September 20, 2007
The Ka'bah is less than forty feet high. Certainly not a rival to the one thousand four hundred and fifty-three feet tall Empire State Building. Yet its impact on our world history has been greater. This small, cubed building is located near the center of the Great Mosque in Mecca. Muslims considered it the most sacred spot on earth. Five times every day, Muslims face this shrine for their prayers. In mosques around the world, a niche (Mehrab), is built where an imam can stand facing the direction of the Ka'bah. The people join him from behind and follow him in prayer. So important is the direction of the Ka’bah at Mecca that Muslims bury their dead facing its meridian. Prayer and body language go together.
So, too, for the Jews. Orientation of the body at prayer has meaning. The most important prayer of the synagogue is the
Shemoneh Esrei (the Eighteen Blessings). Observant Jews recite this central prayer of the Jewish liturgy each morning, afternoon and evening. They pray it standing and facing the ark that houses the Torah. The Torah niche shows the
direction of prayer. It orients those praying toward the Land of Israel. Those praying in Israel face Jerusalem (1 Kings 8:29, 30, 44; 2 Chronicles 6:21; Daniel 6:10). Those in Jerusalem face the Temple Mount. This tradition of orientation to the Temple has persevered even in recent Reform American synagogues.
Praying toward the place where the Temple once stood keeps alive the expectation that one day the Messiah will come, the Temple will be rebuilt and the dead will rise from their graves. The position of the body itself during this prayer is clearly an act of eschatological hope and Messianic expectation.
In the same way, when the first Christians built their churches, they built them facing the East. As the sun rises in the East and brightens the day, Christ himself will come again at the end of time to bathe us in the eternal light of God’s glory. He is the Rising Son that will never set. This is why the Christians adopted the
ad orientem position for prayer. They were expressing their expectation of the Second Coming.
Even in liturgy today, we use the position of our body to signal a spiritual attitude. We sit during the readings. It is the position of attentive listening. We stand during the Gospel. It is a sign of respect and welcome. When the priest prays the Eucharistic Prayer, we kneel. During this prayer, we express our profound reverence and adoration as we are caught up in the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross.
To insure good order and a proper use of our body in liturgy, the Church lays down liturgical norms. “…Every liturgical celebration, because it is an action of Christ the priest and of his Body the Church, is a sacred action surpassing all others” (
Sacrosanctum Concilium, 7). It is for this reason that the Church pays particular attentions to the gestures and postures we use at Mass.
Liturgical norms are a concrete expression of the authentically ecclesial nature of the Eucharist. The
General Instruction on the Roman Missal and
Redemptionis Sacramentum are documents that guide us in our common worship. These instructions are needed so that the Liturgy may be seen for what it truly is—the worship of the Church. It is God’s people uniting themselves to Christ.
As the public worship of the Church, the Liturgy belongs to all of us. It is neither the property of the priest nor the private devotion of the individual. It is never merely an expression of a particular parish or community.
Frank Sinatra’s popular rendition of “
I Did It My Way” is as much about music as it is about the strong sense of individualism in our American spirit. Some will always be tempted not to follow the words and the gestures that the Church asks us to use. Some may long for more ancient ways; others, for more modern ways. But for the sake of good order, the Church calls us to unity. Following liturgical norms makes our local parishes and communities enlivened by a more tangible expression of our belonging to something greater than ourselves.
It may take a childlike humility to do as the Church asks in the celebration of the Liturgy. True love is never proud. “Priests who faithfully celebrate Mass according to the liturgical norms, and communities which conform to these norms, quietly but eloquently demonstrate their love for the Church” (
Ecclesia de Eucharistia, 52).
This is the second of two articles that treat the meaning of bodily gestures at liturgy.