LITURGY CORNER #10
Psalm 134:1: "Come, bless the LORD, all...who stand...in the house of the LORD!" Psalm 95:6: "O come, let us worship and bow down, let us kneel before the LORD, our Maker!" Acts 13:14: "And on the sabbath day they went into the synagogue and sat down."
What do these different passages have in common? Among other things, they demonstrate an important fact about our relationship with God--it includes our bodies, even in terms of how we pray. Including the body in our prayer is a long-standing (pardon the pun) part of our tradition. There is the tendency among some folks to treat human beings as if we were only spirit, like angels trapped in skin, but the Church reminds us of our being created in the image and likeness of God, and how our humanity came to its most perfect expression in the Incarnation of Jesus. The Church insists that the fullness of who we are must be part of our worship, as St. Paul points out in First Thessalonians, 5:23: "May the God of peace himself sanctify you wholly; may your spirit, soul, and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ." We can see this approach at Mass. We use gestures and postures to involve ourselves more fully in our act of worship to God. We make the Sign of the Cross at the beginning and as we receive the final blessing. We make the three-fold Sign of the Cross as we prepare to receive the Gospel. We sit to hear the first and second readings from the Word of God, we stand to pray and to give special honor to the Gospel, we kneel to adore and to show respect and honor for the Eucharistic prayer and the Real Presence of our Savior. All of these physically involve us as we worship God. The Church's hope for us is that as we involve ourselves physically in our worship, this would reflect our total interior concentration on the glorious Divine Mystery being made present to us. Obviously, this doesn't always happen, in the sense that we are not always consciously as present to the Mass as we could be, but the more we understand about our actions during the Mass, the more we can cooperate with the grace of Jesus during those times.
How are the decisions made in terms of what posture is appropriate for what part of the Mass? For the Mass as it is celebrated today, that process begins with Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Second Vatican Council's Constitution on the Liturgy. In paragraph #30, it states: "To promote active participation, the people should be encouraged to take part by means of...actions, gestures, and bodily attitudes." This is then more concretely spelled out in the General Instruction on the Roman Missal, the instruction that is the Church's basic 'how-to' book on the celebration of the Mass. In paragraph #21, the GIRM relates the different postures that are, based on our understanding of what the Lord is doing at that point, appropriate for the different parts of the Mass. For example, as the Psalm cited above and many other examples in the Scripture demonstrate, an appropriate posture for praying is that we stand. We see this in the Mass: we stand to address our God, whether through the person of the priest, as in the Opening Prayer, the Prayer Over the Gifts, and the Post-communion Prayer, or when the congregation as a whole joins in the prayer, as in the Lord Have Mercy, the Prayers of the Faithful, and the Our Father. There had been a question about whether or not to stand during the Prayer Over the Gifts. Because the presider is formally addressing God in the name of the whole community, it is appropriate for us to stand during that time in the Mass. This question was addressed to the Sacred Congregation for Worship, the Roman Congregation that has responsibilities for our sacramental/liturgical life, and they responded: "The people stand while the presidential prayers are being said, therefore, during the prayer over the gifts." (Documents on the Liturgy, Reply #2 to Paragraph 21 of the GIRM).
Another posture of importance during the Mass is kneeling. We kneel during the great prayer of the Church, the Eucharistic Prayer. As we do this, we acknowledge the significance of the Church's most important prayer and we give God the adoration, reverence, and honor He deserves. This raises the issue about kneeling when there are no kneelers and frequently no room to kneel otherwise. The GIRM says: "They (the people) should kneel at the consecration unless prevented by lack of space...or some other good reason." (#21) Addressing this issue, that same Roman Congregation cited above replied: "There is nothing to prevent the faithful from kneeling on the floor to show their adoration, no matter how uncomfortable this may be. In cases where kneeling is not possible, a deep bow and a respectful bearing are signs of reverence and adoration to be shown at the time of the consecration and communion." (DOL, Reply #3 to paragraph #21 of the GIRM.) Let us plead with Jesus for the grace to come to understand the mind and heart of the Church on these matters and simply act accordingly, in obedience to Him. It may help to remind us that the rubrics, that is, the instructions in the Mass that guide the specific parts of the celebration, e.g. when to kneel, stand, etc., reflect the Church's understanding of the mind of Jesus concerning how the Mass is celebrated, and are not to simply be set aside. Jesus will guide us as we seek His grace. Let us ask Him to continue to give us wisdom about the Mass, that we may know best how to glorify God in our midst!