Origin of Folding Hands in Prayer

folded handsOne of the fun things about studying worship and liturgy is finding out the origin of things we do, either consciously or unconsciously.  One of my pet peeves is all the well-intentioned Sunday school teachers who exhort their students to “close your eyes and fold your hands” in prayer.  Where does the Bible command this?  Where do we see this bodily position used in Biblical prayer?  We don’t, as far as I know.  Imagine my delight when I came across a passage, from Miri Rubin’s Corpus Christi: The Eucharist in Late Medieval Culture, which explains the origin of this wide-spread custom.  In the late medieval period, it was commonly thought that great blessings and spiritual merit came from seeing, and viewing, the bread of the Eucharist.  The most powerful and effective viewing time was when the priest lifted up (elevated) the Eucharist.  We have records of people running from church to church to see as many elevated Eucharists as they could.  Since this was a holy moment, the people were encouraged to respond appropriately:

medieval eucharist“Proper humility was recommended at this moment, when people were to kneel and gaze at the body and the blood.  This is the attitude most commonly shown in visual representations of the elevation, a group of men and women with clasped hands, and sometimes holding their hands to their mouths in a gesture of awe, kneeling behind the servers and priest.  They are most frequently shown to be clasping their hands in a gesture which becomes increasingly common in thirteenth-century representations, one which we nowadays think of as natural for private prayer” (Corpus Christi, 155-56).

child_prayingI don’t mean to be too hard on the Sunday School teachers, but it is simply interesting how we inherit all sorts of traditions from the past, and are blissfully ignorant of the origins of most things.  This should make us both more humble in our own worship practices, as well as thankful for all the rich history and traditions that have been handed down to us.  Thankfully, God sees the heart, which is really the point of prayer.  May we all have hearts full of child-like faith, no matter how we express that with our bodies!

I blogged about prayer postures some time ago:

Charles Baird’s “A Chapter on Liturgies”–Free!

I recently discovered that one of the classic texts on Presbyterian & Reformed liturgies is now available for free on Google Books!  Charles Baird’s A Chapter on Liturgies:  Historical Sketches was a ground-breaking work published in the late 1800s, when many people were ignorant of the rich liturgical history of the Reformed churches.  Baird’s project was so novel (given the anti-liturgical prejudices in the Reformed world at the time) that he published the first edition of the work anonymously.  It bore the unwieldy title of Eutaxia; Or the Presbyterian Liturgies: Historical Sketches, by A Minister of the Presbyterian Church (now republished by Forgotten Books in a facsimile format). Although the research is dated and must be compared with more recent scholarship, it is well worth perusing.  Unfortunately, much ignorance and prejudice about liturgy still prevails in Reformed churches.  Baird’s even-handed and honest history will help many churches grow and appreciate the liturgical resources in their own traditions.


Sexist Scottish Stools

We’ve all heard the romanticized story of how Jenny Geddes, the rustic Scotswoman, was so disturbed by the King of England’s imposition of English Anglican prayers on the Scots Presbyterians, that she threw her stool at the minister in St. Giles’ Cathedral, Edinburgh, in 1637.

Sorting legend from historical fact here is tricky, but I’ve always wondered why she had a stool in the first place.  Seating in churches was a relatively late development–churches throughout the early church and medieval times would have been bare of seating, for the most part.  Pews are a modern development.  So, if you wanted to bring seating, you had to bring your own.  But, there’s a more depressing side to Jenny Geddes and her stool.  According to William D. Maxwell, the noted liturgical historian of the early 20th century, women were sometimes not allowed to sit with the men in Scottish Reformed churches.  I will quote him at length, because he really messes with a few of our mental pictures for Scots Reformed worship:

“The attitude at prayer everywhere was kneeling, on both knees or on one knee; hats were removed for prayers, psalms, and reading, but were usually though not always worn during sermon by the preacher and the men, and the women wore plaids or shawls on their heads, and in many places sat separate from the men.”

