By Rev. Heather J. Blais, Rector
Today’s teaching sermon is focused on the way we pray with our bodies during worship. This is sometimes playfully referred to as Episcopal Aerobics. We will explore some frequently asked questions, such as: How, when, and why do we…sit, stand, and kneel? …make the sign of the cross? … bow? And what exactly is genuflecting? As we explore this topic, I want to invite us to keep three things in mind.
First and foremost, any and all body prayers are meant to enhance our worship experience; to help draw us closer to the Sacred. If any of it is getting in the way, distracting us from God, then it may be time to set down that practice. Bad knees? Confused about how to make the sign of the cross? Maybe those particular body prayers or gestures are not the ones for you. On the other hand, if those gestures help draw you closer to God - please continue.
The second piece to bear in mind is there are ever so many personal gestures of devotion, and they have a wide variety of symbolic meanings.* If you ask any two people what a particular gesture signifies, you are likely to hear three or four different explanations. What matters is that these gestures are meant to make worship more meaningful for the worshiper. They are a way of remembering and drawing closer to the Sacred.
There is a shadowside to our rich tradition of body prayers. Some of us were taught these are ‘rules’ to be followed with an unspoken ‘or else’. As a young person, I served as an acolyte at an Anglo-Catholic Episcopal parish that regularly used incense, sanctus bells, and a whole lot of body prayers. Carl, a beloved surrogate grandfather figure, served as our church’s Acolyte Master (yes, this was a real title, that a real church gave a real person.) I still poignantly remember one Sunday when the youth acolytes met with Carl, and he was chewing us out. While I can’t imagine he actually yelled at us, that was the general tone and volume. In his eyes, we were sloppy. We didn’t take tight corners, we didn’t bow precisely, we lit the candles in the wrong order, we did not stand or kneel at the right times, and so on. I remember going home crying. While I didn’t understand it at the time, I can now see that for Carl, these rituals were important. For him, they were a way of praising and honoring the Sacred. Yet his insistence that this was the way things had to be left me feeling as though I was somehow failing at following God the ‘right way’.
Yet there is no “right” way to pray with our bodies in worship. Instead, it’s personal preference. I was a bit slow to realize this, but it turns out Jesus of Nazareth did not leave the disciples a handbook about how to pray with our bodies. Rather, these gestures of personal devotion are rituals that have evolved for followers of the Way of Love over the years. All this is to say, do what is helpful, but do not worry in the least about the rest.
Lastly, as Anglicans we know that the way we pray shapes what we believe. The words we pray, the songs we sing, the way we move our bodies - all of it communicates to one another, the world, and God what we know to be true. As we stay awake in our faith, we will see the Holy Spirit at work, and She will expand our theology and understanding of God and God’s world. This is why over the last few years we have incorporated more inclusive and expansive language for God in our liturgies, paying special attention to our call to tend to God’s creation and engage in the ongoing work of racial reconciliation. How we pray with our bodies says something about what we believe to be true, and from time to time, we need to reflect on our practices.
We can ask ourselves:
… What does this body prayer proclaim about the story of God?
… about God’s relationship to the human family or creation?
… Does this body prayer still reflect my beliefs?
… Or has this gesture lost its meaning?
There can also be some cognitive dissonance. Sometimes our muscle memory wins the day, and we keep on praying with our body in ways that no longer reflect our beliefs, but might reflect a ritual we once found meaningful, a bit of comfort food for our souls. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this, but it’s important to be aware of.
Bearing all that in mind, here is a bit about the how, when, and why of some of the body prayers folks use in our tradition. This is not an exhaustive list, so if you see someone doing something that I don’t talk about, I would encourage you to politely inquire what that gesture means to them.
