What our liturgy means
Liturgy is public worship which the Catholic Church makes every effort to incorporate and involve our senses and our entire being into our act of worship.
In this article, I invite us to think about the importance and significance of some postures and gestures in the celebration of the Holy Eucharist. We are all very aware of our Catholic calisthenics which are a routine part of the Liturgy, namely sitting, standing, bowing, kneeling and silence at various times.
These postures serve an important purpose and reveal the importance of the action taking place. When we enter the church and make the sign of the cross; let it be a real sign of the cross. Instead of a small overcrowded gesture that gives no notion of its meaning, let us make a large unhurried sign, from forehead to breast, from shoulder to shoulder, consciously feeling how it includes the whole of us, our thoughts, our attitudes, our body and soul, every part of us at once, how it consecrates and sanctifies us. Upon entering and leaving the church, we face the Tabernacle where Jesus is reposed and genuflect.
A genuflection, made by bending the right knee to the ground, is a sign of adoration. It is therefore reserved for the Most Blessed Sacrament. This act requires that it be performed in a recollected way. In order that the heart may bow before God in profound reverence, the genuflection must be neither hurried nor careless. Our faith, devotion, and reverence at Mass is further manifested through the various gestures and postures (standing, kneeling, sitting, bowing) prescribed by the church, as we express in a unified exterior manner what the interior disposition holds so dearly. These gestures and postures have profound meaning and when done with understanding, can enhance our personal participation at Mass. Sitting may be seen as our “learning” mode. We think of the various times at which we sit during the Sacred Liturgy, in particular, the Scripture readings from the Old and New Testaments as well as during the homily.
Standing may be seen as our “preparing” mode: We stand at various times during the Liturgy, most importantly when we are preparing to receive the Lord in His Word through the proclamation of the
Gospel and receiving His Body and Blood in Holy Communion. Kneeling is an expression of our humble submission before the majesty of God, penance and a spirit of repentance, adoration and reverence in prayer. We kneel, when we reach our pews for personal prayer. We also kneel during part of the Eucharistic Prayer.
Folding our hands; our hands, like every part of the body, is an expressive instrument of the soul. When we enter into ourselves and the soul is alone with God, our hands closely interlock, finger clasped in the finger, in a gesture of compression and control. The Ceremonial of Bishops (Caeremoniale piscoporum), published in 1985, prescribes the manner of folding hands: “palms extended and joined together in front of the breast, with the right thumb over the left in the form of a cross”. This action reflects a sign of intimate and personal prayer to God.
Silence has its place and importance as a help toward the promotion of the required interior disposition to prayer. “At the proper times, all should observe a reverent silence”, the constitution of the sacred liturgy (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 30). A period of silence before Mass begins is help to recollection. After the readings and the homily, a suitable period of silence can help us to meditate and interiorize what we have heard. We should refrain from chatting away… or SMSing on the phone. Silence helps us to bask in the indescribable glory of the Blessed Sacrament.
We can often compare our sacred actions with similar secular actions. For example, those serving in the military saluting an officer of higher rank;
removing one’s hat and holding a hand over his or her heart when the flag of our nation passes by or the National Anthem is sung; raising one’s right hand when taking an oath; standing up to show courtesy and respect for others. Just as these actions and gestures have important significance and meaning to us, so too do the actions, postures, and gestures that the Church incorporates into her worship of God. In celebrating the Sacred Liturgy, we know that some actions or gestures are intended for all those present, while other actions or gestures are reserved to the principal celebrant, concelebrating priests, or deacons. The distinction of these gestures reflect the role of each person participating in the action of the Liturgy.
Some of the common gestures for the assembly, the principal celebrant and concelebrants, and other liturgical ministers are the genuflection, blessing one’s self with the Sign of the Cross at various times; making the Sign of the Cross on one’s forehead, lips, and breast at the introduction of the Gospel; and bowing the head at different times during the Liturgy, in particular during the words commemorating the Incarnation when the Profession of Faith is offered. There is also the lesser known tradition of bowing one’s head out of respect when the three Divine Persons. Those who share in the Sacrament of Holy Orders reverence the altar with a kiss
A gesture reserved to the principal celebrant is the extension of the hands during the various greetings.
As a sign of unity within the priesthood, the principal celebrant and concelebrating priests extend their hands together at different times during the Eucharistic Prayer, during the offering of the Lord’s Prayer, or for a blessing.
NOTE: THERE IS NO PLACE OF EXTENDING HANDS DURING MASS FOR THE LAY PEOPLE.
These are just a few examples of the many important actions and gestures which are part of the Liturgy. Our worship as Catholics is very “rich” with signs, symbols, and gestures, many of which have ancient origins. The next time you attend Mass, Make these actions and gestures part of your own personal participation in the Liturgy and offer them with care, devotion, and sincerity. They are not just simple and empty actions but reveal to us the great Mystery of God.
By: Rev. Fr. David Mbugua Kinyanjui
The writer is the priest in charge of Liturgy
Holy Family Basilica