Liturgical Actions:

The Body in Worship

Human beings consist of body as well as soul, the physical realm and the spiritual. This is the most crucial fact about man: as a spiritual being who is also part of the material world, he is uniquely placed as the creature who can lead the visible created world in the praise of God. Bodies as well as souls are redeemed, and even the ordinary natural world was created by God, and called "good."

Since worship is an act of the whole human person, it must include both body and soul. In this article, we look at the many ways in which the human body, human senses, and the natural world are involved in worship according to the Byzantine Rite.

In the liturgy, the bodily senses point us to spiritual realities

We learn about the created world through our senses, and the inclinations and needs of our human nature. The Holy Spirit and the Church make use of all of these to lead us to spiritual truth through a world of symbols that raise our minds to God and divine realities.

Sight and smell

Light allows us to see the world, avoid dangers, and find our desired destination; spiritual light, or "illumination" is provided by God, working through the Holy Spirit, to ahieve the same goals with the things of the spirit. In the liturgy, this symbolism is used constantly. In the evening service of Vespers, we salute Christ as the "joyful light" of God's glory, and at Matins the priest sings, "Glory to you who have shown us the light!" before the Great Doxology, our morning hymn of praise to God.

Candles are used in many services, and at certain times the liturgy is sung in relative darkness, while at other points the entire church is brightly lit. These transitions (sometimes foreign to us in an age of electric lights) serve to teach us a rhythm of life by which we ask for God's guidance and spiritual illumination, and look forward to feasts with expectation and joy. Contrasts between light and darkness also create a point of focus in the liturgy: for example, at the end of the Christmas vigil, the cantor stands in the middle of the church with a lighted candle to sing the Christmas troparion. The symbols of darkness and light are employed constantly in the cycle of Byzantine worship.

The church building in which services are held also provides a feast for the eye and the mind, being designed with symmetrical proportions of fine materials, and furnished as beautifully as possible. In the Byzantine Rite, the church is adorned with icons: images of Christ, the angels and saints, painted according to traditional patterns which emphasize the spiritual realities they point to. In all their variety, icons provide us with a "theology in color", and remind us of the angels and saints who stand "shoulder to shoulder" with us as we celebrate the Liturgy.

Incense is an ancient symbol of purification and offering; it engages our senses of sight and smell, and the bells of the censor (kadilo) as the deacon incenses the church remind us of the prayer in which we are taking part (as we sing at every celebration of Vespers: "Let my prayer ascend to you like incense, and the lifting up of my hands like an evening sacrifice.") . Incense is used to honor the holy table and the Gospel book, and the faithful at prayer are incensed as well, to show that they are dedicated to to God.

Touch and taste

Water, too, has a multitude of meanings; it surrounds us before birth, is necessary to all life and useful for cleansing. Passage through the waters of the Red Sea saved the Israelites while drowning their pursuers; in the desert, God provided water miraculously for his people, and Christ referred to himself as "living water." In baptism, we die symbolically with Christ, leaving our sins behind. Water is blessed in the ritual of baptism and at Theophany, and sprinkled upon persons and objects being blessed.

Oil, used in early times for healing, for preparing athletes for competition, and to dedicate prophets, kings and priests to God, is used to anoint those being baptized, and the sick in need of healing. On feast days, oil is blessed along with the other natural gifts of bread, wheat, and wine, and distributed to the faithful. Like incense, the richly scented oil reminds us of the many blessings God bestows on us.

Bread, of course, is the common foodstuff of the Mediterranean world, and like water represents the basic necessities of life - though Jesus told his disciples that it is not sufficient: "Man does not live by bread alone." He chose bread and wine as symbols of his body and blood, to be sacrificed to save us, and gave us a memorial (the Eucharist) in which offerings of bread and wine become his Body and Blood, to be given to us. In our liturgy, bread is also blessed on major feasts (with a prayer that God will multiply it throughout the world) and distributed at festal vigils to sustain the faithful during nights of prayer.

