(Following is the second in a four part series on the Revised General Instruction of the Roman Missal. Click here to read Part 1.)
The Eucharistic celebration, which lies at the center of the whole Christian life (GIRM 16), is not initiated by us but by God Himself. It becomes our action to the extent that we give ourselves to this mystery of redemptive worship. Even when the presence and participation of the faithful is not possible, however, the Mass still retains its effectiveness and worth because it is the action of Christ and the Church, in which the priest fulfills his own principal office and always acts on behalf of the people’s salvation (GIRM 19).
In the celebration of the Mass, the faithful are a holy people, a chosen people, a royal priesthood: they give thanks to God and offer the Victim not only through the hands of the priest but also together with him, and they learn to offer themselves. They should endeavor to make this clear by their deep sense of reverence for God and their charity towards their brothers and sisters who share with them in the Eucharistic celebration (GIRM 95). They should become one Body, whether by hearing the Word of God, or joining in prayers and liturgical song, or above all by offering the sacrifice together and sharing in the Lord’s table (GIRM 96).
Because we are creatures of body and soul, our prayer is not confined to our minds, hearts and voices, but is expressed by our bodies as well. During Mass, therefore, we assume different postures: standing, kneeling, sitting, and we are invited to make a variety of gestures. These postures and gestures are not merely ceremonial. They have profound meaning and, when done with reverence, can enhance our personal participation in the Mass.
Standing is a sign of respect and honor, so we stand as the celebrant, who represents Christ, enters and leaves the assembly. We stand until the end of the Opening Prayer; for the singing of the Alleluia or verse before the Gospel reading; while the Gospel itself is proclaimed; during the Profession of Faith and the General Intercessions; from the invitatory, “Pray, brethren, that our sacrifice…,” before the Prayer over the Gifts; from the end of the Great Amen until the verse “This is the Lamb of God…”; for the Closing Prayer until the end of the Mass.
The posture of kneeling signifies penance and the awareness of our sins, homage and reverence to Our Lord, and adoration of the One God. It is for this reason that the bishops of the United States have prescribed the posture of kneeling for the entire Eucharistic Prayer: that is, from the end of the “Holy, holy, holy” (or Sanctus) until after the “Amen” of the Eucharistic Prayer, except when prevented on occasion (not regularly) by reasons of health, lack of space, the large number of people present, or some other good reason. Those who do not kneel ought to make a profound bow when the priest genuflects after the consecration. The faithful also kneel after the “Lamb of God” (or Agnus Dei) unless the diocesan bishop determines otherwise (GIRM 43, USA Adaptations).
Sitting is the posture of meditation and listening, so the congregation sits for the readings that precede the Gospel, for the homily and the Preparation of the Gifts, and they may either sit or kneel for the period of meditation following Holy Communion.
Gestures, too, involve our bodies in prayer. The most familiar of these is the Sign of the Cross with which we begin Mass and with which, in the form of a blessing, the Mass concludes. Because it was by His death on the cross that Christ redeemed the world, we trace the sign of the cross on our foreheads, lips and hearts at the beginning of the Gospel.
Other gestures intensify our prayer at Mass. During the “I confess” (or Confiteor), the action of striking our breasts at the words “through my own fault” can strengthen our awareness that my sin is my fault. In the Profession of Faith (or Creed) we are to bow at the words which commemorate the Incarnation: “by the power of the Holy Spirit he was born of the Virgin Mary and became man.” This gesture signifies our profound respect and gratitude to Christ who shared our human condition in order to save us from sin and restore us to friendship with God. This gratitude is expressed with even greater solemnity on the Solemnity of the Annunciation of the Lord (March 25) and on Christmas (Dec. 25) when we genuflect at these words.
The General Instruction also draws attention to the bowing of the head at certain times during the Mass. “An inclination of the head should be made when the three Divine Persons are named, at the name of Jesus, of the Blessed Virgin Mary and of the Saint in whose honor the Mass is celebrated” (GIRM 275).
During the Communion Rite, the bishops of the U.S. have determined that the norm for reception of Holy Communion in the dioceses of the U.S. is standing. However, communicants should not be denied Holy Communion because they kneel. Rather, such instances should be addressed pastorally, by providing the faithful with proper catechesis on the reasons for this norm (GIRM 160, USA Adaptations). Further, when receiving Holy Communion, we are asked to make a bow of the head before the Sacrament as a gesture of reverence. The consecrated host may be received either on the tongue or in the hand at the discretion of each communicant. When Holy Communion is received under both kinds, the sign of reverence (bowing the head) is also made before receiving the Precious Blood (GIRM 160, USA Adaptations).
In addition to serving as a vehicle for prayer, the postures and gestures the faithful engage in at Mass have another important function. The Church sees in these common postures and gestures both a symbol of the unity of those who have come together to worship and a means of fostering that unity. The Church makes it clear that our unity of posture and gesture is an expression of our participation in the one Body formed by the baptized with Christ, our Head. When we stand, kneel, sit, bow and sign ourselves in common action, we give witness that we are indeed the Mystical Body of Christ, united at prayer in body, mind and spirit.
(Fr. deLadurantaye is director of the Office of Sacred Liturgy, secretary for diocesan religious education and in residence at the Cathedral of St. Thomas More in Arlington, Virginia. This article courtesy of the Arlington Catholic Herald.)