Bodily gestures are the principal means by which one expresses the highest forms of one's spiritual, intellectual, and artistic experiences, and the principal ways in which humans communicate with each other. Rite and ceremony have been used by all religions both to intensify and to communicate the interior dispositions of the soul. Gestures, no less than words, are a part of human language, the one appealing to sight, the other to hearing—the two senses closest to the intellect and therefore closest to the spiritual life. Each is a language unto itself, yet normally they depend upon each other for the full expression of one's inner self—words calling upon gestures to give them greater force, intensity, and eloquence, and gestures calling upon words to make their meaning more articulate. Any act or movement of the human body becomes a gesture when it gives expression to meaning within an interpersonal relationship. Liturgical gestures in their turn express specific meanings within the relationship between God and human persons in community celebrations.
Christian Use. Christian prayer demands a profound engagement of the human body because the mystery of the Incarnation—the Word became flesh and gave humanity a share in the social life of the Trinity, expressed in the communal life of the Mystical Body. For Christians, the mystery of the Incarnation is the reason for sacramentalizing the human body. Human gestures play an extensive role throughout the entire liturgy. The use of bodily gesture in the prayer life of the Church is simply an imitation of Christ himself who in prayer lifted his eyes to heaven, prostrated himself, etc.; who used gestures as a means to perform his miracles when a simple word would have sufficed; who taught by means of such gestures as the washing of the feet of his disciples; and who finally offered his entire body in the perfect act of worship on the cross.
In particular, there are three ways in which the human body, through the use of gestures, enters into the liturgical action of the Church: by giving expression to the sentiments and dispositions of the soul, as in extending the hands, bowing, or kneeling; by performing an action upon an external object, as in anointings and blessings; and by being acted upon in such a way that it becomes sanctified, as in baptismal immersion or the laying on of hands.
However, if gestures are to be meaningful and our use of them intelligent, their real significance must be properly understood. For this two extremes must be avoided. One is the excessively allegorical interpretation found in a number of medieval authors, such as amalarius of Metz (d. 850) and Bernold of Constance (d.1100), which was popular up to the 17th century. Like the allegorical exegesis of the Bible characteristic of some of the early Church Fathers, this method projects into liturgical gesture arbitrary, subjective, mystical, and piously moralistic significance that ignores its actual historical origin or its objective basic symbolism. Thus, to cite only one example, a great variety of meanings were attributed to the gesture of breaking the host into three parts: the Blessed Trinity, the three parts of the Church, the wounds of Christ in the three parts of His body, the three travelers on the road to Emmaus, etc. The other extreme is exemplified by Dom Claude de Vert [Explication simple, littérale et historique des cérémonies de l'Église, 4 v. (Paris 1706–13)], who tried to eliminate all symbolism from liturgical ceremonies by explaining their origin in terms of practical necessity or convenience. Later, Pierre Le Brun succeeded in avoiding these two extreme positions by taking into account both symbolic and functional aspects [Explication littérale, historique et dogmatique des prières et des cérémonies de la Messe, 4 v. (Paris 1716–25)].
Kinds. In the light of objective and realistic analysis, liturgical actions can be grouped into three main categories. First of all, there are actions that serve functional purposes of utility, convenience, or fittingness, such as the ablutions of the chalice and the fingers of the priest after Communion. Then there are interpretative actions that express the natural human inclination to communicate by combining words and gestures, such as kneeling as a sign of penitence. Third, there are purely symbolic actions, such as the presentation of the white robe and the lighted candle to the newly baptized. It is also possible to divide all liturgical actions into postures and gestures.
Standing. In modern times kneeling has become generally accepted as the most appropriate attitude for prayer. In antiquity, however, and for many centuries in the Church, standing was considered to be the most normal posture, and it is still so considered by the liturgy, except for times and ceremonies that call for a special expression of penance and humble adoration. Even today many of the older basilicas do not have pews or kneelers. Standing was considered by the Jews as the most fitting attitude in praying to the Lord (Ex 33.8, 10; Sir 50.12–13; 1 Sm 1.26; Ps 135.2; Mt 6.5; Mk 11.25; Lk 18.11) and in listening to Him speak (Ex 19.17; Neh 8.5). That the early Christians adopted this custom as the normal attitude for prayer is evident not only from the many images of the "orante" in the catacombs and on ancient sarcophagi, but also from the testimony of early ecclesiastical writers: Justin (Apologia 1.67; J. Quasten, ed., Monumenta eucharista et liturgica vetustissima 19), Tertullian (De corona militis 3; Patrologia Latina, ed. J. P. Migne, 2:99), and Cyprian (De dominica oratione 31; Corpus scriptorum ecclesiasticorum latinorum 3.1:289). St. Benedict made standing the official posture for chanting the psalms.
