It’s funny how you can hear the same thing over and over again and not really understand it’s meaning until it hits you in just the right way. This evening, I was listening to the wonderful service of carols in Memorial Church at Harvard and received the word in a new way.
“In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, ‘Greetings, favoured one! The Lord is with you.’” (Luke 1:26-8)
I’m not a good enough scholar of Greek to explain the original, but I can speak to the Latin: Dominus tecum benedicta, “The Lord is with you, blessed one.” It is this phrase, Dominus tecum, that will be appropriated for the opening of many Latin rites and (eventually) nearly all the Anglican services. I’ve preached on it any number of times, but I never made the connection to the annunciation. “The Lord be with you” is both an invocation (May God be with you) and a recognition (God is with you). The ambiguity is clear in the Latin and the older English. [If you have any doubts, take a closer look at Shakespeare’s 116th sonnet. “If this be error and upon me proved.”]
Christians recognize God in one another, and I’ve always seen that as a wonderful theological and liturgical statement, but I’ve never understood it viscerally. Gabriel stands before Mary and says Dominus tecum benedicta and he means, literally that the Lord is within her. This is Emmanuel, God with us – not abstractly in word or concept or thought, not even in spirit (though in Spirit). This is God with us in the flesh.
The phrase “God be with you” does more than orient us to the divine image, present in all humans. It recalls that very specific time when the word was made flesh and dwelt among us. It testifies to God’s presence in the world and in the church – in us. We are blessed in this presence and in this recognition. We play the role of angel and of theotokos (“God bearer” a traditional Orthodox title for Mary) every time we say the words to one another. We remember and reenact that holy moment.
As we prepare for Christmas, give some thought to how you greet people. Say “Merry Christmas” but say also “The Lord be with you.” And mean it.