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The Salutation

Ever wonder why we Lutherans use the form of worship we do?
In this series we examine the depth and meaning of the various elements of our Lutheran worship service.

My father was a pastor, so for many years I was there when he led the congregation in worship on Sunday mornings. As a young boy, I noticed that when Dad would conduct the liturgy, he would often speak (or sing) not only the pastor’s parts but also the congregation’s responses along with them. That made sense to me because I realized he was not only leading the people, but also worshiping with them. There was one place, however, where he always remained silent when the congregation spoke. It was after the pastor says to the congregation, “The Lord be with you”—where the congregation responds, “And with thy spirit.”

A good number of years passed before I finally realized why my father never spoke that response along with the people. It’s because there is no capital S on “spirit”! In my youth I thought this line had something to do with the Holy Spirit, but it doesn’t at all. It is a reference to the pastor’s own spirit (or soul). Modern hymnals eliminate the confusion by updating the English like this: P: “The Lord be with you.” C: “And also with you.” Suddenly my father’s silence there made sense to me. In speaking that line, he would be greeting himself.

This part of the liturgy is called the salutation and it comes from a Latin word meaning “greeting.” But there is more to this greeting than a simple “Hello” or “How are you?” This greeting is found throughout the Bible. For instance, in Ruth 2:4 (EHV) Boaz greeted the workers in his field with the words, The Lord be with you!” and they responded, The Lord bless you!” When the angel Gabriel appeared to the virgin Mary he said, “The Lord is with you.” (Luke 1:28 EHV) Paul’s last words to Timothy include this greeting: The Lord be with your spirit.” (2   Timothy 4:22 EHV)

When we greet a fellow Christian like this, it is more than just a hopeful wish that the Lord would come and be with that person. We are asking for something the Lord already promises (Matthew 18:20, 28:20)—so we use this greeting having no doubt that when we say these words our dear Savior immediately answers that prayer and is indeed right there with His people.

The placement of the salutation in the liturgy is significant. Notice how it leads into the part of the service where the Scripture readings and sermon are presented. Before that happens then, the pastor prays for the Lord to be with the congregation because they are about to hear and learn a Word that only the Lord can lead them to believe. The congregation likewise prays that the Lord be with the pastor, because he is going to deliver to them that all-important Word. It is just the right time and place to exchange this greeting!

The salutation comes up elsewhere too. We find it again at the beginning of the preface to Holy Communion. (You can see why that, too, is a fitting place for it.) In some liturgies it appears one more time just before the Benediction at the end of the service. It is used frequently. In fact, it would be a meaningful way for Christians to greet one another every day, wouldn’t it?

So I’ll say, “The Lord be with you.” And you say, “________ .”

David Schaller is a professor at Immanuel Lutheran College in Eau Claire, Wisconsin.