This is the accompanying article to last week’s Sign of the Cross.
Physical gestures are a part of life, from the nod of the head to denote agreement to the raising of a hand in a classroom setting to politely get attention. It is our non-spoken language which accounts for a large proportion of our daily language usage. It puts across in conscious and unconscious ways how we feel or think about something. It can also be used in potent ways to denote protest and resistance like recently with those who take the knee and raise their fist to denote their stance against racism.
So when a Catholic walks into a church and finds their pew, what does the gesture of genuflexion mean to that person? We learn as Catholics, almost from when we first enter a church, to genuflect. You watch the mums and dads do it and then either the kids copy or the parents give them the look and point to do it as well. I also learnt to do it by watching; when I became a Catholic, I understood it was because Christ was in the tabernacle and I should do it. But in all honesty with you, it became very quickly an automatic function that, if you analysed my body language, would think I gave little thought to. Albert Mehrabian, a famous researcher who studied verbal and non-verbal communication, in his book ‘Non-verbal Communication wrote:
‘When there are inconsistencies between attitudes communicated verbally and posturally, the postural component should dominate in determining the total attitude that is inferred.’
Therefore, in matters of communication our posture can signal our real thoughts and intentions. What does your genuflexion signal about your beliefs?
Genuflexion is the bending of the right knee in front of the tabernacle where the host of Christ is kept. It should be done at all times, except on Good Friday. A handy reminder is the red lamp. If there is a flame, He is in! Genuflexion is an act of reverence, respect and worship.
Alcuin in 804AD said:
‘By such a posture of the body we show forth our humbleness of heart’.
Genuflexion is in itself quite recent appearing around the 15th/16th centuries at about the same time as the Elevation. Prior to this a deeper bow of head and body akin to the Eastern practice was more usual. The act of kneeling in Church was a practice that was often for more penitential acts and not for general prayer, which was said mostly standing. This practice of standing prayer reaches back into our Jewish roots, but even then, they also would use kneeling for private prayers.
Reverence for the Blessed Sacrament came in the early centuries of Christianity with writers such as Tertullian, St Cyprian, St Cyril of Jerusalem, Origen and St Ambrose. Also passing references in the Didache and the letters of St Ignatius of Antioch. St Cyril of Jerusalem and St Ambrose both attested to the practice of Adoration and St Augustine recommended that the proper way of being in the presence of the sacrament was to bow and prostrate oneself on the ground. As you can see then the practice of genuflecting, although ‘new’ is actually been apart of our faith for a long time and is linked wholly with what the Eucharist actually is; the real body and blood of Jesus Christ
A question just to ponder at this point; if you genuflect out of mere habit or without thought – how is your belief in the Eucharist?
St John Damascene said:
The bread and wine are not a foreshadowing of the body and blood of Christ – by no means! But the actual deified body of the Lord, because the Lord himself said; This is my body; not a foreshadowing of my blood but my blood. The Orthodox Faith, IV, pg94, 1148-1149
The Catechism affirms this as:
“In the liturgy of the Mass we express our faith in the real presence of Christ under the species of bread and wine by, among other ways, genuflecting or bowing deeply as a sign of adoration of the Lord (CCC 1378).”
When we bow, it is to the living God! The One who created all and is in all. The One who stands apart from Time and Space and in great love comes to us in the humblest and most menial of signs to nourish us with food that brings eternal life. It is not about virtue signalling our holiness to others but a real act of reverence to the Real Presence of Christ who is alive and knows us. Next time you are in Mass realise you are in the presence of the king.
To finish – Pope St John Paul II in his address at Phoenix Park in Dublin in 1979 said this:
‘And so dear brothers and sisters, every act of reverence, every genuflection that you make before the Blessed Sacrament is important, because it is an act of faith in Christ, an act of love for Christ. And every sign of the cross and gesture of respect made each time you pass a church is also an act of faith.’