For the early Christians, as for the pagans and the Jews, standing was a natural expression of respect and reverence. But for the Christians, as is evident in the writings of the Fathers, it had the added significance of the new dignity, the liberty of the children of God, the freedom from slavery and sin through Baptism and participation in the Resurrection, which makes it possible to stand confidently before God with eyes and arms uplifted to Him. As the Second Eucharistic Prayer of the Roman Rite puts it: "We thank you for counting us worthy to stand before you and serve you." For Tertullian (De oratione 23; Patrologia Latina 1:1191) kneeling was a sign of atonement and penance, whereas standing signified joy, and for this reason standing was customary throughout the Easter and Pentecost season; it was contrary to Church discipline to kneel on Sundays (De corona militis 3; Patrologia Latina 2:99). As a matter of fact, the first Council of nicaea explicitly made standing obligatory on Sundays and during the Easter season (c.20; J. D. Mansi, Sacrorum Conciliorum nova et amplissima collectio 2:719–20). Something of this prescription still exists in the custom of standing for the Angelus on Saturday evening and throughout Sunday, and also for the regina caeli during paschal time. Because the day consecrated to the Resurrection is a kind of image of the future world, the attitude of standing had for the early Christians an eschatological meaning: it was considered the proper attitude for those awaiting with confidence the Parousia. In a very special way, standing was considered proper for the exercise of the priesthood.
Sitting. This is the normal position of an official teacher, of a presiding officer, of a judge, and of a person of special dignity in the presence of others of lower rank. The word "cathedral" comes from the Latin word cathedra, a throne or seat, which, as the place where a bishop presides and teaches, symbolizes his jurisdiction and his functions. When the pope teaches infallibility he speaks ex cathedra. And formerly, rubrics provided for the bishop and priests to be seated during certain liturgical functions, but excluded all other ministers, even the deacons, from assuming this position. Sitting is a normal attitude for both speaker and listener. The Child Jesus was found seated in the midst of the doctors of the temple (Lk 2.46). Mary sat at the feet of Jesus listening to His words (Lk 10.39). There are indications in Scripture that, for both the Jews and the early Christians, a sitting position was customary for listening to readings and the sermon, while standing was the usual practice for prayer (Lk 4.16–20; Jn 8.2; Acts 20.9; 1 Cor 14.30). Similar indications are found in Justin (Apologia 1.67; Monumenta eucharista et liturgica vetustissima 19) and in the Apostolic Constitutions (8.6.2; Monumenta eucharista et liturgica vetustissima 199). Sitting has become a more common attitude in prayer in modern times, especially since pews were introduced into churches after the 16th century, as a result of the influence of the Reformation, whose services concentrated almost exclusively on the hearing of the Word of God. More recent rubrics have emphasized the position of sitting as the proper attitude for listening to God's Word, except for the Gospel, when the special dignity of the Word of God calls for the more respectful attitude of standing.
Kneeling. Though it is especially in the last few centuries that kneeling has become the most popular position of the body in prayer, the almost instinctive practice of kneeling at prayer goes back to the Old Testament (1 Kgs8.54; Dn 6.11) and is found in many pagan religions. This has been especially true in private prayer, and more particularly in times of especially intense prayer. Christ Himself prayed on His knees during the agony in the garden (Lk 22.41); Stephen knelt to pray before his martyrdom (Acts 7.60). The kneeling posture was introduced in the liturgy principally as a sign of humble supplication, sorrow, and a penitential spirit, incompatible with a time of joy, such as Eastertide, but especially suitable for times of fasting (Tertullian, De oratione 23; Patrologia Latina 1:1191). Reminders of the special connection between kneeling and fasting still exist in the liturgy, as, for example, the Flectamus genua of Good Friday. In the course of time, kneeling was reinterpreted more and more a sign of profound adoration, and this is now its most predominant meaning. For this reason the rubrics now prescribe this posture especially for adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. It would seem that the growing practice of adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, resulting from the effort of the Counter Reformation to emphasize the Real Presence, has been one of the main reasons why kneeling, rather than standing, has in modern times become the most characteristic attitude of prayer.
