Sunday, 6 June 2010
On Genuflecting, Corpus Christi, Shaftesbury
On today's feast of Corpus Christi I want to say a few words about something very dear to my heart , namely, genuflection. A genuflection, I want to tell you today, is simple thing that getting it right or failing to get it right makes a big difference: many of the problems in our spiritual lives can be resolved by a good genuflection because making a good genuflection re-orients us properly to the Lord and helps us regain focus.
The popular Cardinal Hume, shortly before he died, issued a pastoral letter in which he called for the rediscovery of the practice of genuflection. Now on one level this was all rather odd thing to him to say, because genuflection had never been abolished, yet it had somehow drifted out of practice in many places, or when it is done it somehow feels that it's not being done as well as it used to be. And so he called for us to restore the practice of genuflection.
To get back to basics, what are we talking about we talk about a genuflection? A genuflection is the “act of bending the right knee to the floor”, to quote the Catholic Encyclopaedia (Catholic Encyclopaedia, 1991). Or, to quote the post-Vatican II Ceremonial, “A genuflection, made by bending only the right knee to the ground, signifies adoration, and is therefore reserved for the Blessed Sacrament” (Ceremonial (1989) n.69). This is a very ancient form of doing homage. And in order that this act of homage may be a religious act it is customary to make a brief little prayer when we move our body in this way, for example, to say St Thomas’s words, “My Lord and my God”(Jn 20:28).
Now, there are some people who come in to church but don't bend their knee all the way down to the ground, they do a kind of wiggle thing instead. While there are other people who bend their knee fully, but do so while not looking at the tabernacle but rather looking at someone else, maybe saying "Hi Joe!" etc. This raises the question of why its important to do this properly, which is the same as asking why we do this at all.
Now, we don't live in a society where people normally get down on their knees to anybody! So, for us to think about what a genuflection means involves was thinking a bit more broadly.
Let me make a comparison. How would you behave if you went to meet the Queen? This is probably the only place left in our secular British culture where an act of reverence is made to a person. When you meet the Queen you bow to her if you are a man or courtesy if you are a woman. That said, not everybody would bow to the Queen: if you are a republican and are opposed to the monarchy you might well refuse to bow to the Queen. Whereas, if you believe in the value of a constitutional monarchy, and if you've feel that Queen Elizabeth in particular is a very admirable lady, then when you bow to her you are expressing your belief in the monarchy and your personal affection for her.
In such an act, much like bowing or curtseying to the Queen, in such an act your body expresses what you feel in your heart and what you believe in your mind.
So how should our body behave before the Tabernacle? If you are a militant atheist or if you hate God then your body will express your heart and mind by refusing to make any act of reverence to Jesus before us in the Blessed Sacrament, in the Tabernacle. We, however, if we have come to Mass, have come here because we are not militant atheists and we do not hate God. If we have come here to Mass, then it is proper that our bodies should express, by genuflecting, by getting down on one knee, to express that we (i) love and respect the Lord Jesus, and that we (ii) believe that Jesus is here in the Tabernacle.
Quite simply, we should genuflect to Jesus because it is a form of worship that we as His creatures owe Him.
To address a couple simple practicalities: WHEN should we genuflect?
