TBT: Uncompromising Genuflexion
Published in Gottesdienst 2002:3 (Michaelmas), and reprinted in Leave It Alone. You’ll Break It, 195-213..
Now they even have lobbies, gyms, boutiques, banks, and McDonald’s restaurants on their premises. The megachurches have certainly not gone away; they have merely become more mega. The rationale for making the churches into marketplaces is generally the idea that the gathering of people to exchange greetings over coffee is to be considered a “meaningful” part of Christian worship. Maybe the Golden Arches haven’t yet become Golden Steeples, but they certainly aren’t very far away from the chancel.
Since this is so, it behooves us who know better about what is the truly meaningful part of Christian worship to make our confession all the more bold. As we believe and teach, so must we confess. Since Christian worship must be the worship of Christ, and since Christ’s sacramental presence is at the heart of Christian worship, what is called for here is a re-evaluation of our liturgical ways of confessing the faith, as we seek continually to be faithful.
What appears to be at issue in the worship wars waging across America these days is how, or whether at all, we may liturgically insist upon the Gospel. There is considerable pressure being placed upon churches and pastors to declare that it is improper to insist upon anything liturgical at all, saying, rather, that the freedom of the Gospel means that we can worship any way we see fit, so long as the words expressed in worship are consistent with the Gospel. The battleground finds the proponents of liturgical leniency contending for a separation between form and substance, while the defenders of orthodox liturgical practice maintain the old maxim lex orandi, lex credendi (literally, the rule of prayer is the rule of believing): the rubrics governing the conduct of our worship have direct bearing upon the essence of our faith. More simply put, we contend that the way one conducts himself at prayer is tied to the focus and heart of his prayer.
Liturgical worship recognizes that the posture and behavior of the participants is a reflection of what they profess. To cite the extreme case, if someone enters the church with a pink spike hairdo, rings of one kind or another piercing his body in various places, a swagger in his gait, a smirk on his face, and perhaps a chortle at every reference to Jesus that he hears, it becomes apparent that he does not really wish to be present, or associated with the Christian Church. Therefore, on the contrary we find it fitting to dress properly for church, to carry ourselves with decency, to make the sign of the cross, to fold the hands, to stand erect, to bow the head, or—notwithstanding its increasing unpopularity—to bend the knee.
Which brings me to the topic of this essay.
Of the fact that genuflexion is biblical and apostolic there can be no doubt. Daniel “knelt down three times a day” to pray (Daniel 6:10), Solomon knelt in the presence of all Israel at the dedication of his temple (1 Kings 8:54), and Esdras knelt in prayer (1 Esdras 9:5). The Wise Men knelt before the Christ (St. Matthew 2:11), a leper knelt to beseech His mercy (St. Mark 1:40), Stephen knelt (Acts 7:59), St. Peter knelt (Acts 9:40), St. Paul knelt (Acts 20:36) and maintained the significance of genuflexion (e.g., Ephesians 3:14; Philippians 2:10), and most importantly, Christ Himself in Gethsemane knelt down to pray (St. Luke 22:41). Tradition relates that St. James’s knees, from his continual kneeling, had become callous as those of a camel (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History [Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1980], bk. 2, sec. 23). Genuflexion is certainly a matter of form, and it ought to be self-evident that it is directly related to substance. Although we ought never consider a failure to genuflect in itself a statement against what it professes—for that would be judgmental—we always recognize that genuflexion is itself a statement of faith. It is unmistakably a way of adoring Christ. In the worship setting, it is also unmistakably a way of adoring Him in the Sacrament.
We must learn to do liturgically what we say theologically. Most especially lex orandi, lex credendi is true in a sacramental sense, and this leads me to offer this particular application. In view of the liturgical malaise we face, and especially the evidence of manifest disregard and disdain for the Holy Sacrament, a liturgical response is in order. It’s high time that we who call ourselves confessional all got used to genuflecting before the Sacrament every Sunday. For this more than any other liturgical action demonstrates the object of our worship and allegiance.
This assumes that we offer the Sacrament every Sunday. The rise of the megachurch makes it all the more imperative that we set before our people what we know to be the heart of Christian worship, namely, Christ on the altar. And this is no more legalism than to insist upon Christ. To offer the Sacrament every Sunday to those who desire it is to offer them Christ. It is simply a matter of faith: lex orandi, lex credendi. The Christian, according to the Catechism, should be admonished and encouraged to receive the Sacrament frequently by “both the command and the promise of Christ the Lord” and by “his own pressing need, because of which the command, encouragement, and promise are given” (Small Catechism, Section 4: “Christian Questions with Their Answers”). Should not the churches therefore be offering the Sacrament for frequent reception? How can one receive it frequently if it be not offered frequently? If we are teaching and confessing the importance of frequent reception, yet persistently adhere to the Rationalist/Pietist innovations of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries which allowed some Sundays to pass without even offering the Sacrament, then there is a clear contradiction between what we say and what we do. We really have no right to call ourselves “confessional Lutherans” if we do not seek to correct this blatant deviation from the sacramental and, until well into the sixteenth century, universal practice of the Christian Church.
