Sit, Stand, Kneel, Stand: Catholic Aerobics
What is all this standing, kneeling, and changing positions during the Mass? It’s a common question asked by many non-Catholics. However, if you get right down to it, most of us Catholics can fall into the trap of just going through the motions without giving them much thought. So what gives? Why do we do all this? Let’s see if we can answer these questions in the next few paragraphs.
Why do Catholics do that?
The first thing that we must recognize is that every action which occurs during the Mass happens for a reason. In fact, Catholic actions and architecture have long served as the church’s first teaching tools and the Catholic liturgy is specifically designed to engage all five senses. Close your eyes and think about it. We utilize various liturgical colors (green, purple, rose (pink), white, and red) which engage our sight. Our nostrils are filled with the scent of incense. Bells and music fill our hearing. We shake hands and move our bodies engaging the sense of touch. Finally, the experience culminates with Holy Communion when receive our Lord and taste his goodness.
In other words, all the smells, bells, and Catholic calisthenics have meaning. In fact, they are all prescribed (that is specified) in the General Instruction of the Roman Missal or commonly called the GIRM. The GIRM is exactly what it sounds like, an instruction manual. It lays out in detail all of the actions taken by the priest, deacon, and congregation. A copy of the General Instruction of the Roman Missal can be found at: http://www.usccb.org/prayer-and-worship/the-mass/general-instruction-of-the-roman-missal/
Why have a GIRM?
“The gestures and bodily posture of both the Priest, the Deacon, and the ministers, and also of the people, must be conducive to making the entire celebration resplendent with beauty and noble simplicity, to making clear the true and full meaning of its different parts, and to fostering the participation of all.” (General Instruction of the Roman Missal, paragraph 42)
The church takes time to specify our actions in the GIRM in order to make worship more beautiful and more meaningful. One can think of it like the rules of etiquette which exist not as rules for the sake of rules, but to put us at ease in social situations. Hence, by observing a set of common customs, etiquette allows us to more fully engage those around us. In the same way, the common actions set forth in the GIRM set forth norms which allow us to worship in greater unity and freedom.
What are the most common actions?
In a short post like this, we can’t possibly spell out the meaning behind every gesture, but we can hope to tackle some of the most common gestures we encounter.
Genuflection: Genuflection is a sign of reverence. It is the bending of the knee to our King. This may not be a common custom for those of us raised in democracy, but Kings and Queens of old have long been recognized in this way. We genuflect by facing the tabernacle and touching our right knee to the ground. It is the presence of our Lord and King that we recognize with this sign. That is why we only genuflect to the tabernacle and to no other item within the church.
Standing: Standing is a symbol of honor and respect. It plays a critical role throughout the Mass. We stand as the priest processes toward the altar as the Mass begins and as he processes out after Mass. This is because the priest is himself a sign of Christ passing by.
Likewise, we stand at the Gospel. A sign of the special status of the Gospels within the word of God. This reemphasizes the dignity with which the church regards the sacred scriptures for “When the Sacred Scriptures are read in the Church, God himself speaks to his people, and Christ, present in his word, proclaims the Gospel.” (General Instruction of the Roman Missal, paragraph 29)
We also stand for the Proclamation of Faith (praying of the Creed) and the Universal prayer (petitions) as a sign of reverence for the teachings we hold so dear and for which so many martyrs have died.
Sit: Sitting is the posture of receptivity. It is the position we assume during times of listening. We sit through the first and second reading, the recitation of the Psalm, and during the homily. It should be noted that it is a posture of receptivity and not of rest. Our sitting posture should be alert and engaged in order to promote our reception of the word of God and the lessons provided by the homily.
Kneeling: Kneeling has a long and varied history and has taken on different meanings in different eras. “In the early Church, kneeling signified penance. So thoroughly was kneeling identified with penance that the early Christians were forbidden to kneel on Sundays and during the Easter season, when the prevailing spirit of the Liturgy was one of joy and thanksgiving. In the Middle Ages kneeling came to signify homage, and more recently this posture has come to signify adoration, especially before the presence of Christ in the Eucharist.” (USCCB Praying with Body, Mind, and Voice http://www.usccb.org/_cs_upload/prayer-and-worship/the-mass/94380_1.pdf)
Hence in the United States, we presently kneel during the consecration as prescribed in the GIRM, “In the Dioceses of the United States of America, they should kneel beginning after the singing or recitation of the Sanctus (Holy, Holy, Holy) until after the Amen of the Eucharistic Prayer, except when prevented on occasion by ill health, or for reasons of lack of space, of the large number of people present, or for another reasonable cause. (General Instruction of the Roman Missal, paragraph 43). This makes perfect sense because the consecration is the point at which Christ is made present in the bread and the wine.
From a physical perspective kneeling is also a unique posture. It contains a submissive quality that is appropriate to man’s relationship with God. It is also the posture of begging and so it seems suitable for times of prayer in which we place our needs before God. Finally, it is a position which requires significant physical exertion. As such, kneeling forces an element of alertness. For example, one would be hard pressed to fall asleep while kneeling. Thus, it is fitting to associate kneeling with the consecration as this is the highest moment of prayer within the Mass. It is a moment in which we should wish to remain alert so as to witness the mystery of redemption unfolding in front of us.
Bowing: Bowing is a sign of reverence and of gratitude. It is noteworthy that we are encouraged to bow during the creed when we recite our belief that Christ “was born of the Virgin Mary and became man”. Hence we show our gratitude for the momentous gift of the incarnation.
The Sign of the Cross: Making the sign of the cross is a form of marking ourselves. It sets us apart and reaffirms that we belong to the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. When combined with holy water, it reminds us of our baptism. We also make the sign of the cross over our forehead, lips, and heart prior to the reading of the Gospel. In this way, we mark our thoughts, our words, and our hearts for the reception of the word of God.
There are many more actions that could be discussed, but reflecting on and performing even these few actions with renewed reverence can transform our participation and bring new meaning to the Mass. The USCCB’s Praying with Body, Mind, and Voice is another great resource if you want to delve deeper into these and other gestures. It can be found at http://www.usccb.org/_cs_upload/prayer-and-worship/the-mass/94380_1.pdf