THE BODY LANGUAGE OF WORSHIP
by The Rev'd Lloyd Prator, Rector - St. John's in the Village
Visitors to an Episcopal Church always notice the different things that Church members do. Some make the sign of the cross, others do not. Some bow at various places during the liturgy, others do not. Some drop to one knee when passing the altar, others bow, others do nothing. As with most matters concerning ceremonial, there are no rules in the Church about these sorts of things, there are customs and traditions, some of which are clear, others of which are buried deeply in allegory and tradition, but all of which may be helpful for a newcomer to learn.
The guiding principle behind all ritual gestures and movements is the idea of the incarnation. The incarnation is about God having taken a human body in Jesus of Nazareth and lived a human life among us in that body. This tells us that what we do with our bodies is important.
Further, we Episcopalians believe that worship should involve the whole human person, not just the mind. Therefore, while we do listen and think about our faith, we also worship using our sense of smell, which perceives the fragrance of the incense and the odor of candle wax; and our sense of taste, which perceives the consecrated bread and wine of the Eucharist. Our need to touch is met by our greeting each other at the Peace. The whole person is involved in worship. There are three major gestures which are common in our tradition, and this tract will say a little about each of the three: crosses, bowing, and genuflection.
The Sign of the Cross
The cross is made by touching, with the right hand, first the fore-head, then the abdomen, then the left shoulder, and finally the right shoulder. (Persons from the Orthodox tradition reverse these last two points.) The sign of the cross recalls the sign made upon us at our baptism, when we were chrismated (anointed with sacred oil) with the sign of the cross. The sign of the cross is the sign of Christ and our commitment to him. Many make the sign of the cross as they are sprinkled with baptismal water in the rite called the asperges, which frequently opens the celebration of the Eucharist. This sprinkling recalls our baptism, when we were first signed with the cross, so that sign is especially appropriate here. We make the sign of the cross whenever the sacred name of God (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) is invoked, either in acclamation or blessing or absolution. Thus, we make the sign at the beginning of
the liturgy when we proclaim, “Blessed be God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit”. Somewhat by extension, many make the sign at the other acclamations which occur at the beginning of the liturgy, “Bless the Lord who forgives all our sins,” and Alleluia. Christ is Risen.” At the end of the hymn “Glory to God in the highest,” we make the sign of the cross because the hymn concludes with praise to the Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We make the sign of the cross at the end of the Creed because any recitation of the Creed is a remembrance of our Baptism, in we were sealed for “... the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.” We make the sign of the cross at the absolution following the confession of sins, because the absolution is made in the name of the Trinity and because it is the cross of Christ which opens the way for our forgiveness. We make the sign of the cross before and after receiving communion because, in the sacrament of the Eucharist, we recognize Christ crucified, risen, and present with us. Finally, we make the sign of the cross at the blessing at
the very end of the liturgy because the blessing is made in the name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Some make the sign of the cross at the end of the hymn called the
Sanctus (“Holy, Holy, Holy Lord”), right before the prayer of consecration. The origin of this cross is somewhat more obscure than the others, but the Sanctus does conclude with praise to the one who comes in the name of the Lord, and that is Jesus. A peculiar form of the cross is made before the gospel is read. A small cross is made with the right thumb upon the forehead, the lips, and the bosom. This gesture is a form of prayer for Christ’s presence in one’s thoughts, upon one’s lips, and in one’s heart.
Many Episcopalians bow at the name of Jesus wherever it appears in the liturgy or in hymnody. This is a little tribute to that line written by St. Paul in the letter to the Philippians in which he says that “at the name of Jesus every knee should bow (2:10). While actually bending the knee at these points would be awkward (to say nothing of strenuous), a bow of the head gives passing acknowledgment to Paul’s exhortation about the sacred name of Jesus. Many Episcopalians bow when the procession cross passes them. This bow is, again, a recognition of the centrality of the cross in our theology and a way of honoring and raising God for the mystery of our redemption achieved upon the cross. In the midst of the Creed, we bow at what is called the incarnatus, that line in the Creed which speaks of Jesus who “for us and for our salvation ... came down from heaven: by the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man.” This bow is a gesture of reverence for the sacred mystery of the incarnation. Some also bow near the end when the Creed proclaims the Spirit as “worshiped and glorified.” Bowing is a gesture of worship and adoration. Most of us bow at the beginning of the Sanctus. This bow is made as a recognition of the divine name, “Lord, God of power and might,” and we bow here for the same reason that we bow at the name of Jesus.
A genuflection is a momentary dropping to the right knee. It is a sign of adoration or respect. Some people genuflect whenever they pass the reserved sacrament which is kept in the Church for communion of the sick and as a sign of God’s presence with his people. You can tell when the reserved sacrament is present; there is always a white candle burning on or ear the altar or other place where the sacrament is kept. In St. John’s Church, the sacrament is kept in what is called a “hanging pyx” over the altar, and so there is a white candle burning near the credence table just to the south (or right) side of the altar. Genuflections before entering or leaving a pew are made for this reason. In our parish custom, a deep bow
before the reserved sacrament is also appropriate. Some people genuflect in the middle of the Nicene Creed, at the point called the incarnatus, described above in the section devoted
to bowing. A few people genuflect whenever the Bishop passes in procession, although this custom is rapidly falling out of use. The reason for making such a reverence is not veneration of a person, but respect for the apostolic office which connects us to Jesus and the early
Church. It also recognizes the role of the Bishop as a symbol of the unity of the Church.
A more exotic custom is the double genuflection, which is actually a brief kneeling upon both knees. This is rather rarely seen, but for the record is, in the Western Church, the appropriate reverence when the sacrament is exposed. The sacrament is exposed, for
example, on Maundy Thursday when it is placed in the aumbry at the Altar of Repose.
Read this article and view samples from the Book of Common Prayer Here