Bowing Before the Altar

Why do Catholics bow before the altar? I understand the practice of genuflecting before the tabernacle because it contains the body of Christ, but bowing before an altar, even an empty, altar doesn’t seem to be based on any good rationale.

Out of respect. The altar is where the re-presentation of Christ’s sacrifice on Calvary occurs, the consecration, etc. Think of it as representing the cross. Remember how we reverence the cross on Holy Friday for example? This is what I have understood anyway. Someone else may have learned something else.

You are partially right. The altar represents Christ, not the cross. The altar is the place of sacrifice and the place of the sacrificial banquet. It is upon the altar that Christ will become present in the consecration of the bread and wine.

Bows are also made to the bishop, priest, people, Paschal Candle, cross, Book of the Gospels, relics, images of the Saints …

From the 2002 General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM) approved for the USA, which can be accessed from romanrite.com/girm.html :

“277. … Before and after an incensation, a profound bow is made to the person or object that is incensed, except for the incensation of the altar and the offerings for the Sacrifice of the Mass.
The following are incensed with three swings of the thurible: the Most Blessed Sacrament, a relic of the Holy Cross and images of the Lord exposed for public veneration, the offerings for the sacrifice of the Mass, the altar cross, the Book of the Gospels, the Paschal Candle, the priest, and the people.
The following are incensed with two swings of the thurible: relics and images of the Saints exposed for public veneration.”

=Zenas;5213171]Why do Catholics bow before the altar? I understand the practice of genuflecting before the tabernacle because it contains the body of Christ, but bowing before an altar, even an empty, altar doesn’t seem to be based on any good rationale.

Excellent question:

Here in the “words of the Chruch” is you’re answer

From the Catholic Catecheism

1383 The altar, around which the Church is gathered in the celebration of the Eucharist, represents the two aspects of the same mystery: the altar of the sacrifice and the table of the Lord. *This is all the more so since the Christian altar is the symbol of Christ himself, present in the midst of the assembly of his faithful, both as the victim offered for our reconciliation and as food from heaven who is giving himself to us. *“For what is the altar of Christ if not the image of the Body of Christ?” asks St. Ambrose. He says elsewhere, “The altar represents the body [of Christ] and the Body of Christ is on the altar.” The liturgy expresses this unity of sacrifice and communion in many prayers. Thus the Roman Church prays in its anaphora:

We entreat you, almighty God,
that by the hands of your holy Angel
this offering may be borne to your altar in heaven
in the sight of your divine majesty,
so that as we receive in communion at this altar
the most holy Body and Blood of your Son,
we may be filled with every heavenly blessing and grace.

Love and prayers

Pat

From the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

1383 The altar, around which the Church is gathered in the celebration of the Eucharist, represents the two aspects of the same mystery: the altar of the sacrifice and the table of the Lord. This is all the more so since the Christian altar is the symbol of Christ himself, present in the midst of the assembly of his faithful, both as the victim offered for our reconciliation and as food from heaven who is giving himself to us. “For what is the altar of Christ if not the image of the Body of Christ?” asks St. Ambrose. He says elsewhere, “The altar represents the body [of Christ] and the Body of Christ is on the altar.” The liturgy expresses this unity of sacrifice and communion in many prayers. Thus the Roman Church prays in its anaphora:

Yes, I see from this quoted later:
1383 The altar, around which the Church is gathered in the celebration of the Eucharist, represents the two aspects of the same mystery: **the altar of the sacrifice **and the table of the Lord. This is all the more so since the Christian altar is the symbol of Christ himself, present in the midst of the assembly of his faithful, both as the victim offered for our reconciliation and as food from heaven who is giving himself to us. “For what is the altar of Christ if not the image of the Body of Christ?” asks St. Ambrose. He says elsewhere, “The altar represents the body [of Christ] and the Body of Christ is on the altar.” The liturgy expresses this unity of sacrifice and communion in many prayers. Thus the Roman Church prays in its anaphora:

I guess when I was told, and can’t remember whom or when, the slant was on the highlighted portion and thinking of the “altar of sacrifice” as being like the cross since Jesus was sacrified “on the cross”. Maybe it’s just semantics. Thanks.

Related question.

If the tabernacle is behind the altar, as it generally should be, then we should always genuflect, and never bow, correct? The bow is only when the altar is present, but no reserved Eucharist.

For example, there are no bows in the EF. The altar servers always genuflect when passing in front of the altar.

Thanks for your help.

