Questioning our Worship(IV): Why all the Standing & Kneeling?

This is Part 4 of a 10-part series.

Before giving some reasons why we as Episcopalian Christians use our bodies in the worship of God, I would like to point out a reason why some (indeed, many) Christian traditions do not use their bodies in worship.

Bishop NT Wright in his (highly recommended) book Simply Christian devotes an entire chapter to a discussion of Christian worship. In it he mentions the Quaker tradition as an example of one group of Christians who, historically, have resisted ritual and bodily movement in their worship. In many Quaker gatherings, the people simply sit in silence for most of the service.

Often such traditions fear that any kind of ritual movement in worship is some kind of “deed” which might tempt folks to think that we are “earning” our salvation before God. As Bishop Wright points out, however, the decision to sit in silence is still a decision to do something, and any kind of action or decision to “do” (or not do) something can be seen either as an act of merit (as if we are “earning our salvation”) or as a response of gratitude to the gracious initiation of a loving God.

Moving now to some positive considerations of why our Anglican worship in particular so involves our bodies and its movement, there is, first of all, the simple yet profound fact that God made us not just as souls but as bodies. Historic Christian theology has always affirmed that “I am my body.” A moment’s reflection serves to underline the point. We don’t say “the ball hit my body,” but rather “the ball hit me.” Any kind of worship which tries to deny my embodied existence as a human being denies a basic aspect of who I am, and is therefore radically incomplete.

In addition to this point about who we are as human (“theological anthropology”), another reason for our bodily participation in worship has to do with liturgy and liturgical action as a movement through time. Christian theologians down through the ages have pointed out the fact that (as Plato first said) “Time is a moving image of eternity.” As both ancient philosophy and quantum mechanics agree, movement and time are connected. Motion is something we do with our bodies. In our worship, as the altar party and the choir process through the nave from the font to the altar, as the priest rehearses the paschal mystery of Christ in the Great Thanksgiving, as God’s faithful people sign themselves at specific points during the liturgy, we are “copying” the Triune God, whose infinite life takes place not in time but in the reality to which time itself points: eternity.

Related to this last point is a third: we cannot fully image God without our bodies. St. Maximus the Confessor famously taught that the church is the image of God. As we have pointed out in previous installments of this series on Anglican worship, God is eternally and unendingly involved in something like a Great Dance. In the liturgical worship of the church we are participating in that Great Dance, caught up in the movement of love between the three Persons of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. How could we do this dance without our bodies? One can no more dance without a body than one can eat a succulent steak fajita or drink a salty margarita on the rocks without a body. It’s just not possible!

Have you ever noticed that there is only one place in the Creed where we sign ourselves with the sign of the Cross? It is when we say (in that version of the Creed which we call “The Apostles’ Creed”) “I believe in the resurrection of the body.” This is no coincidence. In so doing we are saying (among other things) that we believe that one day we will participate in the indestructible life of God, fully and finally, not just with our souls, but with our bodies.

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