And given the current sacramental crisis, genuflexion before the Sacrament is becoming more difficult to see as an entirely indifferent matter. This is not to say that it ought to become a law for Christians; this is not and should not be a matter of forced submission. It is the Church of Rome which makes genuflexion a matter of liturgical law. The “General Instruction” of the Missal (4th ed., 1975) indicates that if the faithful stand to communicate (as is customary), they “must” genuflect before receiving, because they are told that they must adore Christ here. Though we agree that Christ’s Body and Blood are truly present here, we make no laws out of the Gospel, though we are commonly charged with doing just that. It is Rome which does that, not we. I find, rather, that because genuflexion is an adoration of Christ in the Sacrament, I can scarcely do otherwise than to bend the knee. If I find myself recognizing that the impetus for genuflecting is a strong one, it is not because I feel constrained to follow some law, but rather because I desire to confess my faith boldly. Here, to put the matter simply, is the difference in ritual between Roman Catholics and Lutherans: they genuflect because they have to, we do so because we want to.
And our wanting to do so is not only because of the megachurch phenomenon, but in view of another consideration pertaining to our own liturgical milieu. Even among those who like to think of themselves as more traditional and confessional in worship preferences, there is still—there has been for a long time—a critical bone of contention over the issue of receptionism. As I indicated in these pages some time ago (“Responding to Romaphobia: The Reason for Liturgical Piety,” vol. 8, no. 4: Christmas 2000, p. 9), the receptionist position holds that the words of Christ apply only to those parts of the elements which are actually received. The receptionist view is that whatever is not consumed is mere bread and wine, since it is not included in the entire sacramental action. The Formula of Concord’s Article VII (“The Holy Supper”) declares that
if the institution of Christ be not observed as He appointed it, there is no sacrament . . . And the use or action here does not mean chiefly faith, neither the oral participation only, but the entire external, visible action of the Lord’s Supper instituted by Christ, the consecration, or words of institution, the distribution and reception, or oral partaking of the consecrated bread and wine, of the body and blood of Christ. And apart from this use, when in the papistic mass the bread is not distributed, but offered up or enclosed, borne about, and exhibited for adoration, it is to be regarded as no sacrament (Solid Declaration, par. 83-87).
As I indicated in the Romaphobia article, what the Formula means to reject is the abuse of the Sacrament, where the Host is enclosed in a monstrance for adoration only and is never eaten. But the receptionists have taken this to mean that only that portion of the elements actually used in the Distribution are truly Christ’s Body and Blood (to access this article, see ). They have taken this usus statement from the Formula of Concord to mean that the Body and Blood of Christ cease to be present in every instance where the Sacrament is not being eaten and drunk, and have forgotten the logic of abusus non tollit usum—let not the abuse determine what ought to be done—and so have come to the conclusion that Christ’s true Body and Blood may or may not be present in this or that particular element. No longer can the celebrant with complete conviction repeat the words of Christ, This is My Body, for now we must wonder, what is this? when is is operative? or what, for that matter, is truly meant by is?
No wonder they have grown sloppy at the altar, and unwitting bedfellows of the megachurch promoters, who, like them, give evidence that their true affections lie somewhere other than there. No wonder they rush through the Words of Institution with such haste that we wonder what train they have to catch after the service. No wonder they have no trouble with plastic individual Communion cups: it isn’t really Christ’s own very Blood in there; it only might be, and at that, only when consumed, or, come to think of it, only at the moment it is consumed! For after consumption, by the same token, it is no longer in use either, since the use has ended; and therefore, it is no longer Christ’s Blood. But now, alas, we must wonder when, if ever, the elements are truly Christ’s Body and Blood. Not before, not after, only during! But what is “during”? At the moment it passes the vertical plane of the opened lips? At the nanosecond it sits on the tongue before digestion begins? Thus is becomes virtually never. Meanwhile the megachurch promoters would retort, “Who cares? Let’s go to McDonald’s for some real fellowship.”
But we take Christ at His word. He simply says, This is My Body. Now let us consider: lex orandi, lex credendi. How are we to behave, in consequence of this truth, especially knowing there are those who deny it, or who don’t care about it? They are saying that Christ’s Body does not, or may not, truly sit on the altar. How can we be idle here? The Scriptures declare, “I believed, therefore have I spoken” (Psalm 116:10 KJV). What does our posture say? What do our actions say?
Here is one confessional Lutheran who believes it is time for all who have not yet done so to take a serious look at genuflexion. The bending of the knee is a clear and unambiguous gesture of adoration, such as we offer to Christ alone. Yes, we believe that Christ is here, that He sits on the altar because of His own words, This is My Body, and that He is here worthy to be adored. Lex orandi, lex credendi.
