Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington
Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane
Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302
Worshiping with our bodies
by Father Jan Larson
(From the Dec. 3, 2009 edition of the Inland Register)
What we do with our bodies in the liturgy the various movements and gestures both expresses our faith and nourishes our faith. Liturgical motions and gestures are a form of prayer, and for this reason the Church asks us to make these various gestures and postures in common, as a sign of our unity and solidarity while at prayer. Gestures and movements are divided into three categories: postures, gestures, and processions.
We stand, sit or kneel during the liturgy and so express our reverence and attention. The various postures are determined by liturgical history, tradition, culture, and by the physical environment of the church building or place of worship. For example, in the first four centuries of the Church, it was considered unthinkable to kneel on Sundays or throughout the Easter season, since these days celebrate the Resurrection of Jesus. Such kneeling was even condemned by the Council of Nicaea, the same council that gave us the creed we recite on Sundays.
Sometimes postures become a bone of contention among some parishioners, and a cause of division just opposite to the sign of unity that common postures are meant to be. The solution is to be willing to leave our sometimes stubborn egos at the church door, and pray with the postures that are customary to the congregation or directed by the pastor.
There are many gestures in the liturgy. We bow before the altar or genuflect before the reserved sacrament. We make the sign of the cross at the beginning and end of the liturgy, and sign ourselves three times with the cross before Jesus speaks to us in the gospel. We extend our hands reverently to receive the Communion bread and cup. Gestures of devotion that are not a part of the liturgical rite are best set aside in the interests of expressing our unity with one another and with the Church in our corporate act of worship. The liturgy is sufficient as it stands, so there is no need to gild the lily.
Sometimes, for example, one will notice how many different gestures of reverence people will make before receiving Communion. Acknowledging this lack of unity, the United States bishops recently determined that a simple bow of the head would be the only appropriate liturgical gesture for everyone approaching the Communion minister. Again, the meaning of these small gestures is not first of all personal devotion, but rather the common prayer, the common voice of the gathered assembly.
There are two sorts of processions: processions of ministers at the entrance, at the Gospel, and at the end of the liturgy, and processions of the people at the presentation of the gifts and at Communion time. At other times of the year, e.g., on Palm Sunday and at the Easter Vigil, all in the assembly are invited to join the procession. There perhaps is not a more powerful expression of the Church as the people of God than when they move in liturgical procession, united with Christ and with one another.
(Father Larson is a priest of and liturgical consultant for the Archdiocese of Seattle.)
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