distinction in the greetings. Our current prayer book is more ambivalent about this, as it uses the greeting at the Daily Office, which lay people may lead. But traditionally, the greeting and response has been reserved for the clergy. Most of the earliest commentaries on the phrase “and with thy spirit” refer specifically to the outpouring of the Spirit received at ordination, the special grace to pray on behalf of God’s people, offering the spiritual sacrifice in their midst.
Saint John Chrysostom, in a Pentecost Homily, describes this in the context of the Eucharistic practice in the church of his time, which remains our own. “For this reason, not only when [the priest] 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 thy 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.”
“Nothing human takes place in this sacred sanctuary.” That’s ultimately why we say “and with thy Spirit,” because our common worship on Sundays is a glorious and transformative mystery, enabled by God’s grace.