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Liturgical Postures, Gestures Foster Unity, Express Reverence

In our Scripture readings this morning, we are reminded that one day the Lord Jesus will return to judge the living and the dead. Are we ready? Are we truly ready to meet Jesus Christ face-to-face? It is a question upon which we should reflect often so that our lives can become more authentically Christian. Yet, do we not meet Jesus Christ "face-to-face," so to speak, in every liturgy celebrated by the Church? Do we not hear the words of Jesus in our Gospel readings, and have them explained by the priest who has been ordained to stand in His person? Does Jesus not come body, blood, soul and divinity through the words of the ordained priest during the Eucharistic Prayer? Indeed, we do not need to wait for the Second Coming in order to come into direct contact with Jesus Christ. He is with us in His Word and His Sacraments and, in a unique way, in the Eucharist. Today, I would like to continue a four-week period of catechesis that was begun last week throughout the diocese on the New Roman Missal and the revised General Instruction of the Roman Missal. This morning, I invite us to consider the worshipping assembly at Mass, especially focusing on how our postures and gestures relate to the whole of the liturgy. The Second Vatican Council undertook a reform of the Church’s liturgy, and in its Constitution on the Liturgy, the Council Fathers wrote: "Mother Church earnestly desires that all the faithful should be led to that full, conscious, and active participation in liturgical celebrations which is demanded by the very nature of the liturgy, and to which the Christian people, ‘a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a redeemed people’ (I Pet 2:9, 4-5) have a right and obligation by reason of their baptism" (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 14). Therefore, "Full, conscious and active participation in [the] liturgical" celebration is what each of us is called to do when we come to the liturgy. There are two important points here: 1) Each one of us has a part in the liturgy, whether we be ordained or non-ordained, and to exercise our ministerial or common priesthood effectively, we must understand what we are doing, consciously live out our priestly duties and actively participate in the liturgical actions. 2) These are not individual actions, this is not a private devotion. The liturgy is the public worship of the People of God offered to the Father through His Son Jesus Christ in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Our priestly actions – both common and ministerial – work in tandem to offer the perfect sacrifice of Jesus Christ to the Father. It is, therefore, necessary that the gathered community act in harmony, each carrying out his or her respective duties. If members of the community do not act in union but instead make the liturgy an expression of personal piety, then unity is turned into confusion, rhythm becomes chaos and the assembly is hindered from entering into the prayer of the liturgy, and must rather focus on what is coming next. It is for this reason that the liturgical texts have rubrics. Rubrics are the authoritative rules and directions given to create order and harmony in the liturgy so that the People of God may enter into the prayer of the Mass. Because we are creatures of body and soul, our prayer is not confined to our minds, hearts and voices, but is expressed by our bodies as well. During Mass we assume various postures: standing, sitting, kneeling, and we are invited to make a variety of gestures. These postures and gestures that have profound meaning, and when done with reverence, can enhance our personal participation in the Mass. Standing is a sign of respect and honor, so we stand as the celebrant, who represents Christ, enters and leaves the assembly. We stand until the end of the Opening Prayer (or Collect); for the singing of the Alleluia before the Gospel reading; while the Gospel itself is proclaimed; during the Profession of Faith and the General Intercessions; from the invitation, Pray, brethren, that our sacrifice…, before the Prayer over the Gifts; from the end of the Great Amen after the Agnus Dei; for the Closing Prayer (Post-Communion) until the end of Mass. The only posture that will be really different is our standing from the invitation: "Pray brethren…". I suspect that a hand gesture by the celebrant to stand at this time will be needed at first until we become accustomed. The reason for this addition is the principle that we stand at the Opening Prayer and at the Closing Prayer, so we should do the same at the Prayer Over the Gifts. The posture of kneeling signifies penance and the awareness of our sins, homage and reverence to Our Lord, and adoration of the One God. It is for this reason that the bishops of the United States have prescribed the posture of kneeling for the entire Eucharistic Prayer: that is, from the end