Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The Whole Person in Lenten Worship: Prostrations and Bows

Dear Parish Faithful,

GREAT LENT: The Third Day

"Let us cleanse our soul and cleanse our flesh!" (Forgiveness Vespers)

It is at Great Lent more than any other season of the year, that we come to fully understand the holistic approach toward human nature found in the Church. The human person is a psychosomatic unity of soul (psyche) and body (soma). And both soul and body are fully integrated into our worship experience. If and when we neglect the body or consider it of little significance in worship (or at any other time), then we are already falling into some form of dualism, foreign to the ethos of the Church. Properly understood, however, the basic principle is that the "outer" expresses the "inner." The body expresses the inward activity of the soul.

During Great Lent, we are directed to make either "prostrations" or "bows." Archbishop Kallistos Ware defines the distinction between the two in the following manner:

(1) By 'prostration' is meant a great metanoia (Gk.) or 'poklon (Slav.) to the ground.' Here the worshipper prostrates the whole body, throwing the weight forward onto the two hands, touching the ground with the forehead.
(2) By 'bow' is meant a small metanoia. Here the worshipper bows from the waist, touching the ground with the fingers of the right hand.
Normally, a prostration or bow is preceded by the making of the Sign of the Cross. Prostrations are prescribed only at the weekday offices in Lent, that is, from the second half of Vespers on Sunday evening until Vespers on Friday inclusive. At Friday Vespers there are prostrations during the Liturgy of the Presanctified, but fewer prostrations when Vespers are said without the Presanctified Liturgy. (Lenten Triodion, p. 69)

Such prostrations or bows are clearly outward acts of humble reverence before God and/or outward signs of repentance. Standing back up again, is a sign of being raised up with Christ. In all due respect, I believe that many forms of contemporary Protestant worship, in which the body does not seem (at all) to be integrated into worship, reflect the dualism mentioned above, because the whole person is not involved. Sitting in a pew and looking at a screen, reflects the passivity of the theatre or auditorium.

A wonderful example of this holistic approach toward worship occurs during the Great Canon of St. Andrew, chanted on the first four evenings of Great Lent. According to the liturgical rubrics, before each troparion of the Canon, we are directed to make the sign of the Cross and bow three times, as we sing the compunctionate refrain "Have mercy on me, O God, have mercy on me!" In current usage, as Archbishop Ware explains, that is now limited to one bow (we will thank God for that!). The 'bow' is the outward sign of the troparion penetrating our soul and leading us to a spirit of repentance as we acknowledge our sinfulness before God. (Of course, if we do not believe that the troparia are "speaking" to us in any way, then the bow becomes a mere formality or legalism). A certain rhythm develops as the service takes us deeper into the depths of repentance expressed in the Canon. Our outward activity can also help bring a straying mind back into focus on the service. It can get to be a bit tiring, but liturgy means the work of the People of God.

This "liturgical piety" is meant for everyone who is healthy, able and well. It is not meant to make us "suffer" by further harming a bad back, knee, etc. Then, of course, we adjust accordingly. But it is not meant to be a "pious performance" by the priest alone together with a few other "pious parishioners." As a basic liturgical principle, the priest is not an exception, but an example for the gathered faithful.

Later in the Compline portion of the service, we offer the Lenten Prayer of St. Ephraim up to God with its accompanying prostrations and bows. This prayer is effective in our homes during Great Lent also, by bringing the spirit of Lent and its call to repentance into our domestic lives. Thus, a certain atmosphere is created.

The Third Part of the Great Canon of St. Andrew is scheduled for this evening at 7:00 p.m.

Fr. Steven

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