The Theology of the Body Language

“Be a Catholic: When you kneel before an altar, do it in such a way that others may be able to recognize that you know before whom you kneel.” —St. Maximilian Kolbe

Maarten van Heemskerck, “Ecce Homo” (detail), 1544
Maarten van Heemskerck, “Ecce Homo” (detail), 1544 (photo: Public Domain)

We’ve all heard the questions and the oft-passionate responses – is it more proper to receive Communion on the tongue or in the hand? Bowing the head or genuflecting beforehand, or kneeling as the Host is presented? Which responses are more in line with ancient Church history? Which are more authentic traditions?

I get it. And, I even understand both of these lines of reasoning and believe there’s a plausible argument than can be made either way. However, let me posit a perspective that may transcend all this. Maybe amid all this arguing of historical and traditional accuracy, we might be missing a more foundational point. Maybe Pope St. John Paul II can teach us all something here.

As many are aware, early in JPII’s pontificate, he spent some five years unpacking the first three chapters of Genesis in his Wednesday audiences. These 129 talks were eventually combined into book form known as the “Theology of the Body.” The cornerstone of these talks were responses to two basic questions: 1) Who am I? and 2) What is my life for? In a nutshell, we are images of God made to love as Christ loves.

So why call it the “Theology of the Body”? In essence, this title means “the study of God through the body.” In other words, if we come to understand our bodies, we can understand God better. JPII articulated to us the importance of our bodies in all that we do — spiritually, intellectually, creatively and emotionally — but that you can only know those dimensions of who I am through my body.

Therefore, my body language is important in all that I do. But what about in our prayer and worship?

If we seek to be relaxed or comfortable as opposed to humbled before God, what does that say about the sincerity of our prayer? The more we seek primarily to be comfortable, the more it becomes about us, rather than about God. Even the position of our hands is worth considering. In all the depictions of Jesus and of the saints throughout history, have you even once seen them with their fingers interlocked and folded over? No, you always seem them with their hands purposely flat and pressed against each other. It actually takes a conscious effort to do this and even indicates by the position of our fingertips that we’re pointing outward — to God — and not back toward ourselves. This reflects the idea of loving as Christ loves.

When we enter the Church, we dip our fingers in the holy water and make the sign of the cross, blessing ourselves. This should remind us of our baptism and who we are. Is this done hurriedly and lazily, or with careful reflection? The difference matters a great deal. As we come to our pew, we genuflect — with that knee going all the way to the ground. We’re in the presence of the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. Any half-hearted attempt here is an unworthy effort, assuming a person is physically able to genuflect. (And if you attend a church where the tabernacle is off to the side, or heaven forbid, in the back of the Church, ask your pastor to address this. The faithful should be able to genuflect straight ahead, with the tabernacle being front and center so as to avoid any confusion as to whom you’re genuflecting.)

So then how should we (naturally) approach receiving Christ in the Holy Eucharist? Do we seriously consider what is happening as we make our way to the altar? If we do, as JPII has taught us, our bodies should reflect this reality with deeply reverent body language. Suddenly, kneeling down on both knees and receiving on the tongue would make perfect sense. Our Creator is giving of Himself to us in the most humble way, and by kneeling and receiving on the tongue, we can show gratitude for this gift and humbly be fed by the priest — in persona Christi capitis — rather than feeding ourselves.

And when it comes right down to it, others notice the reverence (or lack thereof) with which we worship our Lord. Our bodies are a profound means of evangelization. Imagine the impact it would have on visitors to Catholic churches if our bodies made it abundantly clear that we had no doubt before whom we bowed. No words would be needed. Our body language would be preaching the Gospel more loudly than anything we could ever say!