Back in the fall of 2011, when the new English Roman Missal was put into effect, many priests took issue with the phrase, found at the beginning of Eucharistic Prayer II, “like the dewfall.” They said : too poetic; overdone; dare I say, corny?
The phrase is supposed to be as good a translation as possible of the Latin original in the 1974 edition of the Roman Missal. That phrase is “Spiritus rore tui.” “Rore” comes from “ros,” which means “dew.” “Spiritus rore tui” literally means “by the dew of your Spirit.” I assume the translators thought that this literal translation would be problematic for the listener, so they rendered it “like the dewfall” instead. The translators back in 1974 perhaps left out all reference to dew for this very reason; they assumed that “dew” as a spiritual metaphor was not something that would resonate with modern speakers of English.
The original text tells us that the Church is asking God to sanctify the gifts of bread and wine by the dew of God’s Spirit. The Spirit is a dew. The new translation asks God to make holy the gifts by sending down God’s Spirit upon them “like the dewfall.” Like the dewfall what? Like the dewfall forms. For me, the difference in nuance is that the Latin original is saying, metaphorically, that the Holy Spirit IS a dew; a spiritual, divine dew. The new translation is saying that the Holy Spirit ACTS like dew.
Take, for example, the phrase, “by the light of your Spirit.” The Holy Spirit IS light; He is divine light. He doesn’t just have light; He IS light. Now compare with, “by your Spirit like the light.” Nothing against the faith there. It still teaches that the Spirit brings light, sheds light and therefore possesses light. But there’s the difference in nuance; to be something, as opposed to having something.
I suppose one could bring this difference out by saying, “Illumine our minds, Lord, by your Spirit, who is light,” and “sanctify these gifts by your Spirit, who is dew.”
How is the Holy Spirit dew?
It is a very biblical image. For people living in the arid Middle East, like the Hebrews, dew was generally a very positive image. It was mentioned in blessings (Genesis 27:28), as a symbol of abundance (Job 29:19), of God’s presence (Hosea 14:5). When God punishes, He doesn’t send the dew (1 Kings 17:1).
The most famous Old Testament passage involving dew is the dew that preceded the appearance of manna in the desert. In the Book of Exodus, chapter 16, as the people complained of hunger, God gave the people manna to eat. The manna formed in the early morning on the ground and had to be eaten before the sun melted them away. They could not be stored overnight, except on the Sabbath, since no collecting was allowed during the Sabbath rest. Whatever they tried to store overnight rotted. Truly, the manna was their “daily bread” as we say in the Lord’s Prayer.
But prior to the manna forming, a dew lay all over the land. This dew did not “fall” like rain; it formed, quietly in the dark of night. There is a kind of gentle mystery involved in the imperceptible formation of dew. This speaks of the action of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit can come with palpable power. On Pentecost, it is said that the sound of a violent, blowing wind filled the room where the Apostles were. And later, after Peter and John had been arrested and released, the Apostles and believers gathered in prayer and the place shook. It doesn’t say that the Holy Spirit shook the place, but immediately after the passage says the place shook, it says they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly. There was some connection.
Notice, however, that even the powerful signs of the Spirit’s presence (by wind or by shaking) do not damage. The Spirit does not damage, though He is powerful. His power builds up, unites, brings peace and order. And though He can work with accompanying signs of power, He usually works like dew : gently, imperceptibly, hidden. When someone is confirmed in the Holy Spirit, there are no outward changes.
In Mass there is a huge change; a miraculous change. Bread and wine cease to be those things, and are substantially changed into the true Body and Blood of Christ. But outwardly we see no change. The appearances of bread and wine remain. Just as dew forms imperceptibly, in a hidden and mysterious way, so do bread and wine change into the Body and the Blood. This miraculous change is brought about by the action of the Holy Spirit.
There is another meaning connected to the dew. First came the dew; when it had dried up, then appeared the manna. Why the dew first? It acted like a kind of preparation for the manna. Being water droplets, it cleansed the surface of the ground where the manna would appear, so that the manna the people would collect would be clean of the impurities found on the open ground.
The action of the Holy Spirit on the bread and wine make way for the change to the Body and Blood of Christ. The Holy Spirit takes way from our offering of bread and wine anything that may be lacking or inappropriate in our sacrifice. First of all, we offer the bread and wine as sinful human beings. Even if we are in the state of sanctifying grace, who are we to offer God bread and wine? The prayers of the Mass express the Church’s constant awareness that we are always short of the mark when it comes to God. Even the priest is made aware of his own shortcomings in the prayers of the Mass.
Like the dew that cleanses the surface of the ground, the Holy Spirit removes from our sacrifice our unworthiness, the inattentiveness that often accompanies our prayers at Mass, the weakness of faith, the residue of anger or resentment, the many venial sins that stay with us even as we offer God our gifts of bread and wine. If the Mass is the greatest prayer possible, and if the Holy Spirit “helps us in our prayer” because “we do not know how to pray,” (Romans 8:26) then when we pray, through the priest, that bread and wine become Christ’s Body and Blood, we ask that the Holy Spirit be the dew that accomplishes that for us.
Dew is the sign of blessing, of abundance, of God’s presence. What greater blessing, what more valuable treasure, what truest presence of God do we have but the very Body and Blood of our Lord? But He comes to us through the agency of the Holy Spirit, just as He came the first time in the womb of Mary, conceived by the Holy Spirit; just as dew preceded manna.
Let us also ask the Holy Spirit to be dew in our souls before we receive the Lord in Holy Communion. First came the dew, then the manna. Let the Holy Spirit cleanse our souls of all venial sins and improper dispositions such as inattentiveness and a distracted mind before we receive Him. Just as dew moistens the ground and promotes vegetative growth, let the Holy Spirit grow in us faith, hope and charity; the proper dispositions for receiving the Lord in Holy Communion and a great love for the Eucharist.
When we think of how the Holy Spirit is cleansing and life-giving dew for us, we can think of two lines from that beautiful Sequence on Pentecost, the Veni Sancte Spiritus :
Lava quod est sordidum
Riga quod est aridum.
(Cleanse what is dirty
water what is dry.)