Sarah, a lifelong Catholic, was feeling a little awkward and confused. She had invited her friend, Julie, to go to Mass with her. Now they were having coffee after the liturgy, and Julie had asked why Catholics did all that standing, sitting, and kneeling all the time. And Sarah was feeling stuck for a an answer. It was just what you did at Mass, and she’d never really thought about it.
Sarah googled some questions, and that made her more confused. One website said kneeling and genuflecting were postures that signified reverence for the Real Presence. But another website said standing was also a sign of reverence. And that made her wonder if she was being irreverent when she was sitting during the readings or after communion.
Those of us who work in any kind of pastoral ministry can probably empathize with Sarah. Who hasn’t had to answer seeker’s questions about what we sometimes call “Catholic calisthenics”? What most of us have discovered, however, is the answers to questions about our postures and gestures are not as clear cut as some websites or textbooks make them seem.
Two ‘whys’ for liturgical movements
Most of these resources are not exactly wrong, but often they don’t go deep enough. Kneeling and standing, for example, both signify reverence. But so does sitting and laying prostrate on the floor. And so does processing and offering the sign of peace. Everything we do in the liturgy is about praising God, and when we praise God, we revere God.
The answer to why we move the way we do in the liturgy has a two-part answer. The first part is that we are fulfilling the mandate of the Second Vatican Council that we participate in liturgy in a way that is fully conscious, and active. This participation must involve not only our thoughts and prayers and not only our verbal and sung responses. To participate fully also means that we must use actions, gestures, and bodily attitudes. (See Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, 14 and 30).
The second part of the answer is that we do not move our bodies simply for the sake of movement. Bodily participation is a key element of the liturgy, but it is a means to an end. With each movement, gesture, and posture, we are doing something essential. We are participating in the dynamism of the Trinity. We are comfortable with the idea that we become one with Christ in the liturgy. It is not as common for us to think of being swept up into the dance of the Trinity. And yet, that’s necessarily what happens if we are going to be one with Christ. The Father and Son have a dynamic, living Spirit that animates and moves their relationship. When we take make a ritual step into that dynamic, we become part of it.
How does the Holy Spirit move us when we move?
Here’s the “so what?” When a visitor or a seeker asks us why we stand and sit and move so much at Mass, we have to resist the temptation to provide a google-like explanation of each gesture and posture as though these actions each have discrete meanings. Instead, we need go deeper and ask mystagogical questions that reveal the action of the Spirit in the seeker. So if a seeker asks why we stand for the Gospel, for example, we might ask how standing at that moment changed the experience for them. How can the act of standing be a statement of faith? How is standing for the gospel different than standing in a checkout line? How does the action transform us from ordinary people who stand to extraordinary people who stand ready?
Every gesture and movement in the liturgy has a deep meaning, but that meaning isn’t completely knowable until we are doing it. I can tell a communion minister what it “means” when she places the Body of Christ in the hands of someone approaching the Lord’s table, but she won’t know how the Spirit is leading her in her own steps in the Trinitarian dance until she is dancing. Nor will the communicant know until he looks into the eyes of the minister, feels the touch of her hand on his, and proclaims his “amen” before moving on to the next step in the dance.
Ultimately, a first-time visitor and the 70-year-old pastor are both capable of knowing what the movements and gestures of the liturgy mean. It doesn’t take years of practice or a degree in theology to know. It takes an openness to the movement of the Spirit within us. Jesus spent a few minutes with the Samaritan women, and she clearly understood the movement of the Spirit in her relationship with Jesus more deeply than the gossipy disciples who had been with Jesus much longer.
Our goal as pastoral ministers is not to provide simple answers that we can find online. It is to facilitate revelation that we can only find in our hearts.
How do you feel the Holy Spirit moving you when you are in the midst of Mass? How have you described the grace you receive in that moment to someone who isn’t familiar with the Mass? Share your thoughts in the comments below.