If there’s something I sometimes complain about in Catholicism, it’s that compared to other religions Catholicism/Christianity seems to be less obvious in its practice. Other religions, such as Islam or Judaism, just seem so much more obvious. For example, we can usually tell a Muslim when we see one by what they’re wearing. They’re not shy about the several times a day when they are called to prayer. They also have certain rules about entering the mosque, including proper dress. I’ll admit right now that I really don’t know much about it, but I know they’re a lot more strict about these sorts of things than Christians are.
Islam is just one example among various religions. It makes me wonder why Christianity doesn’t appear to have the same element of outward participation in the faith. Unless we’re religious (meaning priest, nun, sister, monk…et cetera) there is nothing specific we’re supposed to wear that say says “I’m Catholic.” We don’t stop publicly several times a day to pray. Not all churches ask a certain dress code of their visitors (though some do).
So my question is this: if we’re supposed to be a missionary Church (which we are, and I will have to write on in another post), and if other religions can have the body be an integral and obvious part of worship, why can’t Catholicism?
Guess what? We do.
This is actually quite a broad topic in theology, involving concepts and terms like participation in the liturgy, and interior and exterior action, and is discussed in Pope St. Pius XII’s encyclical Mediator Dei, as well as Cardinal Ratzinger’s excellent book The Spirit of the Liturgy. I’m not going to bore you with that kind of detail. I’m just going to briefly touch on three different things that involve the body in our practice of the faith: the Sign of the Cross, genuflection, and the inclination of the head.
1. The Sign of the Cross
We all know the Sign of the Cross. It begins all our prayers and, if raised Catholic, was one of the very first things we were taught as children.
In fact, we know it so well that it’s probably become pure habit for a lot of us. But the Sign of the Cross is a prayer in itself, and is definitely a bodily action. It is a commemoration of the Triumphal Day on which Christ defeated death. It is a basic profession of faith. Every time I make the Sign of the Cross, I am saying “I believe in the Holy Trinity, Father, Son, and Spirit, one God in three Persons, who came to earth in the nature of man and died on the tortuous instrument for my freedom, my salvation from death itself. I believe that Jesus Christ is God Incarnate, existing from all ages, who has sent us the Spirit to guide all our actions.”
The Eastern Rite does the Sign of the Cross a little differently than the West—and I must say I prefer it. The most obvious difference is that we in the East make the Sign of the Cross right to left instead of left to right. We also hold our hand in a specific manner which really highlights the faith aspect of the Sign of the Cross. I’m just going to quote from the Byzantine Missal so that I’m not blindly trying to explain this on my own, ’cuz that might not end up pretty.
“The thumb, the index and the middle finger are joined together, while the third finger and the third finger are bent so that they touch the palm of the hand. The three fingers together express our faith in the Holy Trinity: one God in three Divine Persons. The two fingers signify that there are two natures but one Person in Christ…By our gesture of the cross, we invoke our faith in the redemption: Christ suffering and dying on the cross to save us.”
So what about the right-to-left thing? Where did that come from? Actually, this was the original way of making the Sign of the Cross up until the 13th century, until doing it left to right took over (I don’t know why…). But the opposite right-to-left thing isn’t arbitrary, and there’s a really cool reason why in the Eastern Rite we do it that way:
We lift our hand to our forehead (consecration of our mind), to our heart (consecration of our feelings and sentiment), to our right shoulder (consecration of our good actions), to our left shoulder (to ask God forgiveness for our sins). In Holy Scripture, right always represents good, and left evil; that is why we sign the right shoulder first. In all the Byzantine devotions and prayers, each time the Blessed Trinity is mentioned, the sign of the cross is made as an expression of faith and consecration.
Anyway, the Sign of the Cross is an amazing way to evangelize. Some Protestant denominations use it, but certainly not all. It is a way to express our Trinitarian faith in public…and if you think about, the Trinity is the essence of Christianity. The Sign of the Cross is a really simple way to pray in public and can be used in many situations. Don’t be afraid to use it!
