Monday, January 19, 2009

The Hokey Pokey

When I signed myself up for a year of deep religious study, I didn't think I'd be getting any physical exercise out of the deal. However, the Catholic Church sees to it that parishioners get into Mass both spiritually and physically. At first, I felt uncomfortable with most of the foreign movements and gestures. After growing up around Protestants and only having previously attended Protestant churches, the movements weren't just greek, they felt like the hokey pokey. Seeing that the majority of my readers aren't Catholic and probably have no idea what I'm talking about specifically, I'll explain.

The first thing I encountered upon entering the church was holy water. Do I reach in and soak my hand, a finger or two, or do I leave it alone? What do I do with my wet hand? How does that work? Holy water is kept at the entrance of a church (or even a home) and serves as a reminder of the centrality of baptism as the primary rite of initiation into the Christian faith. Catholics dip their fingers into the water and bless themselves as a reminder of their baptism. Once I found that out, I realized I ought to stay out of the holy water. The whole lack-of-baptism bit nullifies the need for holy water on this kid.

Next, the genuflection. In addition to not knowing what the holy water deal was about, the idea of genuflecting scared me. What was that all about, and did I have to do it? Are there prerequisites to being able to genuflect? Catholics genuflect (kneel and cross themselves) before entering or leaving their pew or when passing in front of the Blessed Sacrament (the big box or pretty shiny thingy that contain the consecrated communion wafers). It is a sign of respect and an act of reverence toward Christ. One does not have to be Catholic or have been baptized to do this, and a deep bow at the waist is considered an acceptable substitute if one is unable to kneel. Most people genuflect, but not everyone does. I still haven't done any genuflecting. It's not that I'm afraid or don't understand... it's just not something I am used to doing.

Ah, yes, the sign of the cross. It took me a while to figure this one out. I knew the movement, and I knew the words, but finding information about what it means was not easy. I am all for blindly following and doing as others do in a new circumstance, but I really wanted to understand this particular ritual. To cross oneself and invoke the trinity is a blessing. It can be done by anyone of any faith, requires only the belief in the trinity, and is a great outward sign of faith. Catholics do it all the time. I thought it was incredibly weird at first, but now I like it. Having it as the beginning and end of just about every prayer (especially the made-up-on-the-spot ones!) seems to ground me in the idea of what it's all about: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Not only that, but some Lutherans and Methodists carry on this tradition in the Protestant faith. Pretty cool!

The sitting, standing, sitting, standing, kneeling, and standing bit wasn't hard to figure out. When everyone else stands up, do the same. When everyone else kneels, do likewise. I wanted to know why Catholics kneel, though, when none of the Protestants get down on their knees. It all boils down to what happens in the Mass versus what happens in a non-Catholic church service: the consecration of the bread and wine. Catholics respond to Christ's real presence by kneeling on both knees (thankfully on nice, cushioned kneelers). Since Protestants have stripped away the idea of Christ being physically present, they also tossed out kneeling. Maybe some churches also have kneeling, but I haven't been to any that do. Apologies if I'm wrong here.

As Mass ends, there's more crossing of oneself, genuflecting, and holy water, but it's all reversed. I am no longer befuddled with the various gestures, though I have yet to put some of them into practice. After living so long without them, I guess I have a more difficult time assimilating them into my own life than someone brought up with them. "When in Rome," I hear people say, "do as the Romans." Truly, the idea is sound. I could get away with doing any or all of these physical movements, and no one would notice that I'm not really a Catholic (yet?). Just the same, I can skip all of them and no one will care. That's probably one of the things I love most about the Catholic Church: they're just happy you came and stayed through the whole thing. You'll be forgiven immediately for not knowing what to do or say--and you can always ask the priest or deacons questions if you want to after Mass.

It's not the hokey pokey. It might feel like it, but once you know what it's all about (hint: God), it makes so much more sense.


Areson said...

Actually, both Lutheran churches I have attended kneel during communion. However, kneeling does not take placing during the blessing of communion, but rather during the receiving. Members walk forward towards the alter, and kneel along the front of it as the elders and the pastor distribute the bread and wine. Before kneeling, you also bow towards the cross at the front.

cm0978 said...

Yes, we Catholics used to also kneel at the altar rail to receive communion. That was tossed out after Vatican II and now we stand to receive.