What happened to the custom of bowing the head when saying the name of Jesus?
Thank you for asking this important question, and indeed it is an important question to answer since it relates to our relationship with Jesus Christ and his relationship to us.
First, let us appeal to Sacred Scripture to see what the Scriptures have to say about the person of Jesus and our relationship to him as disciples of his. In Philippians 2:9-10 we read, “Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
In your question you make a statement about custom, and that is important. In every society, culture, and community, within subsets of citizens living in a particular country, there are certain customs, traditions, and etiquette practiced that we may not be accustomed to when we travel to various countries, but it is beneficial for us to learn and practice the customs, traditions, and etiquette if we wish not to offend others who are our hosts.
We talk about specific liturgies and celebrations within the Catholic Church where the use of gestures is on display. The acceptable gestures of reverence during any celebration of liturgies in the Catholic Church are bowing, genuflecting, standing, and yes, even sitting. Notice that the gestures reflect a posture of reverence, and in the case of reverencing the name of Jesus, as the scriptural passage from Philippians says, “His name is above every other name,” so it is very important that we indicate by our particular gestures that Jesus’ name means something greater than our own name because he is our King, our Savior, and our All.
Therefore, why would we not extend to our Creator and our Lord the praise and reverence that is due him? It may have fallen out of practice for what is customary due to what certain people believe about Jesus: Is he just a man, is he just a good prophet and teacher, or is he my Lord and Savior?
Raniero Cantalamessa, OFM Cap, papal homilist and spiritual director, writes in his book, Remember Jesus Christ: Responding to the Challenges of Faith in Our Time the following: “What place does Jesus have in our society and our culture? I believe we can speak about it as a presence/absence of Christ. People take advantage of the vast resonance associated with the name of Jesus and what he represents for a large part of humanity in order to ensure a lot of publicity at minimal cost. This is literary parasitism.”
I do not believe that people in general, and Catholics in particular, do not make particular gestures at the mention of the name of Jesus because they are trying to be irreverent, but because they have forgotten what his name truly means and the significance of what he has done for us and the world. The custom of bowing has not gone anywhere, we just need to practice it and teach it to others for the sake of the name of Jesus.
Father Stephen Thompson is pastor at Holy Family Parish in Granite City and St. Mary and St. Mark Parish in Madison.