God Bless

From the 2002 General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM) approved for the USA, which can be accessed from romanrite.com/girm.html
274. … If, however, the tabernacle with the Most Blessed Sacrament is present in the sanctuary, the priest, the deacon, and the other ministers genuflect when they approach the altar and when they depart from it, but not during the celebration of Mass itself.
Otherwise all who pass before the Most Blessed Sacrament genuflect, unless they are moving in procession.
Ministers carrying the processional cross or candles bow their heads instead of genuflecting."

catholicchronicle.org/content/view/5405736/2/

When to genuflect and bow
Written by FR. CHARLES E. SINGLER, Chronicle Columnist
Friday, 01 May 2009
At a number of liturgical workshops I facilitate, participants often observe that we Catholics need a refresher course in some of the most common gestures and practices we perform in our public rituals.

Fr. Charles E. Singler

One of those liturgical customs is the reverence we express toward the reserved Blessed Sacrament especially upon entering a church space. This issue, in most cases, is simply a matter of knowing what to do in church as the faithful take their seats in the church proper and the priest-celebrant and the assisting ministers enter at the start of Mass.

The answer to the question of reverence shown to the Blessed Sacrament is offered clearly and directly in the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM). This document regulating liturgical practice at the celebration of Mass also provides direction on the custom to be followed upon entering a church. In those places where the tabernacle is visibly seen by the congregation, whether it is placed in a central or alternate axial location in the sanctuary, such as a former side altar, the proper reverence shown to the Blessed Sacrament is a genuflection and not a bow of the body.

The GIRM elaborates on the proper protocol this way: “A genuflection, made by bending the right knee to the ground, signifies adoration, and therefore is reserved for the Most Blessed Sacrament, as well as for the Holy Cross from the solemn adoration during the liturgical celebration on Good Friday until the beginning of the Easter Vigil.” (Article 274)

It becomes confusing for the faithful when the priest-celebrant and assisting ministers simply bow to the altar and proceed to their chairs without any recognition of the tabernacle when it is visibly seen. The rule of thumb in this circumstance is first to genuflect toward the tabernacle when it is visibly seen by the assembly in the sanctuary before proceeding to the altar for the ritual kiss.

In those instances where a location separate from the sanctuary is chosen for the reservation of the Blessed Sacrament and it cannot be seen, the proper reverence given upon entering the sanctuary is a bow of the body to the altar before the ritual kiss.

The GIRM reminds us “a bow signifies reverence and honor shown to the persons themselves or to the signs that represent them.” (Article 275) The altar, because it has either been blessed or consecrated for sacred use in a church, warrants recognition during the celebration of Mass. It is for this reason that in a church setting where the tabernacle is not placed in the sanctuary, a bow of the body is extended to the altar and is accompanied by a ritual kiss of the priest-celebrant and assisting deacon when he is present.

In the circumstance when a person simply enters a church for private prayer or is entering church to take their seat before Mass and the tabernacle containing the Blessed Sacrament is not visibly present in the sanctuary, the proper gesture given to the altar is the bow of the body and not a genuflection. We are not adoring the altar in this instance, but reverencing and honoring it because of what it represents to the community and the purpose it has for the public worship of God.

Many of us old enough to remember the days of frequent exposition of the Blessed Sacrament or the annual Forty Hours devotion in local parishes will recall the very unique gesture of the “double genuflection” when the Eucharist was exposed in the monstrance. Instead of a single genuflection of the right knee, the adorer genuflected on both knees and offered a profound bow of the body at the waist. Because exposition is a clear distinction from adoring the Blessed Sacrament in the tabernacle with the door closed (often the case for a daily visit to the parish church and a brief prayer), the double genuflection represented a more solemn and expressive gesture to the exposed Blessed Sacrament.

Surprisingly, however, current liturgical norms guiding the exposition of the Blessed Sacrament no longer include the double genuflection. The “Order for the Solemn Exposition of the Holy Eucharist” (1993) and “Holy Communion and Worship of the Eucharist Outside of Mass” (1976), two liturgical books providing the ceremony and direction for the exposition of the Blessed Sacrament, state that “Genuflection in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament, whether reserved in the tabernacle or exposed for public adoration, is on one knee”. (Article 9; 84)

Perhaps we Catholics do have a tendency to forget what to do when we enter a church space, or have never really thought about the spiritual meaning of religious objects we see upon entering our churches. Rest assured, even our spiritual home in the parish and the multifaceted aspects we place in them require a certain response we all share together.

