When we come to mass we pray not just with our lips, or even just with our minds and hearts; which is after all the definition of prayer: ‘raising the mind and heart to GOD’, but we pray too with our bodies. Christ became flesh, became human and so raised the dignity of our bodies to something truly wonderful. That is why St Paul says: “Use your body for the glory of GOD.” (1 Cor.6:20). So when we come to mass or indeed when we take time to “just pray”, we come as incarnate beings, we come with our bodies and we use various bodily postures and gestures involving the whole person; mind, heart, soul and body. So what are these bodily postures/gestures that we use and how important are they?
When we come into the church we should, if we are able, genuflect to the tabernacle. If we cannot genuflect we should at least offer a profound (from the waist) bow. When we genuflect we are ‘bending the knee to Jesus’ and so to the Trinity. It is an act of; humility before GOD, a statement of willingness to serve to GOD and of love for GOD.
The next thing we usually do is to make the sign of the cross. “By signing ourselves with the Cross, we place ourselves under the protection of the Cross, hold it in front of us like a shield that will guard us in all the distress of daily life and give us the courage to go on” (Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI). When the priest makes the sign of the Cross he is very much linking himself to the cross. You may have noticed that there is a small crucifix on the Altar, it is either two sided, in other words a corpus on both sides, or if it is one sided, it faces the priest only. This is to remind the priest that he too, must unite and give himself in sacrifice, just like Christ. That he too is to be a sacrificial victim for his ‘flock’, just as Christ is both priest (the one offering the sacrifice) and victim (the one being sacrificed).
In addition to the sign of the cross we stand, sit or kneel at various times throughout the liturgy, we may strike our breast or join our hands in prayer. Each of which has it’s own proper place and significance. One gesture that we may do often by habit and even mechanically, is making the sign of the cross on our forehead, our lips and our chest as the Gospel is announced. This simple gesture is highly symbolic and is a prayer in itself, namely that the Word of GOD would be on our minds, on our lips and in our hearts, what a beautiful prayer.
Other bodily gestures include the priest extending his arms in what is called the ‘Orans’ or ‘let us pray’ gesture. A very ancient gesture dating back to Old Testament times. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI explains it very beautifully: “…the priest’s outstretched hands remind us of Christ outstretched on the cross, opening his arms and drawing us to Himself. Indeed, the cross adds depth to this simple gesture of prayer. As the priest offers the sacrifice to God, his symbolic gesture of uniting himself to the cross is a resolution to pray with the Crucified and unite himself with Christ.”
Our gestures, our bodily postures have meaning, psychology calls it ‘body language’. What is your body language saying about you at Holy Mass?