Knees to Love Christ
Olmsted, of Phoenix, addressed the significance of kneeling the Phoenix diocesan
publication, The Catholic Sun, in a two-part article that appeared February 17
and March 3. Bishop Olmsted's complete article is reprinted here with his
Knees symbolize both
strength and humility. Athletes use strong knees to run for touchdowns in
football and to block shots and to slam-dunk in basketball. Knees also bend in
adoration of the Eucharistic King and in recognition of the grandeur and majesty
of the Most High God.
Already in Biblical times, knees were a symbol of humility and strength. To bend
one's knee before God was a profound act of worship; it stated boldly yet simply
that God is the source of all power and that the one on bended knee is ready to
place his life and all his energy at the service of the Lord.
What we do with our knees gives evidence of what we believe in our hearts. When
we kneel down beside the bed of a dying person, when we stand up for the dignity
of the unborn child, when we genuflect before Christ in the Blessed Sacrament,
we say louder than any rhetoric what matters most in our lives. Knees express
what we believe and make clear what we will live and die for.
Not surprisingly, then, knees play an important role in the Church's Sacred
Liturgy, especially during the season of Lent. What we do with our knees during
worship is anything but trivial. It rivals in importance what we do with our
voices and our ears, what we do with our hands and our hearts.
When we gather at the Eucharist, our attention is drawn with awe and devotion to
the sacramental presence of Christ. While the Body of Christ far exceeds the
value of our own bodies, it also gives meaning to them. It reminds us, too, of
the human body's vital role in that "full, conscious and active participation in
the Sacred Liturgy" called for by the Church at the Second Vatican Council.
It is understandable then why our posture at Holy Mass stirs such deep emotion
within us who cherish our Catholic faith, and who know that our greatest
treasure is the Eucharist. In three liturgical postures at Mass, our knees play
a central role: kneeling, standing, and genuflecting.
Let us look, for a moment, at the practice of kneeling.
Kneeling for the
The General Instruction of the Roman Missal (third edition) speaks of the proper
posture for the laity during the Eucharistic Prayer. In paragraph 42, it states:
"In the dioceses of the United States of America, they should kneel beginning
after the singing or recitation of the Sanctus until after the Amen of
the Eucharistic Prayer, except when prevented on occasion by reasons of health,
lack of space, the large number of people, or some other good reason. Those who
do not kneel ought to make a profound bow when the priest genuflects after the
consecration. The faithful kneel after the Agnus Dei unless the Diocesan
Bishop determines otherwise".
It is expected, then, that the lay faithful kneel during the Eucharistic Prayer
and after the Agnus Dei, unless they are prevented "on occasion" from
doing so. It is only in exceptional situations and on extraordinary occasions
that the laity stand during the Eucharistic Prayer. Of course, it is understood
that some of the elderly and disabled will not be able to kneel. In chapels in
nursing homes and similar environments, kneeling is often not possible.
Special problems are also posed by those few churches and chapels that presently
have no kneelers. In these cases, until the installation of kneelers can occur
(which I hope will be soon), kneeling may not be possible.
The practice of kneeling assists our whole person to be attentive to the Lord,
to surrender to His will, to lift our soul and our voices in worship. Indeed, it
points to the heart of what faith in Christ is all about. We see this reflected
already in the earliest days of the Church. In the Acts of the Apostles we are
told that Saint Peter "knelt down and prayed" (9:40), and that Saint Paul "knelt
down and prayed with them all" (20:36); we see how the first Christian martyr
Saint Stephen fell to his knees and prayed that his enemies be forgiven (cf.
7:60), and we see how the whole community, men and women and children, prayed on
their knees. (cf. 21:5)
Even Jesus Knelt
Jesus Himself knelt to pray to His beloved Father. We see this most dramatically
in the Garden of Gethsemane where, on His knees, He speaks those deeply moving
words: "Father, if you are willing, take this cup away from me; still, not my
will but yours be done". (Luke 22:42)
The passage of Sacred Scripture that gives the strongest theological foundation
for kneeling is that famous hymn found in Saint Paul's Letter to the
Philippians, 2:6-11, where we are told that, "at the name of Jesus every knee
should bend, of those 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".
Kneeling is more than a gesture of the overly pious. It is a fundamental act of
faith, a strong expression about Who stands at the center of one's life and Who
stands at the center of all creation. Bending the knee at the name of Jesus is a
decisive act of those with athletic souls and humble hearts. There is nothing
passive about kneeling in humility and adoration. When the knees act in response
to a heart that loves Christ, there is unleashed a force so strong it can change
the face of the earth. Grace is the name we give to this force.