Catholics should not be bowing before an altar. However, if the Blessed Sacrament is present behind it in the Tabernacle, then perhaps that is what you didn’t realize. Catholics should bow before the Real Presence in the Tabernacle.

I surmise that you didn’t read Fr. Singer’s article from our Diocesan Newspaper, The Catholic Chronicle. It is online this month, due to $ issues. catholicchronicle.org/

This is simply incorrect. Catholics do bow before the altar, and they genuflect to the Blessed Sacrament. These are two different liturgical postures.

From the GIRM:
Genuflections and Bows

  1. A genuflection, made by bending the right knee to the ground, signifies adoration, and therefore it is reserved for the Most Blessed Sacrament, as well as for the Holy Cross from the solemn adoration during the liturgical celebration on Good Friday until the beginning of the Easter Vigil.

During Mass, three genuflections are made by the priest celebrant: namely, after the showing of the host, after the showing of the chalice, and before Communion. Certain specific features to be observed in a concelebrated Mass are noted in their proper place (cf. above, nos. 210-251).

If, however, the tabernacle with the Most Blessed Sacrament is present in the sanctuary, the priest, the deacon, and the other ministers genuflect when they approach the altar and when they depart from it, but not during the celebration of Mass itself.

Otherwise all who pass before the Most Blessed Sacrament genuflect, unless they are moving in procession.

Ministers carrying the processional cross or candles bow their heads instead of genuflecting.

  1. A bow signifies reverence and honor shown to the persons themselves or to the signs that represent them. There are two kinds of bows: a bow of the head and a bow of the body.

  2. A bow of the head is made when the three Divine Persons are named together and at the names of Jesus, of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and of the Saint in whose honor Mass is being celebrated.

  3. A bow of the body, that is to say a profound bow, is made to the altar; during the prayers Munda cor meum (Almighty God, cleanse my heart) and In spiritu humilitatis (Lord God, we ask you to receive); in the Creed at the words Et incarnatus est (by the power of the Holy Spirit . . . made man); in the Roman Canon at the words Supplices te rogamus (Almighty God, we pray that your angel). The same kind of bow is made by the deacon when he asks for a blessing before the proclamation of the Gospel. In addition, the priest bows slightly as he speaks the words of the Lord at the consecration.

**My bad. I meant to say ‘genuflect’ instead of ‘bow’. Fr. Singer is correct. However, I have very bad knees and I cannot genuflect to the Tabernacle, so I bow. But I don’t bow to the altar, and never do. **

Related Question:
In our parish, we have a large tabernacle (when facing the door of the church), in front of this tabernacle is the presider’s chair, in front of this chair is the altar. According to the GIRM:

  1. The chair of the priest celebrant must signify his office of presiding over the gathering and of directing the prayer. Thus the best place for the chair is in a position facing the people at the head of the sanctuary, unless the design of the building or other circumstances impede this: for example, if the great distance would interfere with communication between the priest and the gathered assembly, or if the tabernacle is in the center behind the altar. Any appearance of a throne, however, is to be avoided. It is appropriate that, before being put into liturgical use, the chair be blessed according to the rite described in the Roman Ritual.

Is it wrong to have this kind of tabernacle behind the presider’s chair? BTW, the chair isn’t directly at the center of it.

With the same sanctuary arrangement as stated above, is it true that we only have to bow if the priest is on or in front of this presider’s chair?

I’m not perfect either, with posting. I knew there was a thread about bowing, which I thought I had posted to. This one may or may not be it.

God bless, my parents are 92 and 91. They kneel, but, they prefer not to go to the Stations of the Cross, where it is up and down. One time, our Pastor said “everyone sit.” M & D weren’t there, but, they could have been!

As has been shown in the quotes above, a bow to the altar is the correct gesture of reverence if there is no tabernacle present or if the tabernacle is empty. You should bow to the altar as the Church asks you to.

We bow to the altar because it contains a relic. At least that is what I was taught. If the tabernacle is behind the altar, we should be bowing to the tabernacle, of course.

Recently, I was helping someone with lighting the Paschal Candle. Before and after, I bowed (from the waist). The tabernacle is directly behind the altar, so should I have genuflected instead? I did genuflect when I went back to my pew.

The answer is about a clear as mud to me.

GIRM 274 says that if the tabernacle is in the sanctuary then priests, deacons and “other ministers” genuflect when approaching the altar at the beginning of Mass and again when leaving the altar at the end of Mass, but not during the celbration of Mass itself.

ccwatershed.org/media/pdfs/13/08/26/12-32-45_0.pdf

Are you one of the “other ministers?” :shrug:

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