The Church of St. Peter
Body and Soul - Why Do We Bow or Genuflect?
“In the beginning…” so it goes, God created everything out of nothing. With care and love he created all that is – including us. God did not create us as some airy spiritual being, or some sort of disembodied mind. God created us with a mind to think, a soul that seeks, and with a physical body through which we learn and experience the wonders of life and God’s universe. God looked on this physical creation and, “…saw that it was good”, very good. So good in fact that in the fullness of time, God chose to be born into the physical world of our humanity so that we could once again experience God through his Son Jesus, the Word made flesh and bone, who chose to dwell among us.
As Christians, we are called to worship God with all that we have and all that we are. God gave us a mind, soul and body and we can use all these gifts to his praise and glory. But we cannot worship God with our minds alone, any more than we can show our love for family and friends strictly on an intellectual basis. We express our love for them through a hug, a kiss or the holding of hands for example. We use our bodies to express those profound moments, which at times are inexpressible through words or thoughts alone.
One of those profound moments for Christians is our experience of God in prayer and in the worship of the gathered Christian community. To help our expression of love to God in prayer and worship, we use signs and symbols that can often speak in ways that words alone cannot express. Since we are to worship God with all that God has given us, we use all our five senses to worship God. We worship God with our eyes are we gaze on sacred art, icons, stained glass and architecture. We worship with our sense of smell with flowers and the offering of incense. With the gift of sound we hear the word of God, listen to the chanting of the Liturgy and sing to him with our voices. We “taste and see that the Lord is good” as we receive the bread and wine of the Holy Eucharist or share a parish meal together. We use our bodies to worship God as we kneel, stand, share the peace, or make the Sign of the Cross. And we worship God with our bodies as we bow or genuflect.
In the Bible, both the Hebrew and the Greek words for worship refer to a physical action. In Hebrew the most common word for worship is shachach, meaning to “fall down before”. Similarly in the Greek New Testament, a word for worship is proskyneo, referring to the custom of bowing or kneeling before an emperor. Many Anglicans make some sort of sign of respect or reverence when entering or leaving the church or passing by the Altar. Some people will pause in a moment of respect. Some people will nod their head in a little bow. Others will bow deeply from the waist, while other people may genuflect bending a knee to the floor. All these variations of worshipping with our bodies differ depending on a person’s tradition, comfort levels with outward worship, or their physical abilities.
So why do we bow or genuflect when entering or leaving the church or passing by the Altar? Perhaps when we enter a church we have a greater awareness of the presence of God. A church is holy ground. It is set aside and consecrated (made holy) for one purpose alone – to be the House of God to gather for the worship of God for all God’s people. When we enter God’s house for prayer and worship, we can enter a time and place that can be mysteriously filled with a greater awareness of the Divine Presence. We may be filled with a sense of holy awe. Perhaps coming into God’s presence is an experience beyond our mind’s understanding. We enter into the presence of the Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer of the Universe, The Eternal Holy One, The Divine Source of all that is, was and will be ... and so on. Our limited words and finite vocabulary can never encompass the praise of The Infinite God. Our minds cannot wrap around all who God is. Perhaps all we may be able to do when we enter into the Presence of God is to express our sense of profound awe with the unspoken worship of our bodies. Throughout all cultures and faiths, this is expressed by a physical act of worship such as kneeling or bowing.
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When we enter a church, the focal point of our reverence to Christ is the Altar. Altar comes from the Latin word “The High Place” and refers to the Biblical tradition where on high places or mountain tops altars were built to offer sacrifice and commune with God. It is on the high places that the prophets spoke with God, received wisdom or a revelation of God’s divine presence. “The high place” was seen as being closer to heaven and so it was a meeting place between God and humanity.
For Christians, the ultimate “meeting place” between God and humanity is Jesus himself, so the Altar is the Church’s most important symbolic representation of Jesus in a church. That is why the Altar is always the focal point of the church – it is to Jesus that we look to and gather around just as his first disciples did. Christ continues to be present with his disciples today in the bread and wine of the Eucharist. As Jesus’ body was broken and his blood outpoured on the altar of the cross, so too do we recall his sacrifice in the breaking of bread and pouring of wine. As Christ rose from the tomb giving new life to all, so too he imparts his life to us as we receive Holy Communion.