Sit, Stand, Kneel
We sit when we want to listen and reflect, such as during the lessons and sermon. We stand to praise God. We kneel to express our penitence, supplication, and humility. In the early Church, the entire congregation joined the priest in standing in the orans position, which is when we stand with our arms raised and extended like the letter Y, with our palms up. As the Church evolved over the centuries, more attention was focused on personal penitence, and as such, kneeling became customary in many aspects of worship. Traditionally, folks often kneel for the general confession and absolution, during parts of the Great Thanksgiving, the post communion prayer, and to receive the blessing. Yet in more recent liturgical reform, we have returned to the early Church’s practice of standing. This shifted the focus of the eucharist from personal penitence of individuals to a celebration in community. ** My former bishop in the Diocese of Maine, Stephen Lane, has been known to say, “Stop Kneeling! We’re a resurrected people!” Ultimately though, the prayer book invites us to stand or kneel—what really matters is to hold the posture that helps you draw closer to God and know that both standing and kneeling are always welcomed.
The Sign of the Cross
The practice of making the sign of the cross on one’s forehead dates back to the second century, and is a form of personal piety. Cyril of Jerusalem, a theologian of the early Church, wrote about the sign of the cross in the third century. He wrote:
“Let us not then be ashamed to confess the Crucified. Be the Cross our seal made with boldness by our fingers on our brow, and on everything; over the bread we eat, and the cups we drink; in our comings in, and goings out; before our sleep, when we lie down and when we rise up; when we are in the way, and when we are still. Great is that preservative; it is without price, for the sake of the poor; without toil, for the sick; since also its grace is from God. It is the Sign of the faithful, and the dread of devils…”***
To make the sign of the cross, one touches their fingertips to their forehead, chest, left breast, and then right breast. Many of us also finish the sign of the cross by returning to our chest. In the Orthodox Church, you’ll see the cross be made from right to left. As we make the sign of the cross, we are praying with or without words, “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.”
There are many times one might make the sign of the cross in our worship, such as when we proclaim God with us at the opening acclamation; at the end of the Nicene Creed; during the benedictus, when we sing, ‘blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord’; whenever a pray says ‘bless us’ such as during the eucharistic prayer; before receiving the eucharist; during the blessing, and so on. Some also make the sign when they enter or leave a church, and many other instances when it helps remind one of God’s presence in and among us.
We also have another special version of a sign of the cross that is used before the gospel is proclaimed. One makes a small cross on their forehead, then their lips, and finally their heart. This gesture is a prayer asking for Christ to be with us in our thinking, speaking, and understanding.
Bowing is an ancient act of reverence.**** Some bow at the name of Jesus at various times in worship. Some bow when the processional cross goes by or when they approach the altar. Still others will bow at the words of institution when the bread and wine are elevated. Others bow when the mystery of the incarnation is mentioned during the Creed. These are all acts of honoring God.
Genuflecting is an alternative act of reverence that developed in the eleventh century. This involves briefly touching a knee to the floor, while keeping one’s upper body upright, and then returning to a standing position. I’m not going to demonstrate it as I have the knees of a former basketball player who dove for balls without abandon. Though I welcome live demonstrations at Coffee & Conversation.
Turning our Bodies
There are a few important times when we turn our bodies in worship. By tradition, the Gospel is read from the center of the congregation, so the word of God will be proclaimed with the people, not at them. Worshippers customarily stand and face the Gospel book to signify our heightened attention to this most important reading. If you have ever been to a Jewish worship service, you may have observed how closely our Gospel procession resembles the Jewish tradition of bearing the Torah scroll into the midst of the congregation. Similarly, some folks will turn their body in the direction of the recessional, as the procession leads the congregation back out into the world.
Every week our service transitions from the liturgy of the word to the liturgy of the table with the Peace. The Peace is an ancient Christian practice where we share a sign of reconciliation, love, and renewed relationships in the Christian community by greeting one another “with a Holy Kiss” as it says in scripture. These days we tend to instead offer a handshake or nod our heads and smile. During the pandemic we shifted away from our practice of handshakes or hugging, and instead began to offer one another the Peace sign or a nod. While it is perfectly fine to return to handshake, I would invite us to do so with a sensitivity and awareness that sometimes folks do not want to hug or shake hands. Make it a habit to read people’s body language, and always ask before moving in for a hug or handshake.
While there are more movements we could dive into, let us leave our Episcopal aerobics there for now. More than the how or why of any particular body prayer, what I hope we might take from this teaching sermon is that:
**** Learn more: https://www.stjvny.org/the-body-language-of-worship
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