Certainly, apart from the use there is no Sacrament, which is why as Lutherans we reject the use of the monstrance, an ornate case intended only for the exhibition and adoration of a Sacred Host. But we do not by this token deny that the Sacrament, as properly administered, is worthy of adoration. It is the true Body and Blood of Christ! Of course it is worthy of adoration, as nothing else on earth. Moreover we affirm that the chief thing in the Sacrament, besides the bodily eating and drinking, are the words “Given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins” (Small Catechism, “The Sacrament of the Altar”). But by genuflexion we affirm that what is “given and shed for you” is indeed the Body and Blood of Christ, by His own words.
Surely it is not wrong to adore Christ’s Body, which is Christ Himself. His purpose is not to present His Body here for adoration but for oral reception, to be sure, but is it not proper to emphasize in our ceremony the truth that it is His Body that we are about to receive? Do we not agree that His true Body is where He says it is? These ceremonies are most appropriate settings for the mystery that is Christ among us, and for us. “No one, unless he be an Arian heretic, can and will deny that Christ Himself, true God and man, who is truly and essentially present in the Supper, should be adored in spirit and in truth in the true use of the same, as also in all other places, especially where His congregation is assembled” (Formula of Concord, Solid Declaration, VII, par. 126).
Receptionism seeks to slice and divide which of the consecrated elements are His Body and Blood and which are not, or worse, to put off the moment of the change until the bread is received. This amounts to a new reading of Christ’s words, as if He had said, “This will become My Body when you eat it, but is not yet at this moment of consecration My Body.” But Christ said is, and He cannot lie. Once is is denied, the Zwinglian position wins. The receptionists put off the effect of is until later, whereas the Zwinglians put it off until never, a difference only in degree. Even transubstantiation, the Thomist invention and philosophical construct which maintains a distinction between the substance (Christ’s Body and Blood, truly present) and the accidents (the taste, appearance, etc., of bread and wine, which they hold to be no longer substantially present), is nowhere near as bad as this. Though both constructs are unacceptable, the rejection of Christ’s is is far worse than the impropriety of its philosophical analysis. As Luther once put it, “Sooner than have mere wine with the fanatics, I would agree with the pope that there is only blood” (Luther’s Works, American Edition, ed. Helmut T. Lehmann, vol. 37, ed. Robert H. Fischer [Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1961], p. 317).
In about the year 1200, a new view of the Sacrament became prevalent in the teaching of Peter Comestor and Peter the Chanter, who held that the bread was not consecrated in the Mass until the Words of Institution had been spoken over both bread and wine. As a matter of protest against this view, there arose the practice of elevating the Host before the consecration of the cup. Those who confessed that the presence of Christ was effected by the words This is My Body supported their confession by at once adoring it, without waiting for the words to be spoken over the chalice. At Paris, this elevation even became a matter of synodal precept (see www.newadvent.org/cathen/05380b.htm). Certain superstitions also began to arise in connection with this elevation, which nevertheless ought not detract from the fact that genuflexion was understood as a bold act of adoration, of refusing to concede the adversary’s contention. This was uncompromising genuflexion.
Similarly, in the days of the Reformation, there arose a telling liturgical difference between the Lutherans and the Reformed, reflective of their respective views of the Sacrament. Since the Reformed held that it was a mere symbol, they were content to discontinue the practice of genuflecting. Their strong emphasis on the sovereignty of God brought with it an iconoclasm and disdain for anything which might be considered idolatrous worship of “graven images.” Hence genuflexion became particularly odious. But the Lutherans parted company here, and insisted not only upon the real presence of Christ’s Body in, with, and under the sacramental Host, but also upon a rejection of any view of God which separated Him from the Incarnation. For the Lutherans at the altar, genuflexion became a means of affirming their faith in Christ’s real presence in the Sacrament, as well as a liturgical means of rejecting the errors of the Reformed. The Reformed refused to kneel; the Lutherans consequently made clear their desire to bend the knee at the altar rail. This too was uncompromising genuflexion.
It is this aspect of the genuflexion which is particularly appealing, and a comparison to our milieu can hardly be missed. Both the receptionists and those who favor liturgical leniency find genuflexion odious, and generally for the very same reasons we find it proper. They do not see, as we do, that Christ is on the altar for us to eat and drink, and that this is critical to our faith. Friends, Lutherans, countrymen: Let us now respond to these errors in a simple, free, and unambiguous way. Heedless of the megachurchgoers, the receptionists, the critics, the naysayers, and all torpedoes, let us likewise make our confession by serene, sincere, devout, and uncompromising genuflexion.
General Rubrics for Genuflexion
It is fitting for the celebrant to genuflect toward the Sacrament:
prior to entering the pulpit
after consecration of the Host
after elevation of the Host
after consecration of the cup
after elevation of the cup
after communing himself
after Distribution, upon taking the ablutions
after the Benediction
It is fitting for the faithful to genuflect toward the Sacrament:
in the aisle, prior to entering the pew
at the indicated points in the service
at the consecration
at the Communion rail (double genuflection: both knees)
upon leaving the pew to exit