Hey, Father! Why do we bow at this part of the Nicene Creed: “By the power of the Holy Spirit He was born of the Virgin Mary and became man”?
Among various groups of Christians, we Catholics are known for emphasizing the importance of symbolism, the body, and the material world. During our liturgies and sacramental rites in particular, we are known for changing postures and using various gestures. It is worth noting the underlying reason as to why our bodily actions are so important in the context of prayer and worship.
As human beings, we are not souls “trapped” or contained in bodies. We are body-soul composites, a union of both body and soul. Our bodies express or communicate our souls in the world of space and time. In his series of audiences now known collectively as the Theology of the Body, Pope St. John Paul II called the human body “a primordial sacrament,” because, “The body, in fact, and only the body, is capable of making visible what is invisible: the spiritual and the divine. It has been created to transfer into the visible reality of the world the mystery hidden from eternity in God, and thus to be a sign of it.”
Our bodies visibly express realities that otherwise remain invisible: our mind, soul, thoughts, beliefs, etc. We therefore express something in a more complete and human way when we engage our bodies as well. Just as we express kindness or affection through a smile, handshake, hug, or kiss, we also desire to express our relationship with God through our bodies, especially during times of prayer and worship.
Now, to your specific question about bowing during the Nicene Creed. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that “Belief in the true Incarnation of the Son of God is the distinctive sign of Christian faith” (CCC 463). The Incarnation is the central mystery of our salvation, because without taking on our wounded human nature, Christ could not have redeemed it through his obedience to the Father and sacrificial act of love on the cross. He took on our nature in order to heal it from within. As a way of highlighting this awesome and distinctive mystery of our Faith, we bow during the phrase in the Creed that expresses it.
Older Catholics might recall that, prior to the Second Vatican Council, everyone genuflected during this part of the Creed on all Sundays and solemnities. After the Council, the Church relaxed this practice, and now we genuflect during this part on just two solemnities of the year: the Annunciation on March 25 and the Nativity of the Lord (Christmas) on Dec. 25 (see the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, n. 137). We use the more solemn gesture of genuflecting on these days because the Annunciation celebrates the moment of Christ’s Incarnation, while Christmas of course celebrates the birth of Jesus, God Incarnate.
Some people are unable to genuflect or even bow due to age or health, and that is completely understandable. These people can simply bow their heads instead. But for all who are able, the gesture of bowing deeply is a beautiful expression of our reverence and gratitude for Christ, who loved us so much that He assumed our humanity, to redeem us and to unite us to Himself in a new way forever.
Father Christopher Trummer, S.T.L, is parochial vicar at St. Agnes Parish in Springfield, associate delegate for Health Care Professionals, associate chaplain of the Springfield Chapter of the Catholic Physicians Guild/Catholic Medical Association and has a license in Sacred Theology in Moral Theology at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome, Italy.