Liturgical Body Language

Liturgy is made up of more than words and music alone. Gesture, posture and movement are integral to communal ritual and worship.
Five different whole-of-body positions are adopted at different 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 the scripture and to the homily and for times of silent reflection.
Kneeling is a gesture of subservience, petition and piety. 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.
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 Celebration 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. The faithful make the sign of the cross with blessed water on entering a church, trace small crosses on forehead, mouth and heart when the gospel reading is announced, shake hands at the sign of peace, and take the host and chalice in their hands at communion.
The presider’s use of hands and arms is integral to the carrying out of liturgical rites. Hands anoint with oil, sprinkle or pour water, are held over the bread and wine at the consecration, are layed 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.
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 eucharistic chapel.
Occasionally someone will genuflect just before receiving communion. Apart from being hazardous to others in the line, such a gesture contravenes the General Instruction’s call for uniformity of posture in liturgy as an expression of unity. The General Instruction certainly does direct communicants to “make a proper reverence”. This means we assume the posture of reception, raising our eyes for the proclamation of faith in the presence of the Lord (“The Body of Christ”, “The Blood of Christ”), responding with a sincere “Amen!”, and extending our hands to receive the gift.
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.


Elizabeth Harrington