An outward sign of humility

By Linda Zahorik | For The Compass | October 20, 2016

The Living Rite column explores what you will see, hear, taste, touch or smell while at church this weekend.

This Sunday we hear in the Gospel of the tax collector kneeling in the Temple beating his breast with remorse. This is a custom both ancient and contemporary.
The practice of striking one’s breast is profoundly human and humble. For some, it conveys great emotion, usually extreme sorrow or sadness. You may recall stories of people beating their chests at funerals. In the Old Testament the Book of Nahum 2:7, speaking of the city of Nineveh, states: “The mistress is led forth captive, and her maidservants led away, moaning like doves, beating their breasts. In the New Testament, we are told that after the crucifixion of Jesus many went away beating their breasts” (Lk 23:48).

In a religious sense, beating one’s breast is an outward sign of inward contrition or sorrow. In Jewish tradition, at any time during a confession, when words to the effect “we have sinned” are stated, the left breast over the heart is struck with the right fist. In doing this, one is “taking to heart” the words being spoken and turning to penitence.

The early Christians were also familiar with the practice, as St. Augustine and St. Jerome testify. “No sooner have you heard the word ‘Confiteor,’” says Augustine, “than you strike your breast. What does this mean except that you wish to bring to light what is concealed in the breast, and by this act to cleanse your hidden sins?” (Sermo de verbis Domini, 13). It was also a practice of the early Christians to strike their breast at “Forgive us our trespasses” in the Our Father.

Before the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, it was a custom for people to strike their breast at the consecration and at the “Lamb of God,” although at those times it is not a gesture of penitence but rather profound worship.

The penitential act of the Mass in the new translation (which actually is a restoration to the original translation) has us say, “I confess to almighty God … in what I have done and in what I have failed to do” and then to strike our breast as we continue with “through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault.” The Confiteor recited in this manner, aligns it with the other “threefold” prayers of the liturgy; the Lord Have Mercy, the Holy Holy Holy and the Lamb of God.

Pay attention to which eucharistic prayer is used within the Mass you attend this Sunday. If it is Eucharistic Prayer I, watch closely. In this particular prayer, the priest strikes his breast as he says, “… to us, also, your servants, who, though sinners …” This action might surprise you. Eucharistic Prayer 1 is long in form. Thus, it is often not used, in favor of the briefer second and third eucharistic prayers which do not contain this gesture.

This weekend at Mass, listen to that dull “thump, thump, thump” as you strike your breast during the penitential act. You are being told to take your words of penitence “to heart.”

Zahorik is pastoral associate at Most Blessed Sacrament Parish, Oshkosh.

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