When the life-giving Word of God dwelt in human flesh, he changed it into that good thing which is distinctively his, namely, life; and by being wholly united to the flesh in a way beyond our comprehension, he gave it the life-giving power which he has by his very nature. Therefore, the body of Christ gives life to those who receive it. Its presence in mortal men expels death and drives away corruption because it contains within itself in his entirety the Word who totally abolishes corruption.
—From a commentary on the gospel of John,
St. Cyril of Alexandria, bishop,
Liturgy of the Hours, Vol. II, p. 744.
Every time I enter the chapel at Madonna Rehabilitation Hospital for our oblates’ corporate prayer, I dip my fingers into the waters of the font. Then their moist touch inscribes on my forehead, heart, and shoulders the outline of Christ’s cross. This reminds me of His victory over sin, death, and the devil and of His Father’s act to pour out upon me at my baptism His Spirit of adoption. By habit, I then turn to my left to put my bag and coat on a chair. As I do, I am always aware, out of the corner of my eye, of the gentle light emanating from the side room where the Tabernacle sits quietly and invitingly. I know that Father Clooney keeps there the reserved and consecrated hosts from the hospital’s celebration of the Mass. I know, too, that my Catholic and Episcopalian friends turn to face the Tabernacle when they enter the chapel and then offer their reverence to our Lord. But so far, I have not shared in that practice—and as I reflect on this, I am disturbed—because I have no good reasons not to offer that act of reverence. My only reasons are the weak ones of habit and inertia. I suppose that tradition explains why Lutherans and other Protestants have not genuflected, as that devotional act’s posture and gesture have smacked of acting “too Catholic,” which many have seen as not a good thing. But the truth of the matter is this appeal to tradition—we’ve always not done it this way—is no better reason to not do something than are habit and inertia.
So instead, as I reflect upon what I am not doing, a more reasonable and faithful question almost asks itself: Why would one genuflect, offering bodily a sign that one acknowledges the risen Christ, present in the consecrated host, as one’s Lord and Savior?
Because one can hardly go wrong by listening to the voices of Scripture and Tradition, it helps to turn to the New Testament, which provides Christians with several inspiring pictures of life in heaven, a life of worship of God, where His faithful offer endless praise to the Father, in the name of the Son, by the power of their Spirit. One example arises in St. Paul’s letter to the church at Philippi, where he writes:
Have among yourselves the same attitude
that is also yours in Christ Jesus,
Who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God something to be grasped.
Rather, he emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
coming in human likeness;
and found human in appearance,
he humbled himself,
becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross.
Because of this, God greatly exalted him
and bestowed on him the name
that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue confess that
Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father (Phil. 2:5–11, NAB; emphasis added).
St. Paul provides us with a vision of heaven, one in which a great gathering congregates (meaning “flocks together”) about the Father’s exalted Son. All who join this throng adopt a special posture, the posture that embodies the congregants’ acknowledgment of the lordship of Jesus Christ. Every knee is bent, so that all people and creatures—those in heaven, on earth, and under the earth—are bowing in homage to our Lord. At the same time, the vision tells us that every voice makes a common confession: Jesus Christ is Lord—κύριος Ιησους Χριστός (Phil. 2:11).
After St. Paul’s time, later in the life of the people of God, but still early in the history of the Church, St. John wrote his apocalypse. His Revelation builds upon the vision of St. Paul, saying:
After this I had a vision of a great multitude, which no one could count, from every nation, race, people, and tongue. They stood before the throne and before the Lamb, wearing white robes and holding palm branches in their hands.
They cried out in a loud voice:
“Salvation comes from our God, who is seated on the throne, and from the Lamb.”
All the angels stood around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures. They prostrated themselves before the throne, worshiped God, and exclaimed:
“Amen. Blessing and glory, wisdom and thanksgiving, honor, power, and might be to our God forever and ever. Amen” (Rev. 7:9–12, NAB; emphasis added).
Here St. John’s beatific vision and audition come alive with more glorious details than St. Paul offers, but at the same time, the essentials remain consistent: God the Father sits on His throne; His Son, the Lamb, flanks Him; and they are encircled both by the uncounted multitudes and by the whole company of heaven. As the vision tells us, “They prostrated themselves before the throne, worshiped God, and exclaimed” their praises.
These are just two instances from the New Testament that envision the life of the faithful in the presence of the Lord of heaven. Digging deeper would help to extend the list. One could turn, for example, to Abraham’s prostration before the three visitors who came to him under the oaks at Mamre. One could also recall the time when Mary Magdalene and the other Mary embrace the feet of their risen Lord and offer Him homage when He meets up with them on their way to tell His disciples that the angel at the tomb had just told them He was risen. At the root, these and other testimonies from the Scriptures tell us that the faithful naturally bow before God and offer Him worship and praise.
