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Body Worship: Liturgical Movement and Gestures
Liturgy consists of more than words and music. Gesture, posture and movement are also important elements of ritual worship.
Five different whole-of-body positions are adopted at various times in the liturgy: standing, sitting, kneeling, walking and, occasionally, prostration.
Standing expresses joy, praise and thanksgiving and is a sign of respect and reverence. Hence we stand for the prayers of the Mass, for the general intercessions and for the reading of the gospel. In some parts of the world, the assembly stands throughout the Eucharistic Prayer.
Sitting is a posture of rest and openness and so is appropriate for listening to readings from scripture and the homily and for times of silent reflection.
Kneeling is a gesture of subservience, petition and piety. In the early Church, kneeling was forbidden on Sundays and feastdays and during the Easter Season. It has most commonly been used as a posture for private prayer and as an expression of humility, penance and adoration. Kneeling as a posture of adoration before the Blessed Sacrament is an important part of the liturgical tradition of the Roman Rite.
It is customary for people to genuflect before taking their seats in the church as a sign of reverence for the real presence of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament reserved in the tabernacle. The gesture is not necessary if the Blessed Sacrament is reserved in a separate eucharist chapel.
Walking symbolises that we are a pilgrim people. At every Mass we walk in procession to receive communion. On Psalm Sunday the community processes around the church carrying palm branches and singing ‘Hosanna!’ At the Easter Vigil we process into the darkened church following the new paschal candle and proclaiming Christ as our light.
Prostration, a gesture of total submission and vulnerability, involves lying full length on the floor. It is reserved for solemn moments in the liturgy. At the liturgy of the Lord’s Passion on Good Friday the celebrants prostrate themselves before the altar in silence before the service begins. An ordinand lies prostrate during the singing of the litany of saints in the sacrament of Holy Orders.
Hands and arms are frequently used during worship. We make the sign of the cross with holy water on entering a church, trace small crosses on our forehead, mouth and heart when the gospel reading is announced, shake hands at the sign of peace, and receive the host and chalice in our hands at communion.
Celebrants use their hands in a variety of ways in the liturgical rites: for anointing with oil, sprinkling or pouring water, holding over the bread and wine at the consecration, and laying on heads. Arms are opened wide as a sign of welcome and inclusion when the assembly is addressed and stretched over them for a blessing. The classical orans (praying) position, which involves standing with both arms raised to the side and extended upwards, is assumed whenever the celebrant addresses prayer to God in the name of the assembly.
Liturgical body language unifies the assembly and communicates respect for the liturgy, the community, for God. Through our gestures we are totally involved – body, mind and spirit – in the act of worship.