Take a bow

by Frances Novillo
Posted at 10:03am on 23rd October 2017

The fantastical hippogriff is said to have a body like a horse and a head and wings like an eagle.  In J K Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, students are described learning to approach a hippogriff cautiously, bowing, then waiting for the creature to reciprocate.  They quickly learn that truncating this process has violent consequences, but observing the respectful ritual permits the possibility of building a literally life-saving and uplifting relationship.  The mechanical hippogriff is one of my favourite exhibits at the Harry Potter Studio Tour.  Potter fans bow to it, and it bows back.  There is an emotional gratification in the mirrored movement, causing a feeling of respect and acknowledgement, even though the hippogriff is merely a (beautiful and evocative) machine.

Bowing makes you physically smaller than the person to whom you bow, as if by bowing you embody the other’s superiority.  When the body bows, it curls up in the kind of movement that protects internal organs vulnerable to attack.  Even a slight bow of the head shields the throat.  So bowing recognises there is risk inherent in approaching another who possesses the strength to cause damage.  Bowing expresses not only inferior status, but inferior power.

Both as an expression of respect preliminary to building a strong and trusting relationship, and as a gesture of inferiority when approaching someone far greater than ourselves, bowing is integral to worship. 

While my church in High Barnet is being rebuilt, parish worship has been held in venues unsuitable for Catholic liturgy, where it has been necessary to stand during the Eucharistic Prayer, much to the discomfort of congregants accustomed to kneeling.  It was useful then to discover the instruction to make a profound bow as the priest genuflects after the consecration ‘if, for good reason, the congregation is standing during the Eucharistic Prayer’ (CtM 63 from GIRM43).  Bowing at this point emphasises the reverence of the moment.  Bowing the head is prescribed whenever mentioning the names of the Trinity, Jesus, Mary, or the ‘Saint in whose honour Mass is celebrated’ (GIRM275).  A deeper bow is made when approaching the altar and during the Creed (GIRM137).  The congregation bows down to receive solemn blessings when these are used to conclude some Masses (GIRM185).  Some communicants choose to bow before receiving as an individual sign of reverence.  Priests are required to bow more frequently during Mass (GIRM275). 

Practice varies among congregants at Mass and between parishes, however, indicating some confusion about why Catholics bow liturgically, when, and to whom.  For example, worshippers brought up to show respect by bowing down during the consecration have learnt (unfortunately) to avert their eyes precisely when the priest presents Jesus in the Eucharist for all to behold.  It would be better to look up at this point, acknowledge Christ’s presence, and then bow in response (Turner 577). 

In daily life, bowing (or at least nodding the head to another) is reciprocated in any friendly encounter; this reflects the egalitarian nature of society.  Reciprocal bowing may occur in liturgy at the sign of peace, but usually in liturgy, as in other ceremonial meetings (such as when meeting royalty), there is a disparity of status between participants, so one bows, but the other does not.  Thus I may bow in respect of Christ present in the Eucharist just before receiving, but it is unnecessary for the Minister of Holy Communion to nod back to me; more is happening than a simple exchange between two people.  Those bringing forward elements at the Offertory may bow to the altar, but the rubrics do not require the priest and servers to bow in response.  The priest and servers bow before incensing, but should not expect a reciprocal bow since the act of incensation expresses the special nature of whatever is incensed.  It is not an egalitarian dialogue. 

Catholics are caricatured bobbing up and down in worship because despite the reduced requirements of the post-conciliar liturgy, over-frequent liturgical bowing can ‘seem more absurd than reverent’ (LuP836).  But bowing is not a purely sacralised movement.  In secular society, people bow to acknowledge applause and similar appreciation for achievements.  We also bow, or at least nod, to indicate acceptance or to permit something, for example, letting another driver or pedestrian cross ahead of us, or showing in conversation we agree.  We bow to acknowledge someone’s presence, nodding in the direction of a familiar face spotted in a crowded room. 

Bowing at Mass sanctifies the natural body language of daily life.  Bowing is an important expression of Catholic embodied prayer.  It expresses beyond words recognition of God’s presence; respect for his greatness; humility and awareness that we are weak by comparison.  Liturgical bowing communicates fear of God, respect and reverence.  It can convey gracious acknowledgement of God’s appreciation of us as he delights in the good that we do.  Bowing shows acceptance of the Word of God as we nod in agreement when his holy name is mentioned, and inclining our heads while we converse with God is a simple expression of our desire to listen and be attentive to him.

Reproduced from Issue 361, Volume 43, Number 2 of Music and Liturgy, September 2017, by kind permission of the Society of Saint Gregory https://www.ssg.org.uk/

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