of the Sanctus until after the Amen of the Eucharistic Prayer, except when prevented on occasion by reasons of health, lack of space, the large number of people present, or some other good reason. Those who do not kneel ought to make a profound bow when the priest genuflects after each consecration. The faithful also kneel after the Agnus Dei unless the Diocesan Bishop determines otherwise (GIRM 43, USA Adaptations). In this diocese, we will kneel. Sitting is the posture of meditation and listening, so the congregation sits for the readings that precede the Gospel, for the homily and the Preparation of the Gifts, and they may also sit for a period of meditation following Communion. Gestures too involve our bodies in prayer. The most familiar of these is the Sign of the Cross with which we begin Mass and with which, in the form of a blessing the Mass concludes. Because it was by His death on the cross that Christ redeemed the world, we trace the sign of the cross on our foreheads, lips and hearts at the beginning of the Gospel. These are the only times we use the Sign of the Cross during Mass. Other gestures intensify our prayer at Mass. During the Confiteor, the action of striking our breasts at the words through my own fault can strengthen my awareness that my sin is my fault. In the Creed we are to bow at the words which commemorate the Incarnation: by the power of the Holy Spirit he was born of the Virgin Mary and became man. This gesture signifies our profound respect and gratitude to Christ who shared our human condition in order to save us from sin and restore us to friendship with God. This gratitude is expressed with even greater solemnity on the Solemnity of the Annunciation of the Lord and on Christmas when we genuflect at these words. The General Instruction also draws attention to the bowing of the head at certain times during the Mass. "An inclination of the head should be made when the three Divine Persons are named, at the name of Jesus, of the Blessed Virgin Mary and of the Saint in whose honor the Mass is celebrated" (GIRM 275). During the Communion Rite, the bishops of the United States have determined that the norm for reception of Holy Communion in the dioceses of the United States is standing. However, communicants should not be denied Holy Communion because they kneel. Rather, such instances should be addressed pastorally, by providing the faithful with proper catechesis on the reasons for this norm (GIRM 160, USA Adaptations). Further, when receiving Holy Communion, we are asked to make a bow of the head before the Sacrament as a gesture of reverence. The consecrated host may be received either on the tongue or in the hand at the discretion of each communicant. When Holy Communion is received under both kinds, the sign of reverence (bowing the head) is also made before receiving the Precious Blood (GIRM 160, USA Adaptations). The General Instruction states that certain postures or gestures should be determined by the Conference of Bishops. Unity in posture and gesture is a primary principle in formulating liturgical directives. Reverence and respect is shown by receiving Holy Communion standing, especially since this action has been preceded by the entire community kneeling after the Lamb of God or Agnus Dei and, in addition, by the communicant’s bow of the head before approaching the priest to receive Holy Communion. Although no one would be denied communion if he or she knelt, the proper norm is standing and any other posture is really an act of disobedience to what the liturgical discipline is providing. In addition to serving as a vehicle for prayer, the postures and gestures the faithful engage in at Mass have another important function. The Church sees in these common postures and gestures both a symbol of the unity of those who have come together to worship and a means of fostering that unity. The Church makes it clear that our unity of posture and gesture is an expression of our participation in the one Body formed by the baptized with Christ, our Head. When we stand, kneel, sit, bow and sign ourselves in common action, we give witness that we are indeed the Mystical Body of Christ, united in body, mind and spirit. We must take great care that the celebration of the Eucharist, which by its very nature signifies unity and charity, never becomes a sign of division through our failure to follow humbly and obediently the liturgical norms given us by the Church. In the unity of membership in the Body of Christ that we receive at Baptism and the communion which is achieved by sharing the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, we are renewed and strengthened so that we may continue to be the light of the world and the salt of the earth, the disciples of Jesus Christ until the day the Bridegroom comes and like the five wise virgins, we enter into our eternal reward. Amen.

Copyright ?2002 Arlington Catholic Herald.  All rights reserved.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2002