Q — “In my parish, some people genuflect and some bow to the tabernacle and some bow and some genuflect to the altar. What is the origin of these two gestures of respect and is it proper to use them in an interchangeable way?”

A — From Vatican II’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy we read: “To promote active participation, the people should be encouraged to take part by means of acclamations, responses, psalmody, antiphons and songs, as well as by actions, gestures and bearing” (paragraph 30). Bowing and genuflecting have to do with “actions, gestures and bearing.”

Bowing expresses the interior attitude of respect and reverence toward another person or object. In that sense it is probably transcultural. A profound bow in Christian culture is an expression of adoration. Bowing and or genuflecting to the altar or to the tabernacle, for those who are not presiding at the liturgy, is largely a matter of personal taste or even physical ability. The key and central issue is, of course, respect and reverence. Respect and reverence flow from one’s interiority and find expression either in bowing or genuflecting. From the very earliest times, Christians have revered the name of Jesus, on the authority of Philippians 2:10: “So that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth.” It is unclear how far back the custom goes of following to the altar. We do not know.

Genuflection is an abbreviated version of kneeling. Kneeling signifies supplication and adoration. It may also have a penitential meaning, or even be an expression for private prayer. Think of, for example, the invitatory Psalm 95, that opens the Liturgy of the Hours every day. There we read: “Come, let us worship and bow down, let us kneel before the Lord, our Maker.” This is a sense of awe in the presence of God that brings a person “to the knees.” Coupled with a penitential sense we see it in the person of St. Peter when he fell down at Jesus’ knees saying, “Depart from me for I am a sinful man” (Luke 5:8). Jesus kneels himself in private prayer as he prays in the Garden of Gethsemane before his passion: “And he withdrew from them about a stone’s throw and knelt down and prayed” (Luke 22:41). Kneeling became especially popular with the emphasis on Eucharistic adoration in the 13th century in the West.