Things we do in Church - Bowing
Some people who are not used to bowing in worship can find this practice odd or unusual and this is quite natural when encountering something new and unfamiliar but I would want to reassure any such that it can become quite natural over time as one gets used to it. Other people object to us Orthodox bowing before bishops and priests and before icons and relics, claiming that the Bible forbids this and that we are only to bow before God â but is this an accurate reflection of all the Bible has to say on this subject? I donât think soâ¦
Although it is, of course, the Biblical principle that we only bow to God in worship and adoration and in worship and adoration to none other whatsoever (eg: Exodus 20:1-5, Deuteronomy 5:6-9, Matthew 4:9), there are however repeated examples through the Bible of bowing unto other people and also places in respect. This is the bow of respect or reverence. The bow of worship and adoration is for God alone. The following are some examples of bowing in respect for someone, bowing to show reverence to someone:
Moses bowed to his father-in-law (Exodus 18:7) and Solomon (even though he was king) bowed to his mother (1Kings 2:19) - examples of showing reverence for parents, of honouring parents (Exodus 20:12)
Then there are repeated examples of people bowing to King David and also King Solomon out of respect for the Lord's anointed: Abigail (1Samuel 25:23), the Amalekite (2Samuel 1:2), Mephibosheth (2Samuel 9:6), a woman from Tekoa (2Samuel 14:4), Ziba (2Samuel 16:4), Ahimaaz (2Samuel 18:28), Shimei (2Samuel 19:8), Araunah the Jebusite (2Samuel 24:20), Bathsheba (1Kings 1:16&3 1), Nathan the prophet (1Kings 1:23), Adonijah (1Kings 1:53). And these holy men of God, David and Solomon, accepted these bows - neither is there the least suggestion that at any time they ever did wrong in so doing. Indeed David, in turn, had bowed before King Saul as before the Lord's anointed (1Samuel 24:8) Similarly Joseph, as ruler of Egypt (under Pharoah), received bows from his brothers on four occasions (Genesis 42:6, 43:26, 44;14, 50:18).
Then there is bowing to a prophet (even as the King was the Lord's anointed, so is the prophet God's prophet): thus Elijah received the bow of the king's captain (2Kings 1:13) and Elisha received the bow of the Shunanite woman (2Kings 4:37) and Daniel received the bow even of Nebuchadnezzer (Daniel 2:46).
Then there is bowing unto angels (also, of course, ministers of God) - thus Abraham (Genesis 18:2), Lot (Genesis 19:1), Balaam (Numbers 22:31). Now it is very instructive to compare the Apostle John in Revelation who bowed to the angel in worship and the angel refused the bow (Revelation 19:10 & 22:8&9). One possible explanation is that John was actually bowing in worship or adoration (which one should only do to God) but given the whole context of this series of heavenly visions, including his prostration as one dead at the feet of our Lord God and Saviour Jesus Christ at the beginning of the visions, this does seem unlikely. The more probable explanation is that John's bow is indeed one of reverence and the angel's refusal one of humility â I have seen this very thing by Coptic (and other Oriental) Orthodox priests where one goes to bow and the other avoids the bow out of humility (this would certainly be in keeping with the angelâs words about being John's fellow servant. It is perhaps worth noting that though the one was an angel the other was an apostle).
Then there is Abraham's bows of respect to the Hittites - not because they were his parents nor his king nor prophets... but only, so far as we can tell out of respect to them as people (for all are images or icons of God, Genesis 1:27, and to be accorded respect and reverence).
Then there is bowing in respect to, in reverence for, the temple of God (Psalm 5:7 & Psalm 138:2).
In Revelation 3:7-9 God declares that He will make others to worship before the feet of "the angel [or minister] of the Church in Philadelphia". Do not be confused here by the word worship - the literal meaning of worship is to bow down or even to kneel - but it can also of course have the full meaning of to worship or adore God. Obviously God is not saying that He is going to make others worship the minister in the sense of the worship or adoration to be given unto God. It means that they will bow before the minister to accord him the respect and reverence which God requires of them.
Related to all these verses on bowing are those requiring us to give reverence and honour to whom it is due (1Peter 2:17), and to esteem others above ourselves (Philippians 2:3 - see also verses 4-8). Also verses calling us to humility should be borne in mind as well.
If it be asked why we bow, other than of course to follow all these Biblical and godly examples, then I would say that it is like all those other physical acts we do, such as lighting candles, taking off our shoes, kissing iconsâ¦ what is going on in all this Orthodox ritual and symbolism, is what psychologists refer to as a 'feed-back loop.' "By attention to externals, we affect internals; and by the restored internal state, external attributes are affected. Endlessly linked to one another, internals and externals interact with one another to the point that they are no longer separate. The humble spirit manifests itself in the humble face; the sweet countenance in the sweetness of spirit; and the contrite heart within a contrite act. Grace brings what is inside out and what is outside in."
And now some thoughts on how and when we bowâ¦
There are basically three types of bow; the bow from the waist (some people do this with the hand reaching down to touch the floor in front of them while those of us who gave up limbo dancing long ago or who never could touch our toes bow forward from the waist but not quite so low), then there is the full bow sometimes referred to as prostration when we kneel on the floor and bow forward so our foreheads touch the floor, then there is the prostration proper in which one lies full length face down on the floor. This last, the full prostration is very unusual in Church services though someone might be moved to do this because of some particular burden of sin or the fervour of their prayer before an icon of a saint whose intercession they are seeking or perhaps at the end of one of the Good Friday services. There is no ban against this face down full length prostration, simply that it is not something specifically required of us; indeed it might be worth pointing out that given the small size of some of our Churches, even with a small congregation it could get a bit impractical if too many people do it too often â I have visions of trip hazards and health and safety issues! Generally speaking it is the first two bows that are used in Church.
Kneeling with forehead to floor is the position for the Absolution in Morning and Evening Incense - also used during the Holy Mystery or Sacrament of Absolution or Repentance (commonly still called by people the Sacrament of Confession). At practically all other times in Sunday worship it is the bow from the waist that is practiced. As for when â whenever the deacon declares âLet us bow our heads unto the Lordâ (thatâs always a good guide!), then in the Little Entrance as the Gospel Book passes us in its procession around the Church, in the Great Entrance as the Holy Gifts pass us in their procession around the Church, when we are censed by the priest, whenever we kiss the priestâs hand-cross and handâ¦