Bows at Incensations
Date: September 25, 2022
Author: Fr. Edward McNamara, LC
Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and sacramental theology and director of the Sacerdos Institute at the Pontifical Regina Apostolorum university.
Question: Why does the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM) 277 specifically state the following? "Before and after an incensation, a profound bow is made to the person or object that is incensed, except for the altar and the offerings for the Sacrifice of the Mass." -- M.A.S., Iloilo City, Philippines
Answer: It is useful here to see the context of the entire text of GIRM 277:
“The Priest, having put incense into the thurible, blesses it with the Sign of the Cross, without saying anything. Before and after an incensation, a profound bow is made to the person or object that is incensed, except for the altar and the offerings for the Sacrifice of the Mass.
“Three swings of the thurible are used to incense: the Most Blessed Sacrament, a relic of the Holy Cross and images of the Lord exposed for public veneration, the offerings for the Sacrifice of the Mass, the altar cross, the Book of the Gospels, the paschal candle, the Priest, and the people.
“Two swings of the thurible are used to incense relics and images of the Saints exposed for public veneration; this should be done, however, only at the beginning of the celebration, following the incensation of the altar.
“The altar is incensed with single swings of the thurible in this way:
“a) if the altar is freestanding with respect to the wall, the Priest incenses walking around it;
“b) if the altar is not freestanding, the Priest incenses it while walking first to the right hand side, then to the left.
“The cross, if situated on the altar or near it, is incensed by the Priest before he incenses the altar; otherwise, he incenses it when he passes in front of it.
“The Priest incenses the offerings with three swings of the thurible or by making the Sign of the Cross over the offerings with the thurible before going on to incense the cross and the altar.”
This text, taking its cue from the more explicit norms issued in the Ceremonial of Bishops, offers a fuller explanation of this rite than the 1975 introduction. Among these novelties is the above indication regarding not bowing to the altar and the offerings before incensing.
While it is a novelty in the GIRM it is not such a novelty in liturgical practice, and in part it reflects practice in vogue before the conciliar reform.
For example, in the Fortesque/O’Connell/Reid ceremonial book for the Roman rite before the conciliar reforms, the following is said about bows:
“In bowing always keep the hands joined before the breast, unless they hold something. The celebrant bows low to the cross at the beginning and end of services. When one does not genuflect to a prelate, then one makes a low bow. The medium bow is usually made to persons of higher rank than one’s own. The medium bow is used when certain words are said. For instance, at the Holy Name; when the three Divine Persons are named. […] Those who are already bowing during any part of a service make no further motion on these occasions. Neither does anyone bow if he is impeded (e.g. while he is making the sign of the cross). […] Everyone bows before and after being incensed, to the person who incenses him; and he bows, before and after, to the person incensed. One does not bow before or after incensing the Blessed Sacrament” (p. 46).
Later, in giving detailed descriptions of the incensing of the altar at the beginning of a solemn Mass and during the offertory it is noteworthy that while there are some bows and genuflections at the beginning of Mass, there is also a moment when it is specified that the altar is incensed with no bowing. Likewise, no bowing is mentioned for incensing the gifts (p. 141-145).
Therefore, there does appear to be a certain continuity of criteria involved here even though the current procedure for bowing and incensing is far simpler than before.
Although the official documents do not explain the rationale behind this distinction, I would hazard to propose that the bow before incensing the altar is omitted because the celebrant has just venerated the altar with a bow as he approached it and the incensing is in continuity with this ritual action.
In a similar way the celebrant makes a profound inclination before the altar and the gifts while reciting the prayer, “With humble spirit and contrite heart” just before placing incense in the thurible. Once more all these separate acts are seen as a ritual whole so that a second bow is not required.
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