I don’t have a lot to say about genuflection specifically. Of course an entire blog could be written about kneeling, but I wanted to say something about genuflection in particular.
First, the word genuflection comes from the Latin (don’t most things?). Genu means “knee”, and -flection comes from the Latin verb flectere, meaning “to bend”. Pretty self-explanatory, really. Bend that knee! But while you’re at it, make sure you’re really bending the knee. Again, I’m not getting into a whole spiel on kneeling and the theology behind it (you guys really gotta read The Spirit of the Liturgy), but when we enter the presence of God, we’d better be sure to give him the macho respect he deserves.
All too often I see people in church just give a little bob with one knee before entering or as they’re leaving their pew. That’s not a genuflection. And I’m not just talking about elderly or physically disabled people doing this. I’ve seen many people who are in fine physical condition do this. On the flip side, I’ve also seen those who aren’t physically fit make an effort to properly genuflect. There’s a woman who for a while followed me in Adoration. She has had a stroke and walks very slowly with a cane. Yet every time she came into the chapel, she went all the way down, kneeling before God with a reverence that not all people have.
A genuflection is bringing the knee all the way to the floor, acknowledging God in the tabernacle as our Creator and Redeemer, majestic King of the Universe. Picture yourself in the Middle Ages, a knight entering the presence of your liege lord. You don’t just bow or give a half-hearted bob. You kneel before him, giving him the respect he deserves as your lord.
And God deserves a lot more respect than any earthly king.
Which brings me to the next point. Which knee are we supposed to genuflect on? There is actually a proper form of genuflection. The General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM), paragraph 274, has this to say about it: “A genuflection, made by bending the right knee to the ground, signifies adoration, and therefore is reserved for the Most Blessed Sacrament, as well as for the Holy Cross from the solemn adoration during the liturgical celebration on Good Friday until the beginning of the Easter Vigil.”
So basically, when we are genuflecting in church, we should be using our right knee. Maybe this goes back to the tradition of the right representing good and left evil. If we ever find ourselves genuflecting for anyone or anything else (perhaps to bishop or a king or something of the sort), we should use our left knee, as the right is reserved for God.
Side note—just some food for thought. Kneeling to receive Holy Communion has been a hot topic in the Church at times. My thought on this: why wouldn’t we kneel to receive God into our hearts? Why wouldn’t we kneel before the greatest gift that Christ has given to us? Why shouldn’t we kneel before our Beloved, the God of All, the Alpha and Omega, the First and Last, the Ancient of Days, our Salvation, our Redeemer?
3. Inclining the Head
Alright, this one really is a bit vague. But since I started this article by complaining about the lack of certain things in Catholicism, I’m including this one.
There are actually certain times in prayer when we’re supposed to bow our head. We don’t have to do a full out bow or prostration at these times; just a simple incline of the head. Again the GIRM (275) has the line I want: “A bow of the head is made when the three Divine Persons are named together and at the names of Jesus, of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and of the Saint in whose honor Mass is being celebrated.”
The habit I’ve gotten into is bowing my head whenever Jesus’ name is mentioned during prayers. The other time that we are supposed to bow our head is in the recitation of the Creed. When we come to the Incarnation, we are supposed to bow our head. At Christmas and on the Feast of the Annunciation (March 25), we should be kneeling when we come to the Incarnation in the Creed.
So basically, Catholicism does have cool things connected with our faith practice. We really should make an extra effort in our clothing at church (though this is not mandatory; it’s just something to try keeping in mind to be respectful in church), and whenever we enter or leave a church, we are supposed to make the Sign of the Cross with holy water. Genuflecting is a good idea too.
Anyway, this could have been way more extensive (there’s definitely other things and times in liturgical practice I could’ve brought in), and probably could’ve been shorter, too. I often plan a short blog post, and then it turns out super long. My apologies. 🙂
But maybe look into these more for yourself! Comment below on any other things that we can do to integrate the body into worship; I’d love to hear from you!