Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Are you okay, Pastor?

A few weeks ago a newer family to our parish had a question for me as they shook my hand at the door.  "Are you okay? Man, I saw you go down and got kinda worried.  I was surprised that nobody came up to help you and then I saw you got back up again..."

What this person was referring to was my genuflection during the creed.  This life-long Lutheran had never seen it before and had assumed that I was merely an old man having a bad day (which could have been correct and was a fairly logical assumption).  But that was not it.  I was genuflecting during the creed, specifically at the words,
[Who for us men and for our salvation, came down from heaven, and] was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary and was made man...   (Et incarnátus est de Spíritu Sancto ex María Virgine et homo factus est...)

These words are sort the fulcrum of the creed.  Everything we confess about God hangs on these words.  The genuflection at these words (or a deep bow for those of the Novus Ordo crowd) has been around for more than a thousand years.  We are not exactly when it began or where but we know by 1150 AD that it was common practice (if not universal).  Peter of Cluny (d 1156) tells us that genuflection at the words et homo factus est was a custom everywhere.  Some certainly had it earlier and some perhaps later but he writes as if it were the norm.

Here is an example of the faithful evolution of liturgical practice.  The Church has always held that the incarnation of our Lord is not only the core of our proclamation but that God condescending to become flesh and blood is rightfully met by the humility of faith that not only acknowledges Him as God of God, Light of Light, and true God of true God, but receives Him with faith.  The outward expression of this faith is the gesture of honor, the genuflection or kneeling at the words which confess this central truth and the lynch pin of our faith and confession.  God became man.

You can put Scripture to this.  Recall how St. Paul says that at the name of Jesus every knee shall bow and every tongue proclaim Him Lord.  But there is not particular passage to mandate such liturgical gesture.  Merely the response of faith.

To be sure, the practice is still not uniform.  Some Lutherans disagree about where to genuflect or if to genuflect at all (check out this or that).  Luther highly esteemed the custom and praised it in his commentary on St John’s Gospel (LW 22:102, 105) and mentions it again elsewhere in positive terms.

What of genuflection?  Genuflection (or genuflexion), bending at least one knee to the ground, was from early times a gesture of deep respect for a superior. In 328 BC, Alexander the Great introduced into his court etiquette some form of genuflection already in use in Persia. In the Byzantine Empire even senators were required to genuflect to the emperor. In medieval Europe, one demonstrated respect for a king or noble by going down on one knee. We know it most commonly today during a proposal of marriage.  (borrowed from Wiki)

Well, if Alexander the Great or Byzantine senators or European royals thought it was honorable to genuflect or kneel as a sign of humility, I think that we can see why this became the practice of the Church.  And to those who eschew practices as too "Catholic," I would ask why your intended deserves more in marriage proposal than does our Lord at the confession of His incarnation?

For those who find this utterly confusing, I cannot but help to pass on (in good humor) a cheat sheet prepared for those who find liturgical posture and gestures impossible to decipher. In the end I can think of no better way than to quote Pr Will Weedon from a few years ago:

Now, I was challenged on this and it was pointed out that I do not observe these rites as they are printed. The point being that I elevate, I genuflect, I sign myself with the cross on forehead, lips and heart before the Gospel, I kiss the Gospel book and the altar, and so on. In short, I do ceremonies that are neither prescribed nor suggested.

I would respond, though, that there is a great difference between adding ceremonies (especially historic ones) and dropping ceremonies or parts of the rite which are explicitly prescribed. Certainly in the rubrics of all three books, there are ceremonies that are suggested but not prescribed ("may" rubrics). The worth of any ceremony is in what it confesses. And above all, I'd argue, the text and the ordering of the text in each rite should be respected precisely as it stands.


Rev. Eric J Brown said...

While I do not genuflect at the Creed (just bow the head), I do kneel during the confession and have every Sunday (excepting the one when I had injured my knee and it was wrapped up in an Ace wrap). One Sunday, for whatever reason, I didn't motion people to rise and so they remained sitting during the confession... and the little, short old ladies in the back were all a flutter after the service asking everyone why I was kneeling up front and we confused when they found out I had done that always. They just were too short to ever have seen it.

