This post is a part of Rookie Anglican, a blog dedicated to Making Anglicanism Accessible.
What’s the most confusing part of an Anglican worship service?
Surely the “liturgical dance moves” are near the top of the list! You know, when it seems like everyone else in the service — except you! — knows to make a certain motion at a certain time. Leaving you high, dry, and sometimes embarrassed.
And, even if this doesn’t apply to you directly, it will surely apply to any visitors you bring to an Anglican worship service! So, let’s talk a bit about the use of ritual actions in worship.
Ritual Actions in Worship: Your Body Matters!
Ritual actions are important to the Church’s worship because they can help to prevent it from becoming Gnostic – from disdaining the physical world God created as “good”!
God did not create disembodied minds, but fully embodied human beings to worship Him (Gen. 2:7). Therefore, what we do with our bodies, as temples of the Holy Spirit, matters, as we await God’s promise of a bodily resurrection (1 Cor. 6:19-20; 15:44; Phil 3:21).
Now, conservative evangelical Christians in the USA have often applied these truths negatively to the avoidance of unhealthy substances and practices. That is, if/when they’ve been concerned about what we do with our bodies, it’s mainly been about what we shouldn’t do with our bodies.
We have arguably neglected to relate Christian truths about the body positively to the importance of ritual acts to mystagogy (education about the sacramental life) and worship (Chan, Liturgical Theology, 122-3).
So, I say we start to think more about what we should do with our bodies as Christians! Let’s take a look at three ritual actions which take place in the Eucharistic liturgy: bowing, kneeling, and crossing yourself.
First, bowing takes place upon the congregation’s entrance to the sanctuary, and also as the processional cross passes by (during the procession, Gospel procession, and recession). This posture of respect bodily reminds the worshiper to take seriously the presence of the divine majesty in worship (Chan, 132).
It was taken by Abraham at the arrival of three theophanic (“appearance of God”) visitors (Gen 18:2), the people of Israel when they believed that YHWH would rescue them from Egypt (Exod 4:31), and Joshua when he encountered the commander of YHWH’s army (Josh 5:14).
It was taken by the disciples of Jesus to the extent that they recognized Christ as Lord (Matt 28:9; Luke 24:52), and it is taken by the angels in the heavenly sanctuary to which the Church is lifted up in its Eucharistic liturgy (Rev 7:11).
This angelic posture is therefore taken when the Church repeats the angel’s words in the Sanctus (“Holy, holy, holy,” Rev 4:8) – and also, following the disciples’ example, when the name of Christ is mentioned (Phil 2:11).
The same logic governs bowing at the mention of the Trinity in the Doxology or elsewhere. To the extent that Christians believe God Himself inhabits their praises (Ps 22:3), they can adopt a bodily posture which reflects and reinforces that belief.
Second, if bowing is the appropriate posture of respect during adoration or praise, kneeling is appropriate during prayer. This is because, when praying to God, Christians are humbly bringing their requests to the King of kings (1 Tim 6:15).
That is, this physical posture reminds the worshiper of the true order of things: God is in control. We are not.
Just as Solomon (1 Kgs 8:54), Daniel (Dan 6:10), and Paul (Eph 3:14) knelt when praying, so also Christians can kneel during the Prayers of the People and the Prayer of Consecration – perhaps also extending their hands in a further expression of personal surrender to God’s will.
For more information on kneeling, check out this piece by Canon Porter Taylor.
Third, and finally, although making the sign of the cross does not appear in the Bible (as Puritans have often noted), the ritual action enjoys a long history in the Church, and makes good biblical and theological sense.
Although it can take place as a physical prayer for blessing before the Gospel lesson and during the Benedictus qui venit (“Blessed is he who comes”), the sign of the cross finds its fullest meaning in recalling the seal (sphragis) made over the Christian in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit at baptism.
Just as “the sphragis was the mark with which an owner marked his possessions,” so “the sign of the Cross with which the candidate for Baptism is marked on his forehead shows that henceforth he belongs to Christ” (Daniélou, The Bible and the Liturgy, 55-6).
Furthermore, biblical resonances exist with God’s marking of Cain to protect him (Gen 4:15) and the seal of God which the 144,000 bear on their foreheads (Rev 7:4).
Crossing oneself is, therefore, more than just a visible reminder of Triune faith, it is a re-marking of oneself as belonging to the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
For more information about the sign of the cross, check out this helpful post from Canon Greg Goebel. Also, this video is informative:
Along with bowing and kneeling, the sign of the cross is a reinforcing reminder of believers’ embodied connection to the Triune God.
What other ritual actions would you like to know more about?
Have you encountered any other helpful explanations of ritual actions?
Please share your thoughts in the comments below!
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