What's all this about bells, incense, candles, crossing and genuflections?

On Saturday 14 October 2006 the parish held a Worship Study Day. We looked at what worship is, what we do at St Georges, why we do what we do and what we mean by certain actions.

Part of the day covered the use of bells, incense, candles, crossing ourselves and genuflections.

The following were originally part of my working note however turned into useful handouts.

I hope that you will find them a help - any comments (polite please!!!) or other useful tip bits would be welcomed - just send us an email.


This includes the dropping to one knee, the deep reverence, and the bow

It is an act of homage and reverence to Christ

It is the customary act of humility, reverence and homage offered in worship to Jesus who humbles himself for our sake.

Philippians Chapter 2 v 5 - 11

Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus;

"Who being in the very manner of God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.

And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death - even death on a cross!

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that 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 the presence of such a great Deity we should humble ourselves - at the remembrance of what he did we should humble ourselves - in his presence in the Eucharist we should humble ourselves - and bend the knee.


They have an ancient pagan use - however first Christian use may have been simply to dispel darkness - mass was celebrated before dawn or in the catacombs and light was needed.

In the Roman Empire taper bearers preceded dignitaries as a symbol of authority and power - safe to say that these were extended to the Pope and bishops. The taperers preceded the bishop on the way to the sanctuary and simply left their candles there - quite common to have six acolytes - hence six candles.

Other higher dignitaries may have more - sometimes seven - hence when a Diocesan is celebrating in own diocese we can have seven candles on the altar.

But over time beautiful symbolism takes over

Light is pure - it penetrates darkness

Jesus is the Light of the World - the candles represent this light

The flame represents the presence of God - e.g. the burning bush, the tongues of fire at Pentecost

Two candles on the altar represent the divine and human nature of Jesus

Use of bees wax for candles - bees were virginal - bees wax was spotless - it represented Christ's spotless Body, the wick enclosed in it is an image of his Soul, while the glowing flame typifies the Divine Nature united with the human in one Divine Person

The more candles the better it looks - the more flowers the nicer it looks - the greater the celebration the more candles - the more joy and beauty.

The frail flame of the candle imitates our flickering faith, which burns in honour of God, enhances celebration, and spends itself to light the way for other.

Also a symbol of prayer


The sign of the cross is a symbol of blessing, it is a "badge" of our belonging to Christ, it is a summary of our faith.

The use of the sign of the cross could have started with the early Christian martyrs - they signed themselves with the cross as a shield and a blessing against the suffering to come.

It probably started very small using the finger or thumb to make a small cross on the forehead or breast - anything bigger in the time of persecution could have been very dangerous.

The sign of the cross is a remembrance of the Trinitarian God - the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost from whom all blessings come. The hand traces the Trinity - from the head which represents God as the Head, down to the breast representing Jesus descending to earth, and from left to right representing the Spirit which moves us towards God - to His right hand.

It is the sign which represents Christ's glorious sacrifice on the cross - it represents his life, his death and his resurrection - it signifies Christ's love - the cross was the sign of his ultimate love and blessing through which we receive life.

It is an outward sign of an inward prayer - it is an expression of our desires, our faith, our gratitude, a request for blessing on ourselves, on others around us (e.g. crossing oneself when looking at an ambulance - the sign is a request for a blessing on those inside it)

We were given the sign of the cross at our baptism - we are signed with the sign of the cross as a symbol of belonging to Christ.

We use it at the beginning of mass to request a blessing on us and the service
At the Creed as a rejoicing at the blessings of the resurrection of the body and eternal life which is ours through the cross of Christ.
At the Gospel requesting a blessing on our thoughts, our words and our whole self
At the sermon asking a blessing on the words to be said and on our minds to hear and receive them
At the consecration to bless the bread and wine in Christ's name
At the elevation as a remembrance of our deliverance and joy at the presence of Christ
Before we receive the elements that by doing so we may be blessed and those whom we receive for are blessed
At the blessing to mirror and receive for ourselves the blessing given by the priest
At the dismissal to ask for a blessing that we may truly Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.

It is a prayer - it is a blessing - it is the symbol of our deliverance and the emblem of the mercy of God giving redemption to sinful men


Use of incense is ancient - common in many many religions - the Assyrians, Babylonians and the Egyptians - you can see hieroglyphs showing incense being offered to the gods.

The Jews used incense extensively as a sweet smelling offering to God - Moses built an altar of incense on which the sweetest spices and gums were burned.

It was brought as a costly gift and a sweet smelling offering to Jesus by the wise men

Incense is both an offering to God and a representation of our prayers.

Psalm 141 says "Let my prayer be counted as incense before you"

Revelation 8 v 3-4 says "Another angel with a golden censer came and stood at the altar; he was given a great quantity of incense to offer with the prayers of all the saints on the golden altar that is before the throne. And the smoke of incense, with the prayers of the saints, rose before God from the hand of the angel"

The smoke of the incense we use rises mysteriously to the heavens as it bears our prayers to God

The smoke of the incense creates a cloud - a cloud which symbolises the very presence of God - as in the Exodus, as at the Transfiguration, and as at the Ascension

During the mass the altar is censed, the offerings on the altar are censed and the people are censed as signs that our worship and praise, and who we are, are all being offered to God as a pleasing offering

It is also used as a symbol of purification, of setting aside and of blessing.


Again used in all ancient religions and civilisations - Babylon, Egypt, Rome, Greece, China, Hindustan

They were mentioned in the Old Testament - the vestments worn by Aaron when he went into the Holy of Holies had alternating golden bells and pomegranates stitched around the hem so that people could hear him moving about when in the presence of God so that they knew he was still alive - no one could approach God and live

In Zecariah - the horses which were taken to Jerusalem for the feast of booths shall have engraved on their bells "Holy to the Lord" - Bells were seen as an adoration to God

Difficult to say what the original bells looked like - they could be the shape we have them now, they could have been like gongs, or cymbals - but whatever they were they may a joyous noise - Psalm 150 mentions praise God with cymbals - Psalm 98 talks about making a joyful noise in praise of God.

Bells in church started about sixth century - first summoned worshippers to church - whether in community or not - no watches - tolled the hours through bells

By thirteenth century people went to mass very infrequently - when they did they wanted to see the host - even if they didn't receive they wanted to see it and adore it.

With the priest's back to the congregation they couldn't see so the bell was rung to bring their attention to the elevation.

In practical terms in large monastic churches mass was celebrated in Latin - they couldn't understand it - by a priest at the far end of the building behind screens and choirs and virtually out of sight. The mass was said in private - the milling congregation couldn't hear - no pews or structure - so bell rang to draw attention to most holy part of mass.

At the same time the tower bell - or a smaller bell from a window - was rung to warn people working in the fields what was going on in church so that they may momentarily pause and make a spiritual devotion or adoration.

We still use bells - originally purely practical they now serve other purposes

1. At introit to announce arrival of sacred ministers
2. At Epiclesis to mark the point at which the consecration starts
3. At the elevation to draw our attention back to the presence of Our Lord
4. At the consumption by the priest and ministers - practical to get congregation moving

Technically now not really necessary as we can all see and hear what is going on but we can still drift away and need to be brought back

And also the sound of the bells is a joyous sound - a sound which can still be made to rejoice at the presence of Christ. Similarly used at the Gloria on Maundy Thursday as a joyous sound and celebration