The Devil Has No
According to Abba
Apollo, a desert father who lived about 1,700 years ago, the devil has no knees;
he cannot kneel; he cannot adore; he cannot pray; he can only look down his nose
in contempt. Being unwilling to bend the knee at the name of Jesus is the
essence of evil. (Cf. Is 45:23, Rom 14:11) But when we kneel at Jesus' name,
when we bow down in service of others, and when we bend the knee in adoration,
we are following in the footsteps of the Magi, we are imitating Blessed Mother
Teresa of Calcutta, Saint Maximilian Kolbe, and all the saints and angels in
"Come, let us bow down and worship. Let us kneel before the Lord who made us".
Why We Kneel
Our knees play an important role in our life in Christ, in our service to others
and in our worship of the Lord. Kneeling has always held such a prominent role
in the prayer of the Church .
Now, let us consider the other two postures that our knees perform in the Sacred
Liturgy: standing and genuflecting.
At key points of the Eucharist, we use our knees to express attentiveness,
reverence and love. As we enter and as we exit a church where the Blessed
Sacrament is reserved, we genuflect as a reverential greeting of Christ, who is
truly present, Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity.
This action toward Christ in the Tabernacle prepares us to begin to pray as we
enter the church and makes us ready to witness to Christ as we leave it. Indeed,
to bend the knee before Our Blessed Lord in the Tabernacle also shows a desire
to bend our will to God's plan for us each and every day.
Standing out of
Love for Christ
While we remain
seated to listen to God's word in the first readings of the Sacred Scriptures at
Mass, we rise to our feet and stand for the proclamation of the Gospel. Our
standing in attentive and prayerful expectation is often accompanied by the
singing of an acclamation, a procession with the Book of the Gospels and the use
of incense. We always stand, too, at times of intercessory prayer, to show how
we anticipate that the Father will hear and answer the petitions we bring with
confidence before Him.
The priest stands during the Eucharistic Prayer as he acts in the person of
Christ, in what the Catechism of the Catholic Church calls "so great and so holy
a moment". (#1385) The posture of standing reminds us of that great multitude
from every nation and race that "stood before the throne and before the Lamb,
wearing white robes " joyfully crying aloud in praise of God the Father on His
heavenly throne and in praise of Jesus, the Lamb of God. (cf. Revelations 7:9)
We also remember the words of the Second Eucharistic Prayer in which the priest
prays to the Father, "We thank you for counting us worthy to stand in your
presence and serve you".
Clearly, both the Sacred Scriptures and our liturgical tradition look upon
standing, comparable to genuflecting and kneeling, as a reverential posture to
express our faith in God and our love for Him. We should keep this in mind when
we process forward and stand to receive Holy Communion, with a bow of the head
as a sign of reverence prior to reception.
You have probably noticed that priests genuflect before receiving Holy
Communion, rather than bowing their head.
Why would priests genuflect at this time but the laity only bow their heads?
Because the laity were kneeling during the Eucharistic Prayer while the priest
was standing. Since he has not been kneeling prior to Holy Communion, it is
appropriate that the priest genuflect at this point to express his belief in the
Real Presence of Christ and to manifest his reverence.
A few of our laity still kneel or genuflect prior to receiving Holy Communion,
and rightly they are not denied the Blessed Sacrament. While I appreciate the
good intentions that prompt these actions, I invite them to consider again the
reverential nature of standing during the Sacred Liturgy and the real value of a
unified expression of our fraternal communion in Christ. Taking exception to
liturgical norms can distract others and even divert their attention during this
most sacred moment of communing with our Savior. It can draw undue attention to
oneself. Receiving Communion is also a statement of our union with the entire
Church, not just a time of individual experience.
Nine Postures of
We are told that
Saint Dominic had nine different ways of praying, each marked by a different
bodily posture. This great saint, who is associated with beginning the Rosary,
knew well that praying involves more than just the soul.
Our body plays an important role in our communication with the Lord. Far from
being trivial, what we do with our knees, whether we sit or stand, whether we
genuflect or kneel, greatly impacts on our inner attitude before the Lord. It
can stir our devotion or diminish it. If done sloppily or ignored, it hinders
our openness to God's grace. But if done out of love, it assists us in humbly
seeking God's mercy and in entering into loving communion with the Lord.
As we celebrate the
Sacred Liturgy, then, whether at daily Mass or on a more solemn occasion, let us
aim at more than external compliance with rubrics. Let us practice deep
reverence before these Sacred Mysteries. Let us use our knees to live our faith
every moment of every day and to express our love for Christ.