We don’t live in the times of the Testaments, but we do live in the time of the Church, a community that thrives in continuity with those Testaments and the Traditions that gave rise to them and that flow from them. One can see in many places, then, the influence of the tradition of bowing. Christians often bow their heads to pray. Many bow at the naming of the triune God in corporate prayer, either by inclining the head or by bowing profoundly. Even in many Protestant traditions, acolytes will bow at the altar before and after lighting the candles. In some traditions, when the cross or crucifix is carried in procession, congregants will bow as the emblem of faith passes by them. In the Stations of the Cross, kneeling accompanies the offering of praise at each station: “We adore you, O Christ, and we bless you, because by your holy cross you have redeemed the world.” Kneeling for the reception of Communion is common, especially in churches that practice more traditional forms of worship and that desire to emphasize the humility one feels in coming to the Lord’s Table.
But having inventoried those many ways that inclining the head, bowing, and kneeling form parts of the vocabulary of gestures in worship, most Protestants draw a hard, uncrossable line at genuflecting in the direction of the Tabernacle in a Catholic Church. What really could be the reason?
A thought experiment might help. If any of us were to walk into a sanctuary and were to see, out of the corner of the eye, the risen Christ Himself sitting on a chair off to the side, is there anyone who would not bow? I believe we’d be safe in saying that we would—all of us—practice the most profound of bows, the one the New Testament Greek (προσκυνέω) characterizes as “falling upon one’s face in worship.” So if we would do bow like that if we saw and recognized Christ with our eyes of sight, what ought we do when we see and recognize Him with the eyes of faith? Our bowing for prayer and our kneeling for Communion tell us we have at least a vestigial muscle memory of genuflection. So, when our eyes of faith perceive Christ present in our midst, we naturally show Him the honor due Him.
Does this mean that our eyes are blinded to His presence in the Tabernacle? Maybe they are, but that’s when we ought to rely upon our Catholic and Anglican brothers and sisters to serve as our seeing-eye dogs. We can trust their eyes of faith to see what we cannot see for ourselves.
One final question to ask is whether, by not genuflecting at the Tabernacle, we are in fact confessing by our actions—or inactions—that we believe Christ is manifestly absent from the consecrated Host. For some Protestants, this may be the truth of the matter, as they believe that in Holy Communion the bread and wine never become the body and blood of our Lord. The elements signify His body and blood; they remind us of His sacrifice; but they remain bread and wine, and only bread and wine. On the other hand, some Protestants trust that in the Eucharist they encounter the real presence of the risen Christ in the bread, His body, and in the wine, His blood. They would say that He is physically present to the Church in the elements, just as touchable in Communion to the congregants in the nave of the Church as He was palpable to the disciples sitting in the bow of one of their fishing boats on the Seas of Galilee. One might think this view of Holy Communion would lead to reverence for the elements—the bread and the wine—even after the liturgy has ended. In some cases, this may be so, as in the occasional Lutheran parish with a Tabernacle. But for the most part, Protestants will “clean up” after Communion by putting leftover wafers back in the box or in a plastic bag in the freezer and by pouring leftover wine back into its bottle or down the drain. Sometimes the altar guild or the clergy will consume the remainders or pour the wine onto the ground, but rarely in Protestant churches will Christians reserve the elements and hold them in reverence.
So, despite what any formal Protestant theology may hold, the functional understanding of the mystery of Holy Communion is that the presence of Christ is temporary, lasting as long does the liturgy, or perhaps long enough for parish visitors to take Communion to the parish’s shut-in members. Digging into the history of theology to understand more deeply how some Christians came to understand Christ’s promises to give Himself to us in the bread, His body, and in the cup, His blood, as having a kind of spiritual freshness dating—best by noon on Sunday—is a journey down a long, winding, and tangled road that leads beyond the bounds of this particular reflection.
In the end, then, would I place enough trust in a theology that claims Christ has placed an expiration date and time on His promise to come to us in the bread and cup? My own answer must be “no.” And if that is the case, then I can do nothing else than to confess that I trust the lived faith of my sisters and brothers, made visible in their honoring of Christ’s presence in the Host reserved in the Tabernacle.
This leads me to and leaves me in a wonderful and wild place. The next time I come to the chapel at Madonna Rehabilitation Hospital, or to any Catholic Church, I am entering into the presence of the risen Lamb of God, the crucified and exalted Christ. In His presence and with the sound of His name on my lips, I join the unnumbered throng on bended knee, our voices rising as one to say, “Jesus Christ is Lord,” to the glory of God the Father. This is the posture and the proclamation of all who adore our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
This reflection was written by David Frye, who made his final oblation in 2009.