Genuflection. The gesture of bending the knee is of ancient origin dating back to pre-Christian times. Its primary significance among the pagans, especially those of the Roman Empire, was that of adoration and worship, and it was used as a salutation to the gods and to the "divine" rulers, particularly the emperor. Because of this pagan religious significance, it was not used by the early Christians. When, however, it eventually lost this religious significance and began to be used simply as a sign of respect and courtesy for those in high authority, it was first used by Christians as a sign of reverence for popes and bishops [T. Klauser, The Western Liturgy and Its History (London 1952) 27], later for the altar, the crucifix, and relics and images of Christ and the saints. During the early centuries the profound bow, rather than genuflection, was prescribed by the Church as the customary act of adoration, and this practice has persisted in the Eastern Churches. In some places in the West, genuflection was explicitly forbidden since it recalled the mockery of Christ in his Passion. In the 11th century, however, it began to be introduced as an act of adoration of the Blessed Sacrament in reaction to the errors of berengarius of tours. It was not until the 16th century that it entered the liturgy of the Mass. In 1502 it was introduced into the Ordo Missae of John Burchard and 70 years later into the Missale Romanum of Pius V.
Bows. Bowing is a gesture that is, in a sense, something between standing erect and genuflecting, and it has, generally speaking, the same significance as the latter: humble supplication and above all adoration when directed toward God, reverence and veneration when directed toward persons of high rank or objects. An instinctive expression of one's inner feelings and a common gesture in ancient pagan rites, it was introduced early into Christian prayer and became one of the most commonly used gestures in the liturgy, often on occasions for which genuflection has now been substituted in the Latin Church. It is used both to express and to intensify a variety of religious sentiments: adoration and reverence in prayer, and respect for sacred objects, particularly the altar and the crucifix.
Prostration. This is a more intense, total, and dramatic way of expressing the same sentiments expressed in genuflection: adoration, penance, and supplication. It was common among ancient peoples and especially the Jews (Gn 17.3; Dt 9.18; Neh 8.6; Tb 12.16; Jdt 9.1; 10.1; 2 Mc 10.4). It is also found in the New Testament (Mt 17.6; 26.29). There are indications that it was a fairly common form of penance during the early centuries of the Church (Tertullian, De poenitentia 9.2; Patrologia Latina 1:1243–44). For a time and in certain places, it was the customary way of venerating the altar at the beginning of Mass. It is now restricted to only a few ceremonies of special solemnity: the beginning of the Good Friday liturgy (probably a relic of the ancient prostration before Mass), ordination to major orders, the blessing of abbots, and monastic profession.
Facing the East. A special orientation at prayer, particularly in the direction of the rising sun, was extremely common in ancient pagan rites, especially in those which worshiped the sun as a god. The Jews turned toward the Temple in Jerusalem when they prayed (Dn 6.11). In adopting this custom the Christians gave it a number of new meanings: the sun was the symbol of the light that is Christ; He is the Oriens ex alto (Lk 1.79), the Sun of Justice; He had ascended into heaven in the east and was expected to return from there (Mt 24.27); the Garden of Paradise was supposed to be located in the east (Apostolic Constitutions 2.57.14; Monumenta eucharista et liturgica vetustissima 184–85). This practice remained largely Eastern and it gained only a limited and temporary acceptance in the West, through Byzantine and Gallican influences, in the construction of churches oriented toward the east, and in the custom of celebrants facing in that direction while at prayer. It fell gradually into disuse with the lessening of expectancy of the second coming of Christ, though in some places it lingered on in private devotion in the Middle Ages.
The Orans Position. Since it has always been a universal feeling that the dwelling place of God is above the sky, the upward movement of the soul is naturally accompanied by corresponding gesture of standing with outstretched hands, a.k.a. the orans position. These gestures were common among the pagans and the Jews (Ex 9.29; Ps 28.2; 63.5; Is 1.15). They were used by early Christians [1 Tm 2.8 Tertullian, Liber apologeticus 30 (Patrologia Latina 1:422); Clement of Rome, Epist. 1 ad Cor. 29 (Patrologica Graeca, ed. J. P. Migne, 1:270)].
