The Art of Celebration III: the Sign of the Cross and the Greeting

The mini-essay this week focuses on what happens after the gathering of the assembly (clergy and lay faithful); after the Entrance Chant and once the priest has reached the sanctuary and venerated the altar.

All present make the Sign of the Cross and the priest greets the people – after both actions the lay faithful respond first with a Amen, and then with their greeting of the priest presider ‘The Lord be with you.’

It might be worth knowing that prior to the reform of the Mass following Vatican II none of this took place. There were extensive prayers at the beginning of the Mass – but though responded to by a server, these were effectively private to the priest, and said by him at his entrance to the church, standing at the foot of the altar. Even at a dialogue Mass the congregation as a whole was not expected to respond until these prayers were completed and the Kyrie began.

The current Sign of the Cross and the Greeting dialogue were introduced following Vatican II to make it clear that the congregation was integral to the celebration of the Mass, and had its own proper role to play.


The Sign of the Cross

The first teaching about participation in the actions of the Liturgy that I remember making an impression of me was the following, by Romano Guardini.

When we cross ourselves, let it be with a real sign of the cross. Instead of a small cramped gesture that gives no notion of its meaning, let us make a large unhurried sign, from forehead to breast, from shoulder to shoulder, consciously feeling how it includes the whole of us, our thoughts, our attitudes, our body and soul, every part of us at once. how it consecrates and sanctifies us.

It does so because it is the Sign of the universe and the sign of our redemption. On the cross Christ redeemed mankind. By the cross he sanctifies man to the last shred and fibre of his being.
We make the sign of the cross before we pray to collect and compose ourselves and to fix our minds and hearts and wills upon God. We make it when we finish praying in order that we may hold fast the gift we have received from God. In temptations we sign ourselves to be strengthened; in dangers, to be protected. The cross is signed upon us in blessings in order that the fulness of God’s life may flow into the soul and fructify and sanctify us wholly.

Think of these things when you make the sign of the cross. It is the holiest of all signs. Make a large cross, taking time, thinking what you do. Let it take in your whole being,–body, soul, mind, will, thoughts, feelings, your doing and not-doing,– and by signing it with the cross strengthen and consecrate the whole in the strength of Christ, in the name of the triune God.

We cross ourselves when we enter into church, dipping our hands into holy water (baptismal water) in water stoops or font near the entrance. We bless ourselves; we remember our baptism; we reclaim our right – and remember our duty – to be here;  we begin our time in church.

It is no little thing to be marked with the Sign of the Cross. It is the sign traced on our foreheads when we are brought to the church for baptism; it is the sign that will be traced on our foreheads after we have died. It speaks of our living and dying in Christ.

When we make the sign in a generous (but surely not flamboyant or affected) way, when we take time, and think what we do, it makes a difference.

It requires a certain attentiveness on all our parts -and that the priest presider at Mass is ready to pray the gesture himself and allow others in the congregation time and space to do the same. The sign we make is also the sign we give. And as Mass begins, we all need and deserve more than a rushed antic fidget.

And after we make the sign we respond with our first prayer of the Mass (other than the Entrance Chant!): Amen. We affirm our commitment to Father, Son and SPirit, and to the significance of the Cross for us and our lives.

The Greeting

The Roman Missal offers a range of greetings for the priest to use.

The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ,
and the love of God,
and the communion of the Holy Spirit
be with you all.

         Or:

Grace to you and peace from God our Father
and the Lord Jesus Christ.

         Or:

The Lord be with you.

When a bishop presides, he may use either of the first two greetings, but instead of the third – ‘The Lord be with you’ the bishop should instead greet using the words ‘Peace be with you’.

In all cases the response from the members of the congregation is

And with your spirit.

The focus of this series of min-essays on the Art of Celebration is on how we better and more fruitfully participate in the Mass, but from time to time there is value in making brief observation about the ‘text’ of the Mass.

At this point it may well be helpful to note just how much of what we say at Mass is quotation of scripture.

In Moliere’s play Le Bourgeois gentilhomme, Monsieur Jourdain has pretensions for social and intellectual improvement. It is a comedy, and he is gulled. Famously he proclaims at one point “My faith! For more than forty years I have been speaking prose while knowing nothing of it, and I am the most obliged person in the world to you for telling me so.”

Hopefully we can be free of his pretensions, but the amount of scripture we all speak during Mass may well come as a surprise.

Take these opening greetings for example.