To further emphasize the connection between Jesus and the Altar, five crosses representing his five wounds are carved on top of the Altar or are sewn into the altar cloths. The various altar cloths (fair linen, corporal, veils, pall) remind us of Jesus’ burial shrouds. The Altar is kissed and incensed by the priest to give honour to Christ himself. On Maundy Thursday, the Altar is solemnly stripped of its beauty, foreshadowing Jesus being stripped of his clothing before crucifixion. The Altar is then washed with vinegar and water as Jesus will be offered bitter gall on the cross and later have his body washed in preparation for his burial.
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You may see some people genuflecting (Latin for bending the knee) where people bend down to the floor on one knee. This is a usually a special sign of reverence for Christ who is present in the consecrated bread and wine of the Holy Eucharist, either when the Sacrament is on the Altar or kept reserved in the Tabernacle. The Tabernacle is a small box in the Sanctuary wall. Tabernacle means “tent” in Hebrew and refers to the portable sacred tent of the Israelites and later the great stone Temple in Jerusalem. The Tabernacle in the Temple was believed to be the “Holy of Holies” where The Divine Presence of God dwelt on earth. As Anglicans, we believe in the mystery of Christ’s Real Presence in the consecrated bread and wine of the Eucharist. Before his Presence we may kneel, give thanks and rejoice that Jesus is in our sacramental midst.
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You may notice people bowing at other times in the Church’s worship. Many people bow at the name of Jesus enacting St. Paul’s words, “But God raised him high gave him the name which is above all other names so that all beings in the heavens ,on earth and in the underworld, should bend the knee at the name of Jesus.” (Philippians 2:9, 10). Similarly, people bow when giving praise to God the Holy Trinity as we say, “Glory to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit….”
During the Holy Eucharist when we say the Nicene Creed, people may also bow at the words, “…he came down from heaven: by the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary , and was made man.” (BAS pg. 188). As we descend our bodies in a bow, we remember Jesus who in great humility descended from the Father to be “Emmanuel” – “God is with us” and so we may bow in honour of the wonderful mystery of Christ’s Incarnation. People may also bow when we say or sing the part of the Holy Eucharist called the Sanctus (Latin for holy). As we sing this song of the angels, “Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of power and might….” we join all the angels, saints and every Christian who has gone before us, in a great hymn of praise. We bow with them before the Lord of the Universe and await “he who comes in the name of the Lord” in Holy Communion (see Revelations chapter 4).
Occasionally, you may also notice people will bow to each other. Priests and servers bow to each other. Some people bow at the Exchange of the Peace. When we are censed with incense the incense bearer (thurifer) and congregation bow to each other. Bowing to each other reminds us of Christ’s call to serve one another in humility. Bowing to each other is also a way for us to honour Jesus who is present in the hearts of all people.
All of this bowing and genuflection is much more than Anglican aerobics or even churchy ritual. Bowing or genuflection is also not groveling under the eyes of some tyrannical God who expects fear or some unhealthy sense of self-worthlessness from us. Bowing or genuflecting is an act of humility not humiliation. Humility comes from the Latin word humus meaning earth or ground. If we join our hearts with our bodies when bowing or genuflecting it may help us “to come down to earth”. It may remind us to be “grounded” in our own reality, a reality that is need of God’s grace and healing. Bowing may help us remember that we are not the centre of the universe – God is. A bow or genuflection may be a simple and helpful reminder that God and our neighbour come first.
When we bow or genuflect, we acknowledge the Master into whose House we have come. A Master who himself was humble of heart, and who bowed down to the floor to wash the feet of his friends and who ate and drank with outcasts and sinners – a Master who chose to be a servant and who desires us to follow his example.
By Dean Rose
Permission is granted to use and replicate this or parts of this article with the following ascription;
From an article by Dean Rose, St. Peter’s Church, Oshawa, Diocese of Toronto.