Why We Genuflect
To genuflect is to 'bow the knee'; to go down on one knee. It is the most profound and solemn form of bowing. The next most solemn form of BOW is a profound bow from the waist. Finally there is the simplest form in which the head alone is inclined slightly forward and down.
"And the Word was made flesh and he dwelt among us" (John 1:14). These words are at the heart of the Christian Gospel. These words remind us of a fact that the whole human person, spirit, mind and body has been 'saved.' A fact emphasised when the Risen Christ ascended to the Father taking His human body with Him.
We pray with words. We put into words, in the best way that we can, what we want to say to God. There is so much that we want to say to Him, though, that we simply cannot find words to express it. Indeed, the most meaningful prayer is often completely silent, for when we stop talking to God we may listen to what He might want to say.
Midway between words and silence is 'non-verbal' communication, the language of facial expression and bodily movement. It is such a powerful language because it is almost instinctive. One gesture is often worth a thousand words, as we all know! It can express attitude and state of mind, and when it accompanies words can point up their deeper meanings to us.
We are all familiar with physical signs of reverence and honour in non-Church life; in a courtroom we have seen how the officials have to nod, or bow their head to the judge or magistrate when they pass in front of him. The same is true of people who are introduced to Her Majesty the Queen; they curtsy or bow.
In this way they are saying that what the person stands for, or represents, is worthy of their respect. How much more is God worthy, not only of our respect, but of the worship of our souls! In St. Paul's letter to the Philippians (2:9) we read: "Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the Name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth."
For the person who wishes to worship the Lord with all their heart, with all their soul, with all their mind and with all their strength, worship with the body is both right and natural.
When to Genuflect
When we genuflect depends partly on the tradition of the church you worship in. The general rule should be to reserve the most solemn reverence, i.e. genuflection, for the most solemn times. Genuflection is particularly appropriate in the presence of God Himself!
If you are fortunate enough to worship in a Church in which the Body of Christ (the Blessed Sacrament) is reserved, like St Johns, it is right to acknowledge the Lord's Real Presence with a brief act of worship on entering or leaving the building. Normally a genuflection in the direction of the place of reservation, coupled with a turning of the mind towards Him is enough.
At St Johns, the Blessed Sacrament is reserved above the altar. If you are unsure whether the Blessed Sacrament is reserved in another church then look for the tell-tale sign of a permanently lit lamp, red or white, near to a wall-safe or box fitted to, near or suspended above the altar. The wall-safe is called an Aumbry, the box is called a Tabernacle, or when suspended oven an altar it is called a Hanging Pyx. Alternately you could ask if there is one of these things in your church. Whether the Body of Christ is reserved in your Church or not, during the Eucharist the Body and Blood of the Lord certainly comes into your church.
The Real Presence of the Lord God Himself comes among us under the appearance of bread and wine as St. Paul's first letter to the Corinthians (ch11) reminds us. When you move from your seat to go up for Communion, remember who is waiting for you at the altar, and genuflect to adore your Lord and God. After you have received the Body and Blood of the Lord, and before you retake your seat, it is a good practice to genuflect in adoration of the Lord who is still present at the altar.
When to Bow
Although customs vary tremendously there are several points during the Eucharist at which it is traditional to bow profoundly:
At the words "And was incarnate by the Holy Ghost ... and was made man" in the Creed, in honour of the Incarnation of Our Lord, a genuflection is the general custom in Anglo-Catholic parishes, but a profound bow is an alternative.
At the Words of Institution in the Eucharistic Prayer, at which moments the bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ, although one is already kneeling, a profound bow is in most places the custom.
More generally, it has been customary to bow the head slightly at the mention of the name of Jesus, whenever it is heard in Church. This practice not only honours the sacred name, but encourages us to be attentive at all times during Divine Service.
Equally traditional is the practice of turning to the High Altar and bowing the head as you pass in front of it, honouring the throne of God in Church, the Holy of Holies.
Practice does vary so much that there can be no hard and fast rules about when to bow, or even how to bow. For many people, unused to bowing, the slightest nod of the head can feel very conspicuous! Don't let that put you off though because, however it feels, it is very unlikely that anyone else will notice, and you will soon become accustomed. Above all, if you put your soul, your mind, and your body into worship you can't go far wrong.
verb: genuflect; lower one's body briefly by bending one knee to the ground, typically in worship or as a sign of respect.