Last week, we examined the various postures we use during worship in the context of the Mass, how they enable us to worship with our whole being, and what they each signify with regard to our relationship with God. Perhaps you now are wondering where all of these postures came from. Did early Catholics just make these actions up out of some vain display of piety? No, everything we do in the Mass is taken right out of Scripture. So, this week, we’ll dive a little deeper to understand how our postures and gestures have been appropriate before God throughout all of salvation history.
There are numerous examples of various postures within scripture. Since I will only be citing some of them, I encourage you to pick up your Bible and see for yourself how, from the beginning, people have used their bodies to express their worship of God.
Last week we looked at how incorporating our bodies into worship by our physical actions enables us to interact with God using our whole being – body, soul, mind, heart, etc. So, let’s begin with where we are specifically instructed to do just that. St. Paul tells us, “…For you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body,” (1Cor 6:20). When he gives this instruction, he is doing so in the context of speaking about sexual morality, but we are not to understand that glorifying God in our body is only limited to our sexuality. Glorifying God in our bodies is not conditional or occasional, rather, it ought to be so in all circumstances. After all, though he is speaking about sexuality, we do not understand St. Paul to be implying it is ok to abuse our bodies with food, drink, or other forms of self-harm simply because they are not related to sexuality. So, when we go to Mass, we take St. Paul’s direction just as seriously, since we worship God using physical actions with our bodies.
Next, we’ll go to the book of Revelation, which contains descriptions of heaven and what worshipping God will look like there when we are blessed with the opportunity to join in ourselves. In these descriptions of heaven, God is seated on a throne and is surrounded by all kinds of beings, some of whom are called “elders” who are dressed in all-white robes. At various times, these elders are described as sitting, standing, and most importantly, falling face down prostrate before the Lord (see Rev 4:4, 5:14, 7:9-11, 11:16, 19:4). They worship God this way in heaven because God is worthy of being worshipped with a person’s entire being simply by the virtue that He is God. Now, we aren’t in heaven (yet), but is God any less deserving of such worship just because we are still here on earth? The answer is, “No.” Our physical worship of God here mimics what is done in heaven because we are worshipping the same God and it is what He is due.
Now, let’s move to the Old Testament to see some examples of how people worshipped God with their physical actions before Jesus entered into humanity. In Deuteronomy 32, Moses is singing a canticle of God to the people. In the final verse he says, “Rejoice with him, o heavens, bow down to him, all gods,” (Deu 32:43). He not only asks us to rejoice in the Lord, but he also combines that rejoicing with bowing down before him, no matter who you are. Even the gods of the pagans are instructed to humble themselves before the one true God in their physical posture. In Leviticus 9, Aaron is making an offering to the Lord, and those present, “shouted and fell on their faces,” (Lev 9:24). In Numbers, Moses and Aaron walk into a particular tent and upon entering, “fell on their faces and the glory of the Lord appeared to them,” (Num 20:6).
In first Kings, the prophet, Elijah, is making a burnt offering to God: “And when all the people saw it, they fell on their faces and said, ‘The Lord, he is God; the Lord he is God,’” (1Kings 18:39). In first Chronicles, there is an assembly before King David. He addresses them saying, “’Bless the Lord, your God.’ And all of the assembly blessed the Lord, the God of their fathers and bowed their heads and paid homage to the Lord and to the king” (1Chron 29:20). Ezra, the prophet, becomes very aware of certain sins and reacts with humility, “And at the evening sacrifice I rose from my fasting, with my garment and cloak torn, and fell upon my knees and spread out my hands to the Lord my God,” (Ezra 9:5). In the book of Nehemiah, Ezra is reading the Law of Moses to the people, “And Ezra blessed the Lord, the great God, and all the people answered, ‘Amen, Amen.’ Lifting up their hands. And they bowed their heads and worshipped the Lord with their faces to the ground,” (Neh 8:6). Furthermore, to conclude our limited examination of Old Testament worship, we are told in Psalms, “…Since he is your lord, bow to him,” and “Oh come, let us worship and bow down; let us kneel before the Lord, our Maker,” (Psalms 45:11, 95:6).
Later, when Jesus arrives, the physical worship does not end. In the story of the nativity, the wise men followed the star and upon finding Jesus with Mary, “they fell down and worshipped him,” (Matt 2:11). In Luke, we have two back-to-back incidents of people prostrating themselves before Jesus. Simon Peter “fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, ‘depart from me for I am a sinful man, O Lord,” (Lk 5:8). Then, immediately following, a leper came to Jesus. “And when he saw Jesus, he fell on his face and begged him, ‘Lord if you will, you can make me clean,’” (Lk 5:12). People in the gospels seemed to have an inherent understanding that humbled postures ought to be used before such a person as Jesus, and rightly so. Even in their mockery of him, the Romans knelt before the Lord after crowning Him with a ring of thorns (cf. Matthew 27:29).
Finally, St. Paul gives us other hints about how to express our worship though our bodies. “The secrets of his heart are disclosed, and so, falling on his face, he will worship God and declare that God is really among you” (1 Cor 14:25). “For this reason, I bow my knees before the Father,” (Eph 3:14). Most profoundly, St. Paul tells us, “…so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth,” (Phil 2:10). He is telling us here on earth to bend our knee at the name of Jesus, but he also acknowledges that even those souls in hell know exactly who Jesus is and what he is owed by virtue of his divine nature. How can we not imitate these postures in our worship?
In the book, Surprised by Truth: 11 converts give the Biblical and Historical Reasons for Becoming Catholic, edited by Patrick Madrid, a woman named Julie Swenson tells her conversion story. It was influenced, to some degree, by the physical actions of worshipping the Lord with one’s body. Early in her journey she says, “At that time, my idea of worshipping Jesus amounted to reading about him in scripture, singing about him in church, and listening to others preach about him,” (p. 122). As her conversion toward Catholicism progressed, she made a pit stop, so to speak, in the Anglican Church, which has a similar liturgy to ours. She was captivated by “…the liturgy’s outward forms, such as the crucifix, incense, altar, candles, vestments, Mary, liturgical prayers, sanctuary lamp, and tabernacle, and even the bodily postures of kneeling and genuflecting. I was delighted and comforted and excited by what I found there,” (p. 128). She rightly concludes from all of this, “Our relationship with Christ is not just spiritual, but physical, too. The Incarnation of Christ crowned the union of the spiritual and the physical, found uniquely in human persons,” (p. 128). She is absolutely correct! Jesus Christ is the one who united the spiritual to the physical in His own body, so we are absolutely called to do the same in our relationship with Him.
This week, spend some time reflecting on how you reveal your relationship with the Lord through your body, not only during formal worship, but also in your day-to-day life. How can you display more virtue and love by your physical actions, both to God and to others? Also, take some time to appreciate and be grateful for the ways our Church imitates the heavenly liturgy here on Earth, giving us but a small taste of what’s to come.