We are now three posts into answering the question of what the physical gestures of our worship mean. In post 1, I offered a definition of our physical movement in worship as “visual, bodily invitations to worship God with our whole selves,” and in post 2 we discussed the ancient posture of prayer known as “the orans.” As you can tell by this post’s title, we have now arrived at “The Bow.”
Above is a piece of artwork from a Greek Orthodox church in Illinois. Note how these great saints bow both to the cross in their midst and to the enthroned Christ above them.
At All Saints, the first bow you will notice is that many members of the congregation bow as the cross passes them in the processional. In the movement of the cross up and down the middle aisle at the beginning and end of the service, a bow recognizes God’s work of reconciling humanity-to-God and human-to-human through the cross.
Next, when approaching or even passing nearby the altar, you will see folks make a solemn bow (‘solemn’ practically meaning ‘deep’ and ‘at the waist’) to make clear that we don’t take for granted the gift of our God truly residing in our midst and inviting us to share at the Lord’s Table.
Internally, in my personal experience, bowing toward the altar and cross before leading the congregation in the Prayers of the People has an effect on my heart and mind, helping me to be more collected and more fully aware of the important work of prayer that we are undertaking. I know the same experience is true for many of our readers and those who help serve Communion.
Yet another traditional time to bow during the service is at the mention of the name of Jesus in the liturgy (yes, a lot of bows possible there) or when we speak together of His Incarnation, for instance, in the Nicene Creed’s “For us and for our salvation….”
So, we’ve talked a lot about bowing now, but the question may still be, “I really don’t feel comfortable with that. Do I have to do it?” With bowing in particular, it is easy to feel that we look silly. It feels foreign to us. It’s not contemporary American social convention. We may have theological questions (and if you would like those addressed, please email us, or talk to one of our clergy, as I can’t really address them in the course of this particular post).
For plenty of us, though, it comes down to a certain unnameable strangeness: “Bowing to the cross feels weird.” Very practically, I would encourage you–this coming Sunday, when the cross passes by in the processional, try a bow as an act of worship. See how it feels. Pray about it. Try it the next week too, and perhaps a third week. Don’t be afraid to experiment with new things in worship.
And then, don’t just keep your experience and your thoughts to yourself. Strike up a conversation about it with other folks you know at All Saints, other Christians in your life, or one of All Saints’ clergy. It’s fine if bowing is not for you, but it has been a wonderful deepening of worship for many believers.
With Jacob saying “Truly God was in this place!”, with Moses taking off his shoes beside the revelation of God in the burning bush, with Mary in her “How can this be?!”, we too are so blessed by God-with-us that we need to do something with our bodies to express how the Incarnation of Jesus Christ changes everything. For the historic church, this has often been a bow, a more practical version of the truly appropriate falling on our faces before God.
So, to return to the language put forth in the first installment of this answer, what is the ‘invitation’ of the bow? The bow’s invitation is to remember and to celebrate how great is the mystery of the Holy One who has become one of us, and who truly delights to dwell with us in the midst of our worship.
Grace and peace,
Rev. Nick Jordan