I prayed at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem at the turn of the century. This wall is the remnant of the great Jewish temple destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD.
While there, I noticed how many of the Jewish men bowed continually while praying. I wondered why? The practice is referred to as daven. It can mean both praying and rocking or swaying. The body itself can be seen as an instrument for praising God coming from an interpretation of the psalms: “My very bones shall say, O LORD, who is like you. . . ?” (Ps. 35:10)
Body movement during prayer—coming from our Jewish brethren—is thus seen as a means of devotion to God!
We, as Catholics, have incorporated quite a few gestures into our liturgy that we might consider: bowing, kneeling, genuflecting, standing, making a Sign of the Cross, and striking our breast, to name a few.
It was a Jewish professor who I had in graduate school that explained the custom of striking the breast to our class. He told us that it was a gesture of profound repentance when a person strikes the breast around the heart as if to say: From the depths of my heart, I am truly sorry.
We need to keep this in mind when we recite the Confiteor during the Penitential Rite of Mass.
Another gesture during the Mass that merits our attention is bowing when mentioning the Incarnation during the Creed. To acknowledge the fact that God became a man—that the Word became flesh—certainly deserves some special act of reverence on our part!
It also goes without saying that the Eucharist—the Real Presence of Jesus Christ present in our tabernacles and on our altars—necessarily commands our utmost respect by genuflecting or by a profound bow when appropriate.
This brings me to a final point: the importance of participating verbally during Mass. I have continually reminded people over the years that our Mass is primarily an act of worship. It is not some form of entertainment because of the beautiful music. Nor is it a completely private act of devotion or something that the priest does all by himself while the rest of the congregation watches. We are all supposed to participate fully. There are various dialogues and responses given to the prayers that are meant to be said or sung!
One such response—coming from the Hebrew—is the word Amen. It is a word of affirmation and emphasis. It is used in the Gospels 77 times and is spoken by Jesus especially when He wants to emphasize something of utmost importance: Amen I say to you. . .!
So when you hear a prayer prayed, or you come up to receive Holy Communion, voice your belief and conviction by saying Amen!
Knowing why we do and say the things we do during the Mass can only help to enhance our experience of it.
I hate to see people just go through the motions when there is such richness and beauty to the Mass—especially when properly understood!
Fr. Ed Namiotka