Q - I was talking to my sister the other day and she asked me why we bow our heads during the Nicene Creed when we say, "and by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary, and became man." I know we honor the nativity and Mary...but isn't the whole creed talking about important things that we believe? I was just wondering why this line stood out above all the rest.
A - Thanks for the question. We are honoring that which is greater than Mary - Jesus and His Incarnation. There are several times in Mass that we are asked to bow as well as make other signs of honoring our Lord. In fact, there are two kinds of bows we make during Mass. A simple bow of the head and a more profound bow of the body, then there is the act of adoration of our God - genuflection.
We bow our heads during any mentioning of the name of Jesus, when the Trinity is invoked, the name of Mary, and at the name of any Saing if we are celebrating their feast day. We also bow our head before receiving Communion.
We make a more profound bow of the body during the Creed, as you pointed out, in order to honor the most important act in human history - God becoming man. Also, this is the kind of bow we make toward the altar, when passing in front of it or entering the sanctuary. If the tabernacle is not in the main sanctuary of a Church, then the priests and servers will bow before and after entering the Sanctuary. There are other times you might notice profound bows being made by priests and deacons during Mass.
The General Instruction of the Roman Missal (which helps explain the prayers and actions during Mass) says:
275. A bow signifies reverence and honor shown to the persons themselves or to the signs that represent them. There are two kinds of bow: a bow of the head and a bow of the body.We genuflect toward the Eucharist. We should genuflect upon entering and leaving Church toward the Tabernacle - if the Eucharist is present. The priests and servers will also do this upon entering and leaving, but not during Mass. On Annunciation and Christmas we also genuflect during the creed instead of bowing.
a) A bow of the head is made when the three Divine Persons are named together and at the names of Jesus, of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and of the Saint in whose honor Mass is being celebrated.
b) A bow of the body, that is to say, a profound bow, is made to the altar; during the prayers Munda cor meum (Cleanse my heart) and In spiritu humilitatis (With humble spirit); in the Creed at the words et incarnatus est (and by the Holy Spirit . . . and became man); in the Roman Canon at the Supplices te rogamus (In humble prayer we ask you, almighty God). The same kind of bow is made by the Deacon when he asks for a blessing before the proclamation of the Gospel. In addition, the Priest bows slightly as he pronounces the words of the Lord at the Consecration.
The purpose is to show with our bodies what ought to happen in our hearts. Our bodies reflect the amazing nature of God and the fact that He loves us and showers us with His grace in Mass.
I hope this helps.
"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." - Phil 2: 9-11