Several years ago, my Protestant grandparents asked to attend a Holy Week service. It was a wonderful opportunity to share the beauty of our Catholic faith as well as expose them to the richness of our tradition. I decided to give them the works. So, we attended the Palm Sunday liturgy with Bishop John Noonan at St. James Cathedral. Looking back, I might have been a little over zealous. The Passion Narrative alone was almost 20 minutes long. Not to mention the processions, intercessions and other solemn additions to the liturgy. After Mass, I took my grandparents to meet Bishop. Without any hesitation, my grandfather shook Bishop Noonan’s hand and said with his usual southern twang, “Ya’ll Catholics sure do stand up and sit down a lot dontcha? I’m exhausted.” My grandmother tugged on his arm with a scolding look. Like any good Virginian, she never risks indelicacy. Thankfully, Bishop Noonan is a light-hearted and loving shepherd. He simply chuckled and said, “Yes, yes we do.”
To an outside observer, the rituals and traditions of Catholicism can seem strange and unnecessary. Does it really matter when we stand or sit? Is it that important to bow your head at the name of Jesus or genuflect when crossing the tabernacle? Why do Catholics put so much emphasis on external signs and gestures? The answer – as all things – is found in Jesus Christ.
The fact God became man is often taken for granted. So much time has passed since the Incarnation that we simply accept it without awe. Yet, this reality stunned the ancient world. It was a “stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Greeks” (1 Cor. 1:23). The first 500 years of Catholicism was plagued by heresy because of the Incarnation. People couldn’t get into their heads how the All-mighty, All-powerful God manifested Himself in a baby swaddled at Bethlehem. It took the genius of St. John the Evangelist and St. Paul to unveil the mystery. St. Paul explains it in light of the Book of Genesis, seeing Christ as the new Adam destined to redeem the failures of Eden. Thus, “as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive” (1 Cor. 15:22). St. John takes an entirely different approach, striking at the very essence of divinity itself: “God is love” (1 Jn. 4:8). It is love that drives God’s action; His desire for communion. “For God so loved the world that He sent His only-begotten Son” (Jn. 3:16). With His human body, Jesus knelt, bowed, folded His hands and laid prostrate in prayer.
The Church Fathers will build upon these scriptural reflections by developing a sophisticated and splendorous understanding of the Incarnation. According to the Fathers, God’s decision to reveal the fullness of His glory in the flesh of Christ dignifies the human body to a phenomenal degree. Those who are baptized into Christ surpass even the blissful state of Adam and Eve. They are not only made clean, but also made new. “If anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!” (2 Cor. 5:17). Not only the old order of original sin, but also the old manner of human existence. Our very existence is transformed by the grace of the Holy Spirit. Our flesh is imbued with divine love. Thus, St. Paul calls us the “Body of Christ” (1 Cor. 12:27). This is not metaphorical or merely poetic. It is a reality. As St. Teresa of Avila claims so boldly, “Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good.”
With this in mind, we can more readily appreciate why gestures and movements are so important in worship. As human beings made in God’s likeness and image, we are composed of body and soul, each of which influences the disposition of the other. Furthermore, this flesh and soul has been dignified by Christ so as to become a sacramental sign of His presence in the world through Baptism, Confirmation and Eucharist. This is why the gestures we do at Mass and in prayer matter…a lot. Mother Church is an expert in humanity. She fully appreciates the truth of our redeemed bodies. As such, she knows that bowing is more conducive to reverence then standing erect. Kneeling inspires prayer better than lying down. Sitting attentively evokes listening while standing demands respect. All of these gestures are tools that affirm the goodness of our bodies and their role in worship as well as aid us in our own spiritual attitudes.
Jesus is not a ghost and nor are we. Our flesh must be included and integrated into our prayer. Next time you make the sign of the cross or kneel during the Eucharistic Prayer, do not do so robotically. Make it intentional. Allow your posture to be your prayer and a sign of your adoration. Let your flesh be a visible testament to your love. In so doing, you will prove a valuable source of spiritual enrichment as we join the heavenly hosts on bended knee before Christ Jesus the Lord.
By Father Blake Britton