I think that some changes in the rubrics in recent decades have led to some confusion, in that the new rubrics mean that there are now some times when the altar servers DON’T genuflect, and that has confused some people. To help clarify matters I’ve put those quotations in the newsletter, but let me spell it out:
First, ALL of us, unless physically incapacitated, all of us should genuflect to the Tabernacle when we enter the Church before we enter or leave our pew, or when walking across in front of the Tabernacle before or after Mass. “No one who enters a church should fail to adore the blessed sacrament ...at least by genuflecting. Similarly those who pass before the blessed sacrament genuflect.”(Ceremonial (1989) n.71)
Then, for behaviour during the Mass itself: Here I am going to correct what I may have said to some of you previously, and I’m correcting myself on the basis of that recent text I’ve quoted in the newsletter:
We should genuflect on entering the sanctuary and on leaving the sanctuary. This includes readers, and because we use the old pulpit as our lectern that means that our sanctuary actually includes the area leading to the pulpit, so readers should genuflect when they come up to read and when they leave after reading. Similarly, Extraordinary Eucharistic Ministers should genuflect on entering and leaving the sanctuary. “If the tabernacle is located on the sanctuary, the celebrant, deacons, servers, lectors etc, genuflect when approaching the altar at the beginning and leaving at the end of a liturgical celebration. But they do not genuflect during the celebration itself. Otherwise, all who pass before the tabernacle genuflect, for example lectors [readers] and extraordinary [Eucharistic] ministers on entering and leaving the sanctuary. Only those who are physically incapacitated should substitute a bow for a genuflection.” (Ceremonies of the Modern Roman Rite (2004) n.199)
Some of the confusion, I think, stems from the fact that servers, during the Mass but not outside the Mass, are now not to genuflect every time they pass in front of the Tabernacle but only the first time they enter the sanctuary and the last time they leave the sanctuary –this is confusing because people see the servers not genuflect and think that genuflection has somehow been abolished, but it hasn’t been.
I hope I’ve been clear, if not, hopefully re-reading the newsletter entry will help.
But, I want to tell you that genuflecting to Jesus in the Tabernacle is not merely something we should do because we are obliged, but it is also something that is good for us to do, something that benefits us by doing it.
One of the major problems we have in life is that we lose our proper focus, we lose our direction, we get stressed and worried because we're not looking where we should be looking, we don't have that calming and strengthening focus that being focused on the Lord God gives us.
This is one of the very simple but crucial ways that an act of genuflection benefits us. When we genuflect properly, not just casually looking over at somebody else waving hello while giving a kind of mechanical genuflection before the Tabernacle, and not just physically making the genuflection perfect, but making a genuflection where we are thinking of what we are doing and meaning what we are doing: a genuflection where my body is pointed towards the Lord in the Tabernacle and my heart is thinking of the Lord in the Tabernacle and I get down on my knee before Him as an act of loving reference to Him.
For myself, I know that one of the things that makes the biggest difference to my day is how I make my first morning genuflection. When I wake up in the morning the first thing I do is I come down to this church and I genuflect Jesus in the Tabernacle before I go to kneel and sit and pray. There are times when I genuflect properly and that simple action has a big effect: my prayer is better focused, and my day is more directed and structured. There are other times when I'll finish my first half-hour of morning prayer and realise that the reason my prayer was all distracted was because I didn't make the effort to make the initial genuflection properly focused.
When YOU come into this church how you genuflect will affect how well you are focused during the Mass. As a consequence, how you genuflect will affect how well you are focused on God for the rest of the week. It's a simple thing, but it has huge consequences.
So, when you genuflect look ahead to Jesus in the Tabernacle, when you genuflect do it wholeheartedly so that your knee actually touches the ground, don't do the wiggle thing, and when you genuflect focus your heart and mind in love and reverence to the loving and all-powerful God who is here before you.
And if you get that simple thing right it's a simple thing with big consequences.
“No one who enters a church should fail to adore the blessed sacrament ...at least by genuflecting. Similarly those who pass before the blessed sacrament genuflect.”(Ceremonial (1989) n.71)
“If the tabernacle is located on the sanctuary, the celebrant, deacons, servers, lectors etc, genuflect when approaching the altar at the beginning and leaving at the end of a liturgical celebration. But they do not genuflect during the celebration itself. Otherwise, all who pass before the tabernacle genuflect, for example lectors [readers] and extraordinary [Eucharistic] ministers on entering and leaving the sanctuary. Only those who are physically incapacitated should substitute a bow for a genuflection.” (Ceremonies of the Modern Roman Rite (2004) n.199)