This is a crucial moment in which we are reminded and assured of God’s faithful presence among us. Along with the benediction, it undergirds our worship with God’s grace and peace promised to us. But this greeting is more than an announcement or assurance of divine presence—certainly much more than a mere hello from God.
That strangers would meet my eyes, smile, and greet me was quite a culture shock to me, a classic Korean introvert now roaming the streets of West Michigan. The response those poor friendly Michiganders received from me was a jolt and then a puzzled look. The real shock, however, came on Sunday morning at a local Christian Reformed congregation. Call this a liturgy shock. It seemed to me that not only strangers greeted me, but God did too! Toward the beginning of the service, the minister stood up facing the congregation, and with his hand raised said: “God greets us today with these words: ‘May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.’”
It felt strange to me that the omnipresent God who promised to never leave us would have to greet us. Imagine how perplexed you’d be if a friend who was with you for a while said, “Oh, by the way, hi.” At first I thought this greeting was perhaps a practice universal in churches in the United States, since I had never encountered anything like it elsewhere. After a deeper investigation, however, I discovered that it was a liturgical element unique to Reformed congregations particularly of Dutch heritage, and that, despite its brevity in our Reformed liturgy, it carried significant and fascinating theological implications about how we understand God’s presence among us.
God’s greeting, also known as the salutation, is a practice born in the Reformation era; its earliest trace can be found in the sixteenth-century Heidelberg, modern-day Germany. A Protestant Dutch-speaking congregation had settled there and adopted the liturgical tradition of the region as their own. The salutation was part of this tradition, which became the prototype of the Dutch Reformed liturgy in centuries to come. There are, of course, other liturgical greetings that far precede this one. For example, the greeting “The Lord be with you. / And also with your soul.” dates all the way back to the fourth century. What makes this Dutch Reformed salutation entirely unique from all the others is that God is the one who greets the congregation, not the minister; hence we call it God’s greeting.
For those of us who weekly participate in the Reformed liturgy, this greeting is irreplaceable in our worship. This is a crucial moment in which we are reminded and assured of God’s faithful presence among us. Along with the benediction, it undergirds our worship with God’s grace and peace promised to us. But this greeting is more than an announcement or assurance of divine presence—certainly much more than a mere hello from God. It is a succinct and dense extraction—an espresso, so to speak— of our Reformed view on divine presence and revelation in worship. It declares not only the fact that God is present, but also the manner in which he is present among his worshiping people.
Before we move further, I’d first like to clarify what God’s greeting is not. It’s not a prayer or a wish of the minister, though it may sound like one, says Nicholas Wolterstorff, a philosopher reflecting on the words of this greeting in his book Acting Liturgically. It’s not exactly a declaration of a fact, either; it doesn’t say, “The grace . . . is with you all.” Rather, God’s greeting is an invocation. When the minister speaks the words of this greeting, he or she speaks on behalf of God and puts his triune grace, peace, and fellowship into operation.
In this way, a certain manner of God’s presence in our Reformed worship is conveyed up front at the beginning of our liturgy. First, God is an active agent in worship who not only listens but also speaks, who not only receives but also responds. Second, his presence is not a manipulated one; he is not like the Genie in Aladdin, but more like Aslan, the untamable lion in the Chronicles of Narnia. In other words, divine presence is not a momentary result of a magical incantation of the minister, but an uncontainable, already-flowing source of grace, love, and fellowship that channels through the means of a human representative, who relies solely on God’s covenant revealed in the scripture. This intricate interplay between the divine Word and human voice is a very glimpse of our sanctification displayed in our worship.
Third, God’s greeting speaks as much about Christ’s absence as it does about his presence. When a priest genuflects toward the altar, that gesture of greeting implies a certain manner of divine presence: Christ is physically present right there on the altar in the form of bread and wine. Likewise, when a minister, with a raised hand, speaks toward the congregation, “May the grace . . . ,” a different manner of presence is communicated. Christ is physically absent and thus he speaks through his Word written by human hands and uttered by human mouths. He is present in his Spirit, as he promised.
Lastly, God’s greeting therefore speaks as much about Christ’s distance from us as it does about his nearness to us. We confess through the Heidelberg Catechism that Christ has ascended to heaven and remains there until he comes again. Though he is never absent from us in his Spirit, his humanity is no longer here on earth (Q&A 46–47). It is this physical absence and distance of our ascended Lord that both necessitates and empowers our worship here on earth. When we worship by the Spirit, our souls are lifted up to heaven and through Christ our Advocate enter the Father’s heavenly court, joining all the saints and angels in their eternal worship. Upon our entrance, God the Lord of heaven and earth greets and welcomes us in grace and peace.
Perplexing yet, though in a wonderful way, is this golden scepter of kindness extended to our sinful, broken souls from earth.