This article is the second part of an ongoing series of articles exploring the postures of prayer used during Mass. Part I, on Standing, can be found here.
The practice of kneeling is often maligned—even banished—from Mass in certain places. However, kneeling is perhaps one of the most important Christian postures of prayer. As noted in last month’s article, “Standing Fast in Prayer,” the position of one’s body is an important part of prayer, especially liturgical prayer. In Spirit of the Liturgy, Pope Benedict writes, “[Kneeling] is an expression of Christian culture, which transforms the existing culture through a new and deeper knowledge and experience of God.”
Like much of Christian prayer, kneeling finds its roots in the Old Testament. In Jewish practice, kneeling was primarily used as an expression of mourning. Interestingly, kneeling in prayer was absent in the Greco-Roman world. In these cultures, only prisoners and supplicants were depicted as kneeling. Aristotle considers it to be a barbaric form of behavior (Rhetoric 1361 a 36). Even the language used by St. Luke for kneeling (theis ta gonata) is new. With the advent of Christianity, kneeling acquired a broader significance, but it also became a sign of contradiction to the surrounding cultures.
While this practice is mentioned throughout the New Testament, a few examples will suffice. When a leper comes and begs Jesus for healing, he falls to his knees (Mk. 1:40). Kneeling is thus an expression of petition and supplication. The Acts of the Apostles is quite clear that kneeling was common in the early Church: “And kneeling down on the beach we prayed” (Acts 2:5). Christ Himself is described as kneeling in prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane.
The other primary significance of kneeling is adoration or worship. Pope Benedict points to the hymn in the Letter to the Philippians as the most important expression of the theology of kneeling in the New Testament. The hymn highlights the humility of Christ, “Who, though He was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as a thing to be grasped” (Phil. 2:6). It was this humility—even to death on the cross—which exalted Him such that “at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth” (Phil. 2:10). Therefore, Christians are called to kneel in humble adoration of the greatest example of humility.
While in communal and liturgical prayer a mixture of postures is the norm, kneeling has long been the traditional mode of private prayer for Christians. In the 6th century, St. Benedict instructed his monks to pray the Divine Office while kneeling, if they must recite it alone. One only has to look at almost any depiction of prayer in artwork to see the predominance of kneeling.
Kneeling during Christian liturgy has its place primarily during the Eucharistic Prayer. The rubrics for American Catholics state, “In the dioceses of the United States of America, [the faithful] should kneel beginning after the singing or recitation of the Sanctus [“Holy, Holy”] 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 present, 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 [“Lamb of God”].”
The rationale for this stems from an understanding that Christ is truly present in the Eucharist and is rightly owed our adoration. By this radical act of kneeling, Christians take part in the fulfillment of the prophecy, “at the name of Jesus every knee shall bow.” Pope Benedict closes his reflection on kneeling with, “The man who learns to believe learns to kneel, and a faith or a liturgy no longer familiar with kneeling would be sick at the core.”
Featured image courtesy of Saint Louis University