Responding to the Elevation

It is interesting how certain liturgical practices that are not part of the official rite seem to spring up now and then.
In some parishes, almost every member of the assembly bows his or her head immediately after the words “This is my body which will be given up for you” are spoken and the bread elevated, and again after “Do this in memory of me” and the chalice is raised. I assume it is meant to be a gesture of adoration, but it doesn’t make a lot of sense!
The act of elevating the consecrated bread and wine arose in the Middle Ages at the time when people no longer received communion when they attended Mass because of the Church’s stress on their unworthiness to approach the Real Presence of Christ in the sacred eucharist. The faithful received the grace of the sacrament by adoring the consecrated elements rather than consuming them.
This 14th century instruction for parish priests on the benefits to be gained from looking at the host illustrates the degree of superstition that had become attached to the practice:
Indeed happy is the person who once each day can look upon the body of God. For this brings about so much good that, as St Augustine teaches, on the day you behold you will certainly obtain the following benefits: food and drink according to your needs, and no-one will quarrel with you as to these; God will pardon your useless oaths and words; you will not have to fear sudden death on this day. I promise you that on this day you will not lose your sight, and each step that you take for this purpose will be counted as useful when you have need of this.
Because people’s sole participation in the liturgy consisted of gazing at the holy host containing the sacramental body of Christ, the host was held up high by the celebrant after the consecration so that it could be seen. This was necessary as the priest was standing with his back to the assembly. Choir stalls and rood screens also obscured the view of what was happening on the sanctuary. In addition, because most people could not hear or understand the words of the Mass, they were often absorbed in their own private prayers during the liturgy and so a bell was rung to ensure that they did not miss this vital moment.
Despite the fact that since Vatican II the actions of the presider are visible to all and the vernacular is used in the liturgy, the elements are still raised after the words of institution. The rubrics state: “The celebrant shows the consecrated host/chalice to the people”. If the purpose of the elevation was, and is, to allow people to view the sacred elements, it is very puzzling that the response of so many people is to immediately lower their gaze! It must be odd for the celebrant to look around the assembly at this moment and see nothing but the tops of people’s heads!
It makes more sense to look at the bread and the chalice when they are raised and to bow one’s head when the celebrant genuflects at the altar.

Elizabeth Harrington