One of my earliest memories was when I was about 4 years old. I attended the Lutheran church with my grandparents one Sunday morning. Just as I did every Sunday with my parents in our Catholic church, I followed them down the center aisle to their pew, and genuflected before entering. My very proper Lutheran grandmother was quick to pick me up and remind me that they didn’t do “those Catholic things” here. Of course, I did not understand what I was doing at that moment, nor the reason for it.
During the celebration of the liturgy, we assume different postures and a variety of gestures. These postures and gestures are not merely ceremonial. They have a deep and profound meaning, and when done with full understanding of why we do them, they enhance our experience and participation at Mass.
Standing is a sign of respect. In our culture, we stand when someone important enters the room. At the dinner table, it is proper for men to stand when a woman joins or leaves the table. And at sporting events, we stand for the singing of the National Anthem. The 2010 article by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, “Praying with Body, Mind and Voice,” described standing at liturgy in this way:
“When we stand for prayer, we assume our full stature before God, not in pride, but in humble gratitude for the marvelous things God has done in creating and redeeming each one of us … We stand for the Gospel, the pinnacle of revelation, the words and deeds of the Lord, and the bishops of the United States have chosen standing as the posture to be observed in this country for the reception of Communion.”
Kneeling has a couple of meanings. Despite biblical references of individuals kneeling in God’s presence — including Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane — in the early Church, kneeling was a posture of penance. In fact, because kneeling was so thoroughly identified with penance, the early Church actually forbade kneeling on Sunday and during the season of Easter. By the Middle Ages, it came to signify homage. Today, kneeling is a sign of adoration, especially when we kneel before the Blessed Sacrament exposed in a monstrance. It is for this reason that kneeling was chosen by the United States bishops as the proper posture of the faithful during the Eucharistic Prayer.
Sitting is a basic posture of everyday life for many people. We sit at a computer, in the car, on a train or airplane, in school or at work, during meals and while watching television. Short periods of time sitting have been associated with greater focus and concentration. During the liturgy, we sit during the pre-Gospel readings, the homily and for a period of time following the distribution of Holy Communion in order to promote greater listening and meditation.
There are two types of bows in the liturgy: a bow of the head, sometimes called a “simple bow,” and a bow of the body, known as a “profound bow.” The “General Instruction of the Roman Missal” says that as a sign of reverence and respect, we bow our head when the three Divine Persons are named together, as well as at the names of Jesus, the Blessed Virgin Mary and the saint in whose honor Mass is being celebrated. A profound bow is made toward the altar and during the Creed at the words “and by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary, and became man.”
The origin of the English word “genuflect” is the Latin, “genuflectere.” The first part of the word, “genu” means “knee,” and “flectere” means “to bend.” It is literally translated as “to bend the knee.” As Catholics, we genuflect by bringing the right knee to the floor.
The General Instruction of the Roman Missal tells us that a genuflection signifies adoration, and for this reason, a genuflection is reserved for the Blessed Sacrament, as well as the Holy Cross from the period of solemn adoration during the Good Friday liturgy until the beginning of the Easter Vigil.
The priest genuflects three times during Mass: after the elevation of the host, after the elevation of the chalice and just before Holy Communion. If the tabernacle with the Blessed Sacrament is situated in the sanctuary, the priest, deacon and other ministers genuflect when they approach the altar and when they depart from it, but not during the celebration of Mass itself. Additionally, anyone who passes in front of the Blessed Sacrament genuflects, unless they are moving in a procession or carrying the processional cross or lighted candles. (cf. General Instruction, No. 274)
Praying with Our Whole Being
As a cradle Catholic, there are many things I do without even thinking because that’s what we do as Catholics. Once I became a student of liturgy, however, I began to realize that because we are creatures of body as well as spirit, prayer is not confined to just our minds and hearts. Rather, prayer is also expressed in our bodies. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches us that “the human body shares in the dignity of ‘the image of God’: it is a human body precisely because it is animated by a spiritual soul, and it is the whole human person that is intended to become, in the body of Christ, a temple of the Spirit.” (CCC, No. 364)
Therefore, as a temple of the Spirit, when we stand, we are using our bodies to express a readiness to respond to God subito, sempre, e con gioia — immediately, always, and with joy. When we sit, we place ourselves in a position to lovingly receive the Word of God in our lives. And when we genuflect, we are using our bodies to express humility before Christ’s True Presence in the Blessed Sacrament. When we are mindful about the postures we assume at Mass, then our bodies are engaged in prayer and we pray with our whole being.