Visitors to a Lutheran congregation will often quickly notice some things Lutherans do, things they had never before seen in Protestant churches. They may find these things strange, or even offensive. Since Lutherans will often do them without thinking, it is good to review why we do some of these “strange” (or should I say “stranger”!) things.
In particular, I am thinking of two practices in worship that may catch the visitor’s attention: the acts of bowing and crossing yourself. (We will look at the second next month.) Bowing in the direction of the altar is common in Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches. Indeed, in many Orthodox churches, bowing is a consistent part of the entire liturgy, and some parishioners bow deeply enough to touch their toes. Anglicans have retained the practice as well, often before they enter a pew.
Towards what or whom are these worshippers bowing? In general, bowing is offered in the direction of the altar, where, particularly in many Roman Catholic parishes, you will find a tabernacle nearby. A tabernacle is a golden vessel that holds the consecrated, but unconsumed, host (bread) from a previous mass. In Orthodox churches, many icons (two-dimensional written images of the saints) line the walls of the chancel, and bowing to them is common and frequent. The Orthodox would be quick to point out that they are offering “veneration”, not “worship”, towards these icons, a difference between two Greek words, “proskuneo” and “latreuo”. Roman Catholics make this same distinction when describing their reverence for Mary in prayer and devotion. Whether or not it is truly an offer of worship, and therefore falls into idolatrous territory, is a matter of ongoing debate.
In Protestant churches, where neither icons nor tabernacles are present, the tradition has developed of bowing in the general direction of the altar, just as we face the altar during prayer. Of course, God does not reside at the altar, per se, but the practice of bowing is a helpful tool for centering our minds and thoughts as we pray. We also bow at the cross as it passes us during the procession/recession, or when it is stationed in the front and the worship enablers and choir make their way towards it.
But is such bowing okay? Surely many Protestants would find it strange and even objectionable, possibly even venturing into idolatry. Perhaps we offer first a word on bowing in general. I can think of no better symbolic action for our bodies than bowing when we consider coming into the presence of God. We see men of old, Isaiah in chapter 6 for example, being fearful in the presence of God. They are aware of their smallness and their sin in the presence of an immaterial and holy God. They naturally want to acknowledge their smallness. How do they do this? By bowing, or even lying prostrate on the ground. One might argue that bowing is the only proper position of the body before God.
When we bow in worship, it is not because we believe the altar itself is worthy of our worship. And it is not because we believe the image on the cross holds any special power. The altar is a place where we bless the elements of the Lord’s Supper, and hence, it is a place of focus. Likewise, we symbolically follow Christ into worship and out into the world (this is why the cross leads both procession and recession), but we don’t believe that symbol holds any special or magical power in and of itself. And yet, we want to acknowledge our place before God in an appropriate manner and bowing is a most appropriate action to take in the presence of God.
If you are not comfortable bowing, you are not obligated to do so. I have experienced some worship services that had all of the pomp of liturgical correctness, but none of the truth of the Gospel. Bowing in and of itself is simply an act of your body, and if it is not accompanied by a profound sense of rightly positioning your body in God’s presence, you will be missing the point.
Just know that when we bow, we are seeking to communicate that we are bowing not to the altar nor to the cross, but to God himself. And since God is not particularly located anywhere at that point in the worship service, we are using the altar and cross as appropriate locations for our focus and attention.
Now, we do believe that there comes a time in the worship service when God is present among us. This takes place at the Lord’s Supper, of course. So, I bow towards the bread and wine following the consecration of the elements. Some pastors do not. I believe that bowing at this time offers a commentary on the nature of the elements. Still, if we remember that we are bowing to God first and foremost, I do not believe we have fallen into idolatry.