Paul R. Schilf, Ph.D.
In the Divine Service Christ comes to us in body and spirit. One receives the Word through the ear (Romans 6); the washing of the flesh in Holy Baptism (Hebrews 11); and Holy Communion through the mouth. Our bodies receive His grace after our bodies have received His Word and sacramental touch.
Because Christ is truly present in the Divine Service and that He works through physical means, Lutherans in the Divine Service respond physically to Him. Our worship is Christocentric—Christ centered. Our liturgy draws attention not to ourselves, but to Christ. Our Liturgy is filled with sensuality; it physically confronts us with the presence of Christ. For example, there are visual reminders of His presence: a crucifix, lit candles, paraments, vestments placed on His called and ordained servant of the Word, and symbolic artwork depicting His grace. There are musical sounds that proclaim Him: chants, hymns, psalms, the tones of a trumpet or organ, ringing of bells, music from the choir, corporate creeds and prayer, and the sound of a book slamming in darkness. There are smells: the scents of incense, the perfume of flowers. And finally, there is the taste and touch of Christ Himself. The liturgy is designed to make us physically aware of Christ’s presence. Because of this physical presence, we respond in unique patterns and postures during the Divine Service. These patterns and postures have been handed down to us in scripture and through history.
“Oh come, let us worship and bow down; let us kneel before the Lord our Maker. For He is our God, and we are the people of His pasture, and the sheep of his hand” (Psalm 95:6-7). Reverencing (bowing the head), genuflecting (bowing the right knee to touch the ground), kneeling (technically, a “double-knee genuflect”), and prostration (placing one’s body face-down on the ground) are among the most common and ancient postures of worship. (Gen. 24:26, 48, 52; Ex. 4:31; 12:27; 34:8; 1 Chron. 29:20; 2 Chron. 7:3; 20:18; 29:29-30; Neh. 8:6; Is. 45:23; Micah 6:6; Rom. 14:11; Phil. 2:10, etc.). Historically, as a sign of respect, worship and reverence, the faithful are commanded to bow and reverence their King.
Luther too encouraged postures of reverence. “Worship is not a function only of the mouth but of the whole body. It is to bow the head, bend the body, fall to the knees, prostrate oneself and so forth, and to do such things as a sign and acknowledgement of authority and power … Such outward adoration is what the scriptures really mean by worship … Where worship is offered from the heart, there follows quite properly also that outward bowing, bending, kneeling, and adoration with the body.”
The traditional postures for reverencing, genuflecting and kneeling are done at the following points during the Divine Service:
Upon entering the pew: Reverence the altar. Genuflect when the consecrated Sacrament is already present. The altar is the location at which Christ is or will become present.
When the cross or crucifix is carried in procession or recession: Reverence it as it passes by.
When the name “Jesus Christ” is spoken – Bow the head at the Name which is above every other name.
During the Gloria Patri of the Introit – Bow the head to honor the Holy Trinity.
During the Gloria in Excelsis:
– Bow the head in worship to God the Father at the words “we worship You, we glorify You, we give you thanks to You for Your great glory.”
– Bow the head at the words “receive our prayer”
At the Salutation: Bow the head in respect for Christ’s minister (who also bows to the congregation).
During the Creed: Bow the head at the words “was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary and was made man” Genuflect in adoration of Christ for having humbled Himself by taking on Human flesh for our salvation.
During the Sanctus: Bow the head at the words “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of Sabaoth, Heaven and earth are full of Your glory,” in worship of the Holy Trinity and conformity to the actions of the saints in heaven.
During the words of Institution: Kneel
At the elevation of the Body and Blood of Christ: If not kneeling already, genuflect. If kneeling, bow the head in worship of the physical presence of Christ.
At the Pax Domini: Bow the head to Christ, who is our peace.
During the Gloria Patri of the Nunc Dimittis: Bow the head in honor of the Holy Trinity.
At the Benediction: Bow the head and humbly receive the blessing of our Lord.
When leaving the church: Reverence the altar.
Of course, none of these actions or postures are required of us as Lutheran Christians. However, they provide an opportunity to present our outward adoration during the Divine Service.