Wine, a drink like water but far richer, represents the choice blessings God has in store for his people; its ability to bring joy and even inebriation symbolize the life in which we are caught up in gladness in the Holy Spirit. By ancient tradition, the faithful fast from wine and other alcoholic drinks during periods of penance or preparation, and then wine is blessed on the eves of feasts and distributed to the faithful. And of course, like bread, it is used in the sacrificial meal of the Eucharist, where is it mixed with a small amount of water to represent the union of God's divine nature with our human nature.


The chanting and singing of our services let us experience the worship of God in melody, rhythm, and harmony. They don't just provide us with information; they allow us to take part in the heavenly liturgy, like the angels who are constantly before the throne of God, singing, "Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Hosts! Heaven and earth are full of his glory." Melodies and responses ebb and flow, and on some feasts several languages may be used. The bells of the deacon's censor, and the sound of church bells calling us to prayer or announcing a death or a feast day, become a part of the rhythm of our prayer.

It can take a lifetime to come to appreciate all the levels of symbolism in the Byzantine liturgy, but some of them are quickly apparent to even a casual visitor to our services. And in delighting our senses of sight, hearing, taste, smell, and touch, they provide us with an experience of the divine which complements the message of our prayers and hymns.

In the liturgy, bodily gestures express spiritual attitudes

We do not only take in the liturgical experience; by our actions, our bodies concur with our souls in responding to God's invitation to communion with him. The various ways we use our bodies in worship allows us to manifest and deepen our relationship with God.

We frequently make the sign of the Cross over ourselves, to commemorate the life-giving death of our Savior, Jesus Christ.  This sign is made with the thumb and first two fingers brought together, to represent the three Persons of the Holy Trinity, and the other two fingers folded into the palm, to represent the Divine and human natures of the incarnate Word; the hand moves from the forehead downward to the lower middle of the chest, then from the right shoulder to the left.

The sign of the cross is made when beginning or ending any action, when the three Persons of the Trinity are mentioned, or when we make a bow or prostration. The priest blesses the people with the Sign of the Cross, with the Gospel Book or hand cross, showing that it is not in his own name that he blesses us, but it is the Divine blessing that he calls down. (When the priest blesses the people with his hand, he forms his fingers into the shape the letters IC XC, the Greek abbreviation for Jesus Christ.)

We stand before God out of respect, and as a sign of our attentiveness; it is the customary posture for prayer in the Byzantine tradition. In particular, we stand for any prayer which ends with a doxology (praise of the three persons of the Trinity), and for the reading of the holy Gospel.

We bow before God, make prostrations to the ground,  bow our heads or kneel as a sign of repentance and humility. (Kneeling in particular is particularly connected with penance, and by ancient custom, we do not kneel in church on Sundays, or during the season of Pascha, in honor of the Resurrection.) These are natural or cultural symbols, but the Church has made them her own, adding particular meanings to each. For example, during the services, the priest and deacon bow to each other, and to the gathered faithful, as a sign of respect and acknowledgment.

The priest, deacon and servers, and sometimes the people as well, move through the body of the church in procession. The Great Entrance in the Divine Liturgy, and the intercessory procession of Litija on feast-days at Vespers, are particular features of the Byzantine Rite. When a procession is made only by the clergy and servers, the people will often attentively follow its progress, and ask God's blessing as it passes. Like singing, processions form us into a community though participation in a communal action, and they can both symbolize spiritual progress and inspire us to make it a reality, by giving us a direction for our desires - by giving us a destination.

In a certain way, liturgical actions like these are similar to the Holy Mysteries, in that they can be effective symbols: they represent a spiritual attitude or grace, and lead us to pray for that grace, and act upon the grace we have received, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Of course, much depends on our own willingness to cooperate with God; the things we do in the liturgy can help us acquire a pattern of life that befits a disciple of Christ.

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