Anonymous said...

A pietist pastor friend of mine attended a Eucharist at my parish where I was Celebrant. Following the liturgy I asked him what he thougt, very curious since our worship styles are vastly different. It was nice, said he, except "you kept bowing so much up there you looked like you had dropped a quarter and kept looking for it!" We both had a good belly laugh!

Pastor Harvey S. Mozolak said...

Harvey S. Mozolak

a flex before the X
allow the pose
to break in two
the standing on one’s own
two feet
to totter and capitulate
to power beyond control
his was to break
heaven rip and fall to earth
in grave submission
but ours to bend the knee
before the love of God
his sword-piercing heart
touching brow
shoulder here and there
touching the beating and pulse of blood
coring us with divine peace
kneeling at the keel
of grace plowing through
the tides, waves and storms
to time-anchor eternity
et homo factus est
so that in this precarious posture
we might be made for God

Anonymous said...

Pastor, if you don't mind, do you also genuflect before the tabernacle when the Sacrament is reserved there?


Anonymous said...

But of course

Terry Maher said...

Flectamus genua. Levate.

Maybe we should restore these words to the Bidding Prayer for Good Friday, between the two parts of each bid. That is, after we restore the Bidding Prayer at all.

Let us flex the knee. Get up. Usually more ceremoniously translated Let us kneel, Let us rise.

When the "novus ordo crowd" was being promulgated into existence -- these things happened much like in the Soviet Union, where the actions taken in the name of the people were explained to them after the fact -- we were told exactly the history of geneflexion you recount, and how as that no longer relates to social customs or social orders now, the same reverence is expressed now with a deep bow, though, few of us being Japanese, we wondered how a deep bow "relates" to much of anything outside church either. But Roma locuta causa finita, the one enduring essential of Roman Catholicism.

Thus, we all began to act as if we had suddenly and profoundly recognised the need to barf. Except for those who continued to geneflect, toward the object of genuflexion, the reserved Eucharist in the tabernacle, except it wasn't there any more, they moved it to an "altar of repose" so that the focus, literally and figuratively, of a Catholic church was to be the assembly of the People of God around the sacrifice, rather than the continuing physical presence of Christ.

Actually, to genuflect IS a rubric -- in the Roman Missal, at least the old ones, the new ones also produce the effect in me of recognition of the sudden and profound need to barf.

So then, shall we also "restore" the practice of genuflecting on entering and leaving the pew?

Precisely as it stands is precisely as it stands, and if that is the model, either adding or subtracting deviates from it.

That all said, I have no problem with genuflecting. The problem is with making a big deal of it either way. And moreso when traditional practice is abandoned for one thing, like the lectionary and calendar, but then encouraged for another, like genuflecting.

Pastiches are the order of the day; no wonder others seek to include other things as well in the mix.

Anonymous said...

FWIW, Catholics still genuflect during the recitation of the Creed at the feasts of the Annunication and the Nativity.

The new missal translation will direct Catholics to make a profound ("deep") bow as the norm, and genuflection of course is still practiced as a way to reverence the Blessed Sacrament in the tabernacle. When receiving Holy Communion some Catholics choose to genuflect, some bow before receiving.

In a sanctuary where the tabernacle is not centrally located one is required to make a profound bow toward the altar, a symbol of Christ.

For centuries Catholics have bowed their heads at the mention of the Holy Name.

Anonymous said...

And one more thought, what a shame that I can't seem to remember to string them all together -- not that I'm getting forgetful, not at all.

In the Eastern churches, of course, the worshipper makes a profound bow towards the altar, usually located behind the iconostasis. Genuflection is a Western custom.

Janis Williams said...

Fr. Peters,

OTFL (I'm O.K., really)

As former evangelicals, I can honestly say we have been surprised at the rubrics at times. I think most recovering evangelicals WANT to show honor to our Lord (whether in deep genuflecting or a nod of the head).

In response to previous comments, do you stand when the president enters the room? Would you bow to the monarch of another country?