He continues in a footnote, quoting the decision of board of elders in Glasgow, in 1589:  “‘The session ordains that no woman sit upon or occupy the forms the men should sit on, but either sit [i.e. on the floor] or els bring stools wi’ them’.  Forty-eight years later [Maxwell comments] Jenny Geddes (?) obediently brought her stool with her, but allowed it to be put to more aggressive use, and this method was not the last time stools were used as weapons in church, as records of this and the succeeding century show” (William D. Maxwell, A History of Worship in the Church of Scotland, 97).

So, not only did we have Scots Presbyterians kneeling to pray (I thought that was a Roman Catholic thing!) and wearing hats in church, but we had women often segregated from the men, forced to sit on the floor or on stools they brought to church with them.  Well, hopefully their husbands carried their stools to church for them.  Humorous at the least, but also revealing how much of our worship is dictated by our historical context and culture.

A Common Reformed Cup?

I love studying liturgical history!  I love finding out how our conceptions about worship are simply wrong-headed.  Most people, especially conservative Reformed types, would say that a “common cup” at communion is an “Anglican” thing, or even worse, a relic of “Romanism.”  Well, it seems that the Scottish Presbyterians used a common cup:

“The tradition of the Presbyterian Church is that the large common cup or chalice be passed from hand to hand, and the bread also be passed from communicant to communicant, each one breaking the bread to his neighbor.  This is sometimes said to symbolize the priesthood of all believers.  Unfortunately in many churches the practice of the individual cup has been introduced on the grounds that the common cup brings the danger of infection.  As a symbol it is very much inferior to the common cup, but once introduced it is very hard to expel.”[1]

[1] David Cairns, “The Holy Communion in the Presbyterian Churches,” in Hugh Martin, ed., The Holy Communion:  A Symposium, (London:  SCM Press LTD, 1947), 72.

Calvin and Weekly Communion

The Eucharist in the ReformationThe Eucharist in the Reformation by Lee Palmer Wandel

Wandel asserts the centrality of frequent communion in Calvin’s theology:

“Perhaps most important of all, however, was Calvin’s insistence on frequency.  Most evangelicals condemned the medieval requirement of annual communion as nonscriptural.  Luther condemned it as well for denying the laity that moment of intimate communion with Christ, which, as he said, nourished faith.  But no other evangelical so explicitly situated the Eucharist within a dialogic process not simply of deepening faith, but of the increasing capacity to read the signs of the Supper itself, and by extension, of God in the world.  The Supper, for Calvin, was not “external”—a ceremony to be performed regularly—nor even “worship” in the sense that other evangelicals, such as Zwingli and Luther, used:  a mode of honoring God.  The Supper was, for Calvin, mutual:  Christ “is made completely one with us and we with him.”  One was not “made completely one” with Christ in a single communion; one was “made completely one” over time, through the interdependent activities of the Holy Spirit: preaching and the Supper.  Frequent communion, therefore, for Calvin was essential to one’s growth as a Christian—it transformed one in one’s being and epistemology.  When Calvin’s liturgy was instituted in Geneva, however, the City Council restricted the number of times the Supper would be offered to four:  Easter, Pentecost, mid-September, and Christmas.  On this essential point, the government of Geneva did not follow Calvin.” [1]

[1] Wandel, The Eucharist in the Reformation, 171-72.

On Carefully Defining our Terms in Debates

Part of the tragedy of the Reformation was the split between Zwingli and Luther.  Historian Lee Palmer Wandel points out some of the lasting ironies of the debate:

“Perhaps the greatest puzzle of the Eucharistic debates of the sixteenth century lies in this:  Zwingli and Oecolampad rejected Luther’s characterization of their positions in print and in public debates again and again, for nearly a decade, and yet, Luther’s characterization of Zwingli’s position has held.  Zwingli and Oecolampad brought to those debates a deeper engagement with the Greek text of the New Testament … In a telling moment at Marburg, Zwingli cited the Greek text, and Luther responded, ‘Read German or Latin, not Greek’; as Zwingli said, he had used the Greek text for twelve years and read the Latin only once” (The Eucharist in the Reformation, 71).