Each of our postures and gestures is significant as we reverently honor Christ’s sacrifice in the Mass
Mankind has always used body language — posture, gestures, physical movements — to communicate with one another. We wave goodbye, shake hands, shrug our shoulders, cup our ear when we can’t hear, stand when greeting someone, put our finger on our lips seeking silence. Most of these signs are recognized throughout the world.
There is also a well-known body language used and recognized in the Western Church when entering into the presence of Our Risen Lord, especially during the Mass (Ordinary Form).
Before, during and after every Mass, we genuflect, kneel, bow, stand, sit, and beat our breasts as described in the Roman Missal. Most of these postures — these expressions of love — are also identified for us in our worship aids in the pews.
Approaching “our pew” before Mass, we carefully genuflect in reverence and acknowledgement of the real presence of Jesus in the tabernacle. A genuflection is made by touching the right knee to the floor while focusing on the Blessed Sacrament. We genuflect not to demonstrate how holy we are or in compliance with some ancient decree, but because Our Savior is present, either reserved in the tabernacle or exposed on the altar. Whenever made, the genuflection is never done in a careless, routine manner (General Instruction of the Roman Missal, No. 274).
In our culture, standing is a sign of respect; it is a position of attentiveness, readiness, alertness. In the United States, parishioners stand for the entrance procession and until the collect prayer is completed. We stand for the Alleluia chant, while the Gospel is read, when saying the creed and during the Prayer of the Faithful. Standing is also our posture when the priest says “pray brethren that my sacrifice and yours ...” The posture for the Our Father and receiving Communion is standing. Kneeling also is acceptable when receiving Communion. Finally, we stand for the final blessing including the recessional (GIRM, No. 43).
This is a special time for attentive listening and meditating, contemplating what has taken place, all that we have seen and heard. We sit during the first two readings and the responsorial psalm, as well as during the homily and the offertory, and we have the option of sitting or kneeling after holy Communion (GIRM, No. 43).
There are two types of bows used during the Mass. First, we reverently nod our head at the names of Jesus, Mary, the Trinity (Father, Son, Holy Spirit), and the saint, if one is being celebrated during the Mass. The second type of bow is a more profound act, bending from the waist. We profoundly bow toward the tabernacle if physically unable to genuflect. This type bow is likewise made to the altar, if for some reason the tabernacle is not visible. We bow during the creed at the words, “and by the Holy Spirit was incarnate...” Approaching the minister to receive Holy Communion, we also profoundly bow (GIRM, Nos. 160, 275).
On Sunday mornings, we arrive early to spend a few precious moments on our knees preparing our hearts and minds to enter into the mysteries of the Mass, preparing to pour out our litany of prayers and to proclaim the name of Jesus. During Mass, we kneel at the Holy, Holy, Holy for the consecration through the Great Amen; following the Lamb of God, we kneel down, humbling ourselves for holy Communion. Once in Church history, kneeling was regarded as a posture only for penance; today, it is also an act of adoration (GIRM, No. 43).
Sign of the Cross
The first thing many Catholics do when entering the Church is to dip their fingers in the holy water font and trace the Sign of the Cross on their bodies. By this act, we are remembering our baptism and acknowledging that we have entered a sacred space. We left the internet and the chaos of life outside and turn all our attention to Our Lord Jesus and the holy sacrifice of the Mass. The Sign of the Cross is made with the right hand, all fingers pointing up (the five wounds of Jesus), while touching our foreheads, our breast and our shoulders (left to right): Father, Son, Holy Spirit — the Trinity. Making this sign during Mass is mentioned throughout the General Instructions. We also make a smaller version using our thumb just before the Gospel, marking our forehead, lips and breast: “may the words of the Gospel be in our minds, on our lips and in our heart” (GIRM, No. 134).
Sign of peace
According to the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, “The rite of peace follows [the Lord’s Prayer], by which the Church asks for peace and unity for herself and the whole human family, and the faithful express to each other their ecclesial communion and mutual charity before communicating in the Sacrament. As for the sign of peace to be given, the manner is to be established by Conferences of Bishops in accordance with the culture and customs of the peoples. It is, however, appropriate that each person offer the sign of peace only to those who are nearest and in a sober manner” (No. 82).
In the Early Church, the kiss of peace was included in the Mass at the offertory when the gifts were brought up. Those first Christians connected the bringing up the gifts with the Gospel: “if you bring your gift to the altar, and there recall that your brother has anything against you, leave your gift there at the altar, go first and be reconciled with your brother, and then come and offer your gift” (Mt 5:23-24).
By the fifth century, placement of the kiss of peace in the Mass had been changed to where it is located today. Up until the late Middle Ages, there were no pews in churches, the congregation stood during Mass and, even centuries later, men and women were separated; so the kiss, or an arm’s-length embrace, was between members of the same sex. Somehow, this arrangement became problematic, and by the 13th century, the pax board was introduced into the Mass.
In “The Mass of the Roman Rite,” Jesuit Father Joseph Jungmann wrote that, “the pax board consisted of a small tablet of wood or ivory or metal (even gold or silver) upon which was graven or painted the figure of Our Lord or of a saint or sometimes symbolic figures and usually encased in a frame with a handle at the back so that it could stand on the altar during Mass.”
The pax board would first be kissed by the priest and then others in the congregation, normally when they came to the altar rail for Communion. Eventually, the pax board mostly disappeared from the Mass, and the 16th century Council of Trent restricted the kiss of peace to the priest, ministers and servers. The Second Vatican Council reinstated the ritual into the Mass for the congregation and in the spot just after the Our Father, where it had been for centuries.
There has been discussion since Vatican II as to whether the sign of peace should be moved to be part of the offertory, as in the early Church. In 2014, the Congregation for Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments issued a circular letter emphasizing the ritual remain just where it is in the Mass:
“It should be made clear once and for all that the rite of peace already has its own profound meaning of prayer and offering of peace in the context of the Eucharist. An exchange of peace appropriately carried out among the participants at Mass enriches the meaning of the rite itself and gives fuller expression to it.”
The letter states that the ritual, in accordance with the GIRM, is optional, and when included in the Mass, it should be done in a manner “to avoid the movement of the faithful from their places to exchange the sign of peace amongst themselves.”