June 4, 2017
What is the significance of the gestures that priests make with their arms and hands at the Eucharist?
"Manual Acts," the arm gestures or hand movements, or what one of my colleagues cynically calls "all that hand waving" are all optional parts of the Eucharist. There is no definitive document which details all of them to satisfaction.
Some priests are particularly devoted to many of them, and they were taught these manual acts usually in their first parish call or sometime thereafter. Many of these gestures part of the medieval church because of the character of the celebration in that day and time.
The context of the late medieval and early reformation Eucharist was Latin prayer language, an East facing altar, and a catechism which emphasized personal piety, even in church. Many of the manual acts were detailed in the altar books, or Ordos, and were required and they were required so the people might see, hence oversized and dramatic. Some of the manual acts developed overtime from the priests own personal piety because the priest was only acting for himself at the altar.
Out of all of this action, the Roman rite focused on the priest as the stand-in for Christ at the altar. That development was very different form the Theology of the other part of the Great Church, the orthodox communities in the East. They remained, even in their disciplined and high ceremonial fashion, presiders at the service, celebrating with the people, and empowered by the Holy Spirit.
That focus on the priest and Christ in the Roman Rite, distanced the Priest from the people and elaborate gestures around the altar became practically necessary: a multiplication of the signs of the cross, the elevation of the elements of the bread and wine at multiple times during the prayers, and actions which make it look as if the Priest is the point, not just the presider.
The Book of Common Prayer 1979 was a dramatic move toward a theology of the Classical Church (i.e. the time between the beginning of the 2nd Century and the Constantinian establishment). Not only did churches move the altar, so the priest might face the people, the set-up for the Eucharist was to simplify the manual acts. Since all the people, priest and congregation were working together, the adoption of similar postures (i.e. standing for the whole prayer), using only the ancient prayer posture (orans, hands spread, a posture that would be appropriate for the people as well) for most of the Eucharistic Prayer. The only changes are the time to touch the bread and wine, required by the Prayer Book, and the elevation at the Doxology just before the great AMEN, begged by the words themselves. Manual gestures are still there, but much more modest in order to be much more embracing.
The Rev. David Lucey