Tuesday, June 1, 2010

And With Your Spirit

So here's how Eucharistic Prayer II will now begin:
The Lord be with you. And with your spirit.
Lift up your hearts. We lift them up to the Lord.
Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.
It is right and just.

"And with your spirit:" What's up with that?
Actually, the English translation of the liturgy is pretty much the only one that hasn't been using this phrase "and with your spirit" all along. For us the phrasing doesn't immediately make a lot of sense, so when we went to the vernacular after Vatican II, we went with something that we thought captured the reciprocality of the response more clearly. The new version aims to be a much more literal translation, so we get "And with your spirit".

I went to the USCCB website to get some sense of the nuances to the phrase. It sounds on the surface oddly dualistic -- why are we talking about the presider's spirit? And on one level, they say it really is sort of reciprocal greeting. The presider's words express his hope that the spirit of the Lord may be with the congregation. And their response suggests likewise of him.

The USCCB goes on to suggest that the spirit reference can also be meant to indicate that the presider has a special spirit as an ordained minister. "Some scholars" assert this,
the website indicates. In which case the response would be not only a reciprocal wish, but a wish that God might nourish the presider's special gifts.

Anyone who has read this blog more than a couple times will know that I'm not a big fan of this sort of interpretation. In part, that's because these recent moves to make it more clear that the priest is somehow special strikes me as incorrect to the humanity of the individual presider, as a distraction to the dynamics of liturgy -- and in another sense as altogether and completely unnecessary. The presider is the guy wearing the shimmery garments and living a celibate life, after all. How much more clear can it be that he's a little bit different?

I guess my other worry is that what we see here, and may see elsewhere as this new translation rolls out, is a fabulous instance of liturgical retconning. A retcon, if the term is unfamiliar to you, is a storytelling technique in which you add back story to already known characters or series of events which completely changes the interpretation of those characters or events. When it turned out that one entire season of
Dallas had been a dream, or that in The Sixth Sense (SPOILER), Bruce Willis is actually dead -- that's a retcon.

In liturgy, we have peripheral practice for which there were once important reasons, practices that emerged out of concrete needs of a church at that moment. But then, those moments pass. That's not to say we discontinue the practice, or that we necessarily should; the point is, the meaning of those practices grows less clear.

And into that vacuum, we can easily rush in with new interpretations that are not connected to history, but to our own current set of assumptions and priorities. Some in the Church today want to make it clear the presider is distinct, that he stands out from the congregation. And so we reinterpret vague old language in a way that helps retroactively justify that.

It's not necessarily a matter of cold calculation, either. The language is vague; it lends itself readily to new explanations. But if we're not careful, we can take transform parts of the liturgy from opportunities for revelation into ideological mouthpieces.

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