Among all the organs of the body, the hands, after the tongue, are the most effective instruments for communicating the thoughts and sentiments of the soul. It is not surprising, then, that the liturgy pays a great deal of attention to the movements of the hands and tries to make full use of their capacity to express the relations of the soul with God. Just as the modern practice of kneeling has obscured the fact that standing is the much more traditional attitude, so the modern custom of joining the hands makes us lose sight of the fact that formerly the orans position was a much more common gesture. There are evidences that joining the hands was known in private prayer in the 9th century; there are no examples of it in Christian monuments until the 12th century; and it was about this time that it began to be used in the liturgy. It seems to be derived from the Frankish feudal custom for a vassal to present himself to his lord with folded hands, and in that context it signified subjection and submission (M. Righetti, Manuale di storia liturgica 1:231). It may also be taken to symbolize recollection and fervor.
Standing erect with arms outstretched was the favorite posture in the early ages of the Church. This gesture was taken to represent the posture of Christ on the cross when He offered the supreme prayer of sacrifice (Tertullian, De oratione 14; Patrologia Latina 1:1169–70). For this reason, until the end of the 15th century, it was prescribed for the Mass, particularly during the Canon, and more especially during the time immediately following the Consecration. In a somewhat modified form it perdures in the present Mass at the orations, the Canon, and the lord's prayer. It is also found in the ascetical practices of some religious communities. Thus, through the raising of his hands, one is able to express in an intense manner, one's identification with the sacrifice of Christ, the lifting up of one's whole being to God, one's dependence upon God, and confident waiting for God's answer, and the opening out of one's soul to God.
Imposition of Hands. This gesture is, in a sense, the primary and most important of all the liturgical gestures because of the essential role it plays in the sacramental action of the Church. Though widely used outside its sacramental role, its special importance and dignity is evidenced by the fact that its use has always been restricted to bishops and clerics. The human hands play such an important role in almost all human activities that they have traditionally been considered symbols of strength, power, and dignity, and of the communication of these qualifies. This is why Scripture speaks so frequently of the arm of God and of the right hand of the Lord. The imposition of hands, not unknown among the ancient pagans, was widely used in the Old and New Testament.
Striking the Breast. Already familiar to the ancient Hebrews and pagans, this gesture is found in the New Testament in the well-known parable of the tax collector (Lk 18.13) and in the reaction of the Jews to the death of Christ on the cross (Lk 23.48). At an early date it became a part of Christian piety as a symbol of sorrow for sin, the root of which was considered to be in the heart (Augustine, Sermo 67.1; Patrologia Latina 38:433). It is always with this meaning that it is prescribed by the rubrics of the Mass for the Confiteor (I confess).
Vatican II. Vatican Council II in the Constitution on Liturgy gave clear directives that liturgical gestures be expressive of the divine realities that they signify, and at the same time that these gestures be adapted to contemporary needs (Sacrosanctum Concilium 21, 62; Gaudium et spes 4–10 shows that implementation means more than simply changing a former ritual for a revised one).
It is evident that Baptism by immersion more clearly expresses the inner faith reality of dying and rising with Christ (Sacrosanctum Concilium 6) than does Baptism by pouring a trickle of water on the forehead. Christian Initiation admits the non-Christian into the mysteries of Christ and into the faith community as well (Chr InitAd 19, 2). This is expressed very well when celebrant and members of the assembly—at least sponsors and catechists—sign each of the five senses of the candidate when he/she is admitted to the first step of the catechumenate (ibid. 85).
The General Instruction of the Roman Missal also concerns itself with Vatican II's call for more authentic liturgical gestures. The kiss of peace has been reinstated as an expression of the state of full reconciliation and forgiveness (Gen Instr RomMissal 56, b). There is mention that "the sign of Communion," as the eschatological banquet, "is more complete when given under both kinds" (ibid. 240). Also "the nature of the sign demands that the material for the Eucharistic celebration appear as actual food" (ibid. 283).
Emphasis on the gesture of laying on of hands in the Sacrament of Reconciliation further carries out the Council's concern for meaningful gestures. The Praenotanda of the revised Rite of Penance, give the directive: "… the priest extends his hands or at least his right hand, over the penitent and pronounces the formula of absolution" (Rite of Penance Intro 19). This gesture is encouraging as it reassures the penitent in a kindly human way of safety from evil by the power of Jesus' death and resurrection. Such directives on meaningful gestures exemplify the richness of the instructions accompanying the liturgical rites in their revisions since Vatican II.
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