A bow in our current times and culture is often seen as a submissive act. Maybe that’s more because of a lack of respect for ourselves. For a bow in human relations has always been an expression of respect. And similarly, when this gesture is done before God, it is an expression of our respect for Him. Even more: it’s a way of showing Him reverence and adoration.
Beautiful and illustrative examples of this gesture that is the bow can be found in the Bible. Not only when its authors explicitly call for honouring God: “You stiff-necked people, with stubborn hearts and ears!” (Acts 7:51) – Saint Stephen called out to the Jews listening to him, before being stoned. Earlier in Exodus, when Israel did not listen to God, he said to Moses: “I have seen this people, and behold, it is a stiff-necked people” (Ex 32:9). From the mouth of Jeremiah, God laments the following: “they did not listen to me, or incline their ear, but stiffened their neck” (Jer 7:26). But perhaps the most beautifully expressed is in Isaiah: “Because I know that you are obstinate, and your neck is an iron sinew” (Is 48:4). Obviously, it’s about “holding the head high”. About an unhealthy pride and arrogance, which prevents a person showing reverence by a bow to the One for whom it is absolutely due. About a pride and arrogance, which results in self-righteous disobedience towards God, and which eventually leads a person astray. Because of faith in God, faith in His Son, Jesus Christ, leads to life. But walking your own way . . . .
The psalmist (147), praising the power of God exclaims: “The Lord lifts the humble, the necks of sinners bent to the ground” (these days it is translated as “he casts the wicked to the ground”). So, sooner or later the proud and arrogant end up saying “no” to God. Let’s also pay some attention to this bending of necks to the ground. It’s not about twisting them. In bowing you can bend your neck, you can bend your back, but you can also genuflect. And finally, fall face down on the ground. But about the latter two – some other time.
In the liturgy, first of all, the priest and the servers bow. Sometimes a deep bow bending the back, sometimes inclining the head forward. When this gesture is used toward another human being – bowing the head as between the priest and server – is an expression of respect. When toward God – e.g. the altar representing Christ, or the Gospel – it means veneration and worship. Here, the faithful also bow: when the Persons of the Trinity are recalled together, when in the Creed we mention the mystery of the Incarnation. And if for some reason they cannot genuflect, it is by bowing that they give the honour due to God.
Frequent, thoughtless, casual bows should be guarded against – this makes the liturgy ridiculous. If a person prays, so does his whole body. Therefore, bowing down in prayer has a meaning. Not only in liturgical prayer but also individual prayer. Bowing can express what we cannot put into words. So, yes, giving honour, praise, worship, but in a specific case it can also mean abandoning to God’s will. Whether in difficult life experiences of suffering, illness or death, or in situations when the Gospel demands seem beyond human strength – it’s saying “You are Lord, let Your will be done”. Knowing who God is and knowing who we are, we need to get rid of the iron sinew in the neck – and to bow with confidence before the One on whom everything depends.