Why We Kneel

When we hear “The Star-Spangled Banner” at a baseball game, we stand up.  We may remove our ballcap and place our hand over our heart.  Likewise, when we meet an important person, we stand up to shake their hand.  Our British cousins may bow in the presence of their Queen.  We use the posture of our bodies to show respect and loyalty.  In effect, what we do with our bodies gives evidence to others of what we believe in our hearts.  This is why Catholics kneel during Mass.  We kneel because we are in the presence of Christ.
 
There are many dozens of instances of kneeling described in both the Old and the New Testaments.  Sometimes, kneeling is an act of supplication, of asking for something from God in a humble way.  “And at the evening sacrifice, I rose from my fasting, with my garments and my mantle rent, and fell upon my knees, and spread out my hands to the Lord” (Ezra 9:5).  In other examples, kneeling is an act of worship, of reverence and humility to God.  “O come, let us worship and bow down, let us kneel before the Lord, our Maker”(Psalm 95:6).  In the New Testament, many people would kneel before Jesus, some asking Him for healing. “…and behold, a leper came to Him and knelt before Him saying, ‘Lord, if You will, You can make me clean’ “(Matthew 8:2).  Jesus Himself often knelt in prayer to His heavenly Father.  “And He withdrew from them (His disciples) about a stone’s throw, and knelt down and prayed”(Luke 22:41). 
 
Kneeling is the ultimate posture of submission and surrender and is the exterior sign of our interior posture before Christ.  It humbles us before God and reminds us that Jesus must increase and I must decrease.  Kneeling takes us out of our usual postures of sitting or standing and radically changes our world view.  We are vulnerable and a bit uncomfortable.  We are saying to the world: “I am not in control anymore.”  Kneeling makes us look up, both physically and spiritually, to the One Who is in control.
 
When we worship together, all our gestures and postures are meaningful.  As Catholics, the Bishops of the Church instruct us regarding our posture during Mass.  In this way, we worship together as a unified family, both in our words and in our actions.  Our unity is affirmed when we stand together, bow together, and kneel together.  Catholics kneel during the Eucharistic Prayer of the Mass, when the bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ.  Kneeling at this moment is also kneeling at the foot of His Cross, on that Friday at Calvary.  Kneeling together is a sign of our unity as Catholics.  We kneel together in reverence and adoration, as a family, in the presence of our Lord and Saviour in the Blessed Sacrament.
 
How beautiful it was to see the late Pope John Paul II, aged and racked by Parkinson’s disease, slowly and painfully kneeling in prayer.  Towards the end of his public life, he could only kneel with the help of other people.  This “Servant of the Servants of God” showing humility, reverence, and obedient love to the God he had served so faithfully throughout his life.  Like him, our posture reveals our soul.  When we kneel beside the bedside of a dying person or stand up for the dignity of an unborn child, or genuflect before Christ in the Blessed Sacrament, we say what we believe louder than with any words we could speak.  Our posture tells others what we are willing to live or die for.
 
If we are called to imitate Christ, then are also called to kneel in prayer.  In the garden of Gethsemane, on His knees, He prayed “Father, if You are willing, take this cup away from me; still not My will but Yours be done” (Luke 22:42).  Kneeling is not mere piety.  It is a fundamental act of faith in Christ.  Kneeling is a strong expression of Who stands at the center of your life and Who stands at the center of all creation.  There is nothing passive about kneeling in humility and love.  When knees bend in response to a heart that loves Christ, there is unleashed a force so great and so strong that it can change the face of the earth.  We call this force “grace.”
 
In the fourth century, a Catholic priest named Abba Apollo described the devil as having no knees at all.  He cannot kneel, cannot adore, cannot pray.  He can only look down his nose in contempt.  St. Paul, in his letter to the Phillipians, believed otherwise.  In his beautiful hymn to Christ, he tells that “at the name of Jesus, every knee shall bend, of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth” (Phil 2:6-11).  When we kneel at Jesus’ name, we imitate the Magi who knelt at His birth.  Instead of gold and fragrant spices, we offer Him our humble hearts.  When we bow down to serve others, we imitate Christ as He washed the feet of His disciples,  We give Him our hands to do His will.  When we kneel in adoration of Christ, we imitate all the angels and saints kneeling at this very moment around His throne in heaven. 
 
“Kneeling does not come from any culture, it comes from the Bible.”
                    —Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI (b. 1927)

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