by Michael Raia
While Catholics joke about the sit-stand-kneel rhythm of the Mass that we often refer to as Catholic Calisthenics, it's easy for us to get into a monotonous routine and lose sight of the beauty and wisdom of the Church's intent for liturgical postures and gestures. This post is intended as a general guide for those seeking to understand more about this important part of Catholic worship.
THE NATURE OF WORSHIP
The first thing to remember about liturgical postures and gestures is that they are liturgical – they serve an important role in public worship. The purpose of liturgy is to give God the glory he is due, and thereby to make us holy. It is an act that is innately human: conforming ourselves increasingly in humble obedience to the image and likeness of God in which we were made, and as a result being sanctified and made holy. As we do this, we experience a foretaste of heaven and move closer to the eternal reality of full and complete participation in the divine life of the Trinity. All of this is our purpose and destiny, as we are reminded in every liturgy.
Because sin separates us from God, from the start of salvation history he has used material signs and symbols to reveal himself and re-establish the bond of family with his people. And because grace, sanctification, and love are invisible realities, we can struggle to grasp these concepts when depending solely upon our physical senses. Ergo, 'the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.' God who is pure spirit took on flesh to be known by us and to provide a place of intimate and relational encounter. Now all things created – everything material – participates in the redeeming work of Christ which is re-ordering and restoring all things to the beauty and dignity of their God-given purpose. Our sacraments and sacramentals are a foreshadowing of the complete removal of the effects of the fall and the complete restoration that is to come at the end of time. Not only do they let us glimpse a small piece of this glory, but they actually help to bring it about. A beautiful liturgy symbolizes the order and perfection of heaven, but insofar as each worshiper is being transformed in holiness, the liturgy also brings about this perfection. For a more thorough overview of key concepts about liturgical catechesis, see this post.
OUTSIDE ON THE INSIDE
Our posture and gestures are an external sign of the intended interior reality: that each of us is being transformed as we are more fully conformed to God's image, likeness, and will. In liturgy we are outwardly acting in a way that we belong to Christ, but of course no one can really offer our heart and our will on our behalf. Many were taught the sign of the cross as children, but as we grow up we learn the meaning and depth of praying in a way that joins us to the source of life itself – the love of the Trinity. It is because of this fundamental mystery of the Church that 'we live and move and have our being' (Acts 17:28). This act is something we practice our entire lives as we grow in charity and in holiness. There are three ways to consider the profound importance of posture and gestures in liturgical prayer:
1. CONFORMITY. The act of worship is one of humble obedience because it is the process of learning to more closely follow Christ. It requires discipline and selflessness, and this is why the Church looks to solemnity in her worship. Like a soldier learning drills and military procedure as a member in a larger missional body, the process of learning to pray the liturgy marks us as belonging to the army of the baptized who are being trained to imitate Christ in spreading the Gospel. It allows all aspects of our sinful selves that would be at odds with this identity and mission to be surrendered and purged for the greater good of the Body. Our posture and gestures in liturgy present an opportunity to rid ourselves of all that is not from God to be fully disposed to the graces he offers in the sacraments. If we want to be effective disciples, we must be obedient and attentive in our training and practice.
2. RITUAL. The second thing to remember is that solemnity marks important events in human history: graduations, birthdays, weddings, funerals, inaugurations and coronations; even if not strictly religious these events are often marked by ritual ceremony and solemnity across various cultures, because this is written into our God-given nature as humans. These observances materialize important invisible human realities – achievement, celebration, passing on, being imbued with a sacred duty. Not only is the Christian constantly practicing passing from the old to the new (a reason we often walk past a baptismal font as a reminder of our death in Christ in anticipation for the Resurrection) as we commemorate Christ's own passion, but our worship is also a regular reminder that we have been given a sacred commanded to go and baptize; to lead people into Christ's mission through selfless service.
3. PIETY. Finally, true solemnity is also a mark of piety: the faithful reverence we give to people and things we love. In attentively conducting our bodies with care in worship, we show our belief in the truth and sacredness of the mysteries we celebrate, especially the eucharist, which is Jesus – love himself. The sacraments point us to God. It is not only the reception of holy communion that requires our reverence, but the Christ who is present throughout the entire liturgy. Sacramentally the Church believes Christ is present in various ways beginning with the procession, the proclamation of the Word, and also including the mystical Body to which the Word is proclaimed and the eucharist offered as nourishment. This assembled Body is a visible, sacramental reminder of the Word made flesh; we too embody the Word and let it take up flesh and dwell within us. It transforms us as the Bride of Christ becomes radiant for the Bridegroom.
The Church desires that these actions be marked by beauty and dignity, as such are revelatory of the faith for the purpose of drawing us more deeply into the heart of worship. This is a common goal for all believers, and as such we are united outwardly by the gestures and posture of our prayer:
The gestures and posture of the priest, the deacon, and the ministers, as well as those of the people, ought to contribute to making the entire celebration resplendent with beauty and noble simplicity, so that the true and full meaning of the different parts of the celebration is evident and that the participation of all is fostered. Therefore, attention should be paid to what is determined by this General Instruction and the traditional practice of the Roman Rite and to what serves the common spiritual good of the People of God, rather than private inclination or arbitrary choice. A common posture, to be observed by all participants, is a sign of the unity of the members of the Christian community gathered for the sacred Liturgy: it both expresses and fosters the intention and spiritual attitude of the participants. – General Instruction of the Roman Missal 42
SPECIFICS & PREFERENCE
Generally speaking, the liturgical instructions in the U.S. have us sit when we are being instructed and attentive in listening to the Word. We stand for times of communal prayer – times when it is especially important to join our hearts, minds, and voices in worship even if the priest is praying to the Father on our behalf. We kneel for times of adoration. This is spelled out in the General Instruction of the Roman Missal #43, and other areas of specific instruction are scattered throughout this document, including when we genuflect, bow the head or make a profound bow, strike our breast, and make the sign of cross. What is not necessarily dictated beyond these general postures is exactly what we do at all other times, especially with our hands.
Personally, I do my best to respect the spirit of the posture and not introduce too many foreign elements of individual preference, in addition to doing everything the Church does specifically ask of me. Keeping my hands together similar to how altar servers are trained is a helpful reminder that I am a participant in the liturgy and that my reverence and attentiveness is no less important because I am not serving in a formal capacity as a liturgical minister. [Sidenote: I recently discovered that traditionally the practice has been right thumb over left to indicate the victory of the will over evil in accord with the Old Testament tradition of the right hand signifying blessing. It has become a wonderful tiny prayer to pray every time I think about something I otherwise have unknowingly done differently all my life.] With this understanding, I have come to desire for the external dimension of my worship to reflect the interior, and vice versa, to avoid causing others any distraction, and to encourage others to pray. I know that the piety and reverence by others often has a profound impact on my own prayer more times than I can count.
As members of a hierarchical church (headed by a heiros, Greek for priest, and structured accordingly), we should also keep in mind that the priest and deacon serve in special roles, especially the priest. It is he who serves in the person of Christ the true Head. Particularly during the dialogues between the priest and people, it is helpful to remember it is Christ speaking to his Body and presenting it to the Father – the gestures of the priest are unique from those of the other ministers and the assembly, which should be unified in their action. According to the GIRM, the priest or deacon may give special instructions to the faithful, but they should always do so according to faithful observance of the rubrics of the liturgy. Ideally the faithful should be encouraged and inspired by the reverence of the priest, and the priest by the reverence of the people - each performing their duties as prescribed so as to practice holiness in anticipation of eternal life. It is in this way that we truly give God the most glory, and give him the most opportunity to make our hearts pure and holy like his own.