Summary: Profound bows, joining of hands for prayer, and striking our breast are all important adjuncts to our worship.

Feast of St. James

July 25, 2011

Spirit of the Liturgy

Some of the apostles have paired feasts–Ss. Peter and Paul, Simon and Jude, Philip and James the Lesser. We would expect James and John, blood brothers, to be treated in this way, but they each have their own festival day. I think that is partially because they each developed special characteristic virtues out of their one big weakness–being mama’s boys, willful, proud and arrogant. The Gospel incident I just proclaimed gives us the background. At the ascension of Jesus onto the cross, at his crucifixion, rebels and thieves were on Jesus’s right and left. James was nowhere in sight; John belatedly brought Mary and Mary Magdalene to the foot of his throne, his cross.

St. Augustine had it right about us poor, weak humans. Our biggest fault, the lynchpin to the seven deadly sins, is hubris, pride, the lying about ourselves and our innate goodness and virtue that is offensive to God and man. What does every mother of a serial killer say about her monster-child? “He was such a good boy.” The problem with building up that kind of false self-image is that we begin to believe that we are the arbiter of goodness, of right and wrong. I begin to believe that what gives me pleasure is good, and what brings me pain is evil. That is hubris, overweening pride, the sin of Satan. It is truly the road to becoming a sex abuser, abortionist, chronic tax-cheat, adulterer, inveterate liar, the broadway to hell. James and John, filled with the Holy Spirit, chose the narrow way, the way of humilitas, which literally means the virtue of soil, acknowledging our weakness and tendency to sin, and our reliance on the grace of God to bring forth fruit from our soil.

Two physical gestures in our liturgy put this attitude into our bodies. The first is the profound bow, the bow from the waist. In the Roman Canon, our Eucharistic Prayer I, the priest prays

Supplices te Rogamus, which literally means, “bowing down, we implore you.” The new translation of the Mass improves the old “almighty God, we pray” by saying “in humble prayer, we ask you, almighty God.” It restores the attitude of humilitas that should pervade all of our prayer. We bow, therefore, at the important acknowledgments of humility. Whenever we say the “Gloria Patri” or “Glory to the Father, the Son & Holy Spirit,” we should bow from the waist. When we recite the Profession of Faith, we bow to acknowledge the humility of Jesus becoming incarnate in the womb of the Blessed Virgin. And, of course, when we approach the altar of the Lord, we bow before the Host, truly God made man, and before the cup of the Precious Blood. And we make these profound vows whether we are receiving that species or not. You probably already know that we deacons profoundly bow at our blessing before proclaiming the Gospel, and when we pass in front of the altar, which is a symbol of Christ, and when we reverence the Scriptures or the Eucharist. The priest also makes a profound bow if he physically cannot genuflect.

Striking the breast is a very Scriptural gesture of humility and repentance. The Tax collector in Lk 18 struck his breast. The Holy Father reminds us that “this gesture, by which we point not at someone else but at ourselves as the guilty party, remains a meaningful gesture of prayer. This is exactly what we need, time and again, to do: to see and acknowledge our guilt and so also to beg for forgiveness.” We may do this again during the breaking of bread, the Lamb of God, “ to remind ourselves, even physically, that our iniquities lay on [Christ’s] shoulders, that ‘with his stripes we are healed.’” (207)

The rubrics tell us clerics, and the altar servers, to pray with hands joined, like this [illustrate]. “This comes from the world of feudalism. The recipient of a feudal estate, on taking tenure, placed his joined hands in those of his lord–a wonderful symbolic act. I lay my hands in yours, allow yours to enclose mine. This is an expression of trust as well as of fidelity.” All priests do this with the bishop at ordination. “The new priest receives the gift and task of priesthood as a gift from another, from Christ.” In a real sense, we exercise our common priesthood–clerics and laity alike–by praying for ourselves and others. This hands joined posture then is a symbol of that priesthood of all believers, and a sign of our trust in Christ, that our hands may be Christ’s hands.(205)

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