  • The first greeting is a quotation of 2 Corinthians 13.13;
  • the second a typical greeting form St Paul, found in Romans, Ephesians, Philippians and others;
  • and the third appears a number of times in scripture, Ruth 2.4II Chronicles 15.2 and has especial resonance with the Lord’s words at  Matthew 28.20.
  • The greeting reserved to a bishop is of course a quotation of the Lord’s Easter greeting to the disciples in the Upper Room, John 20.19.
  • And the assembly’s response to all these ‘And with your spirit’, this too finds its roots in Scripture in the phrase . St. Paul uses some form of “May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit” with which St Paul ends a number of his letters, including Galatians, Philippians, and Philemon.

Even if we ‘miss’ the scriptural resonance, each greeting has its own particular meaning, of course. One gives a fuller expression to the Trinitarian God; another focuses more narrowly on the Father and the Son – and we gather to join in the Son’s to the Father; and so on.

Does it make a difference to know that these words have come from scripture?. It is surely an enrichment to be mindful that the greeting is not something newly coined by the presider (there is plenty of space for that elsewhere in the Mass), but that we are greeted using ancient words of the Church, that Tradition comes to fresh expression as it is spoken to us.

And to know that, in our turn, we respond from Tradition also.

However we need to get inside the texts, not simply to parrot them. We have to find the what and wherefore that allows us to mean what we say. To perform liturgical texts prayerfully we need to find context and subtext.

To some degree that needs to come from our relationship with others in the assembly and in the Church more broadly. Sometimes it comes from how the phrases were used in the original Scriptures. And sometimes to how the texts feature elsewhere in our tradition.

One potent witness to the dialogue ‘The Lord be with you/and with your spirit‘ is found in an ancient homily provided as the Second Reading in the Office of Readings for Holy Saturday.

Something strange is happening – there is a great silence on earth today, a great silence and stillness. The whole earth keeps silence because the King is asleep. The earth trembled and is still because God has fallen asleep in the flesh and he has raised up all who have slept ever since the world began. God has died in the flesh and hell trembles with fear.

He has gone to search for our first parent, as for a lost sheep. Greatly desiring to visit those who live in darkness and in the shadow of death, he has gone to free from sorrow the captives Adam and Eve, he who is both God and the son of Eve. The Lord approached them bearing the cross, the weapon that had won him the victory. At the sight of him Adam, the first man he had created, struck his breast in terror and cried out to everyone: “My Lord be with you all.” Christ answered him: “And with your spirit.” He took him by the hand and raised him up, saying: “Awake, O sleeper, and rise from the dead, and Christ will give you light.”…

When we come to Mass overburdened and needy, the memory of this exchange as we newly enact it may remind us of the hope that is ours in Christ.

Finally, what do we mean when we say ‘And with your spirit’?

Some assert that with this response the assembly acknowledges the particular sharing of the Spirit with the priest/bishop at their ordination. Well…. There are some ancient authorities to support that position. And it is true that the dialogue ‘The Lord by with you/and with your spirit’ is not used when Liturgy is led by a lay minister.

Theodore of Mopsuestia: “In saying, ‘and with your spirit,’ they do not refer to his soul, but to the grace of the Holy Spirit by which his people believe he is called to the priesthood.”

St. John Chrysostom: “If the Holy Spirit was not in the father and teacher of you all 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.’”

But the origins of the greeting had nothing to do with ordination. And neither does ordination seem to be central to what the greeting means at Mass now.

The former English translation of ‘et cum spiritu tuo’ as ‘and also with you’ may well have been rather lame and inadequate to the richness of the greeting, but it does focus on the person addressed, and not only who he is because of ordination..

The late Fr Anscar Chupungco OSB observed that we maybe get close to understand the fullness of what the phrase refers to when we recall words from Mary’s Magnificat – ‘My spirit rejoices in God my saviour’.

It is the fulness of Mary’s being that rejoices – body, spirit, and soul, if you like. We greet the presider at Mass praying that he will enjoy that very same intensity of presence to the Lord – even as he has greeted us expressing something very similar.

Reflection questions

  • How prayerful and recollected does your regular assembly appear in these opening actions of the Mass?
  • What contributes or detracts from prayer and participation at this time?

A log with links to previous postings in this series is kept here.

Acknowledgements

~ ‘The Sign of the Cross’ from Sacred Signs by Romano Guardini.
~ Excerpts from the English translation and chants of The Roman Missal
 © 2010, International Commission on English in the Liturgy Corporation. All rights reserved.
~ Translation of Scriptures: the Jerusalem Bible © 1966, 1967 and 1968 by Darton, Longman  &  Todd, Ltd and Doubleday, a division of  Random House, Inc.
~ Commentary: (c) 2020, Allen Morris
~ Photograph: (c) 2015, Allen Morris. Interior of St John Fisher church, North Harrow.

2 thoughts on “The Art of Celebration III: the Sign of the Cross and the Greeting

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