Be thankful you didn't prostrate yourself, Fr. Peters, there would have been more than 'newbies' rushing to the front, and calling an ambulance....

Janis Williams said...

BTW, Beautiful poem, Fr. Mozolak!

Rev. Allen Bergstrazer said...

I was re-reading the explanation of the 4th Commandment in the Large Catechism this morning. Luther observes that God has not commanded us to simply love our parents but to honor them as well. Regarding brothers and sisters and neighbors in general, God commands nothing more than we love them. God separates and distinquishes father and mother from all other persons and places them at His side. Luther goes on to say that it is a higher thing to honor someone than to love them because honor not only includes love, but also modesty; humility, and submission to majesty.
This I think is what ails the contemporary church, we have a great deal of love for God, the sort of love we have for siblings and friends only moreso; but reverence and honor are treated as relics of another age and time. And so making the sign of the cross, genuflecting, kneeling etc. are often looked down upon.

Terry Maher said...

After all the theologising of practice is done, the simple fact remains that genuflecting is entirely predicated on the Eucharistic presence. That is why the court gesture was imported to the church -- the Lord is as physically present as the lord.

The primary genuflexion is at the consecration, when the priest genuflects after saying the words of institution. All the other uses -- on entering the pew, at Et incarnatus est in the Creed, etc -- derive from that. Until such time as we adopt the Roman idea that when Christ said Take and eat he also meant Take and eat and set some aside to adore and groove on in between taking and eating, it would be hard to find a place for the custom in Lutheran observance.

At all.

Chris Jones said...

genuflecting is entirely predicated on the Eucharistic presence

Not so, actually; at least, not always. Perhaps Roman Catholics are taught that this is the case. But I was taught (as a high-Church Episcopalian) that genuflection on entering and leaving the pew is an act of reverence to the altar as the place where the consecration of the sacrament takes place -- whether or not the sacramental elements are present. In the Episcopal Church (at least back in the 50s and 60s when I was growing up, before the denomination self-destructed), reservation of the sacrament whether on the altar or in a side tabernacle was rare (although not unheard of), but genuflection towards the altar was universally practiced.

In any case, genuflection at the confession of the Incarnation in the Creed has nothing to do with the Eucharistic presence. It is done before the sacrament is consecrated, and is done even if there is no reserved sacrament.

Anonymous said...

Genuflection comes from the gridiron.
Football players take a knee when
they want to stop play. Watch the
quarterback who wants to run out the
clock, he simply takes the hike from
center and takes a knee.

Real Men will not attend church
and expect the preacher to take a
knee when there is no football in

Terry Maher said...

Oh for the sake of all double genuflecting Judas. (Extra credit at the end of the test for those correctly identifying what a double genuflexion is and when it is done.)

Genufexion has no other origin and no meaning in its importation to the church of not primarily reverence but submission to one's physically present lord, in church as the Lord. Hell when you genuflect on entrance the consecration ain't happened yet either. With the advent of letter day churches such as the Anglican and Lutheran, these customs when retained were re-theologised, so wrt to the altar is becomes an act of reverence, presence or not, or for another example the red sanctuary light, as a sign of God's presence when no longer a sign of his constant presence in the tabernacle fulfilling the light by the Law encased in the synagogue tabernacle in turn fulfilling the lamp and shewbread of the Temple.

Apart from genuflecting at the consecration, its retention as a Lutheran practice is simply finding a new reason to retain and old custom when you don't believe the old reason.

Or, as they say, dressing up and playing church.

Anonymous said...

If a parish really believes in this
genuflection, then communicants will
knee at the communion rail to
receive the Eucharist. If the
pastor is genuflecting during the
worship service but the communicants
are standing to receive the Sacrament
then that parish is not consistent.

Anonymous said...

(Extra credit at the end of the test for those correctly identifying what a double genuflexion is and when it is done.)

I know, I know!! (gulp -- I think)

A double genuflection, on both knees, performed as an act of adoration during the exposition of the Blessed Sacrament!!

OK, where's my "prize" ??

Terry Maher said...

It said credit, not prize! But, FWIW, you're right. I wonder if now there's a double profound bow.