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Benedict XVI: why kneeling is central to Christian worship
The following extracts are taken from the chapter, 'The Body and the Liturgy', in The Spirit of the Liturgy (Ignatius Press, 2000) by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the future Benedict XVI. This book is one of the definitive studies of the Liturgy (available from Freedom Publishing, $39.95).
There are groups, of no small influence, who are trying to talk us out of kneeling. 'It doesn't suit our culture', they say (which culture?). 'It's not right for a grown man to do this - he should face God on his feet'. Or again: 'It's not appropriate for redeemed man - he has been set free by Christ and doesn't need to kneel any more'.
Kneeling does not come from any culture - it comes from the Bible and its knowledge of God. The central importance of kneeling in the Bible can be seen in a very concrete way. The word proskynein alone occurs fifty-nine times in the New Testament, twenty-four of which are in the Apocalypse, the book of the heavenly Liturgy, which is presented to the Church as the standard for her own Liturgy.
In saying this, we come to the typical gesture of kneeling on one or both knees. In the Hebrew of the Old Testament, the verb barak, 'to kneel', is cognate with the word for 'knee', berek. The Hebrews regarded the knees as a symbol of strength, to bend the knee is, therefore, to bend our strength before the living God, an acknowledgment of the fact that all that we are we receive from Him. In important passages of the Old Testament, this gesture appears as an expression of worship.
At the dedication of the Temple, Solomon kneels 'in the presence of all the assembly of Israel' (II Chron 6:13). After the Exile, in the afflictions of the returned Israel, which is still without a Temple, Ezra repeats this gesture at the time of the evening sacrifice: 'I ... fell upon my knees and spread out my hands to the Lord my God' (Ezra 9:5).
The great psalm of the Passion, Psalm 22 ('My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?'), ends with the promise: 'Yes, to Him shall all the proud of the earth fall down; before Him all who go down to the dust shall throw themselves down' (v. 29, RSV adapted).
The related passage Isaiah 45:23 we shall have to consider in the context of the New Testament. The Acts of the Apostles tells us how Saint Peter (9:40), Saint Paul (20:36), and the whole Christian community (21:5) pray on their knees.
For me, the most important passage for the theology of kneeling will always be the great hymn of Christ in Philippians 2:6-11. In this pre-Pauline hymn, we hear and see the prayer of the apostolic Church and can discern within it her confession of faith in Christ.
The hymn presents Christ as the antitype of the First Adam. While the latter high-handedly grasped at likeness to God, Christ does not count equality with God, which is His by nature, 'a thing to be grasped', but humbles Himself unto death, even death on the Cross. It is precisely this humility, which comes from love, that is the truly divine reality and procures for Him the 'name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth' (Phil 2:5-10).
Here the hymn of the apostolic Church takes up the words of promise in Isaiah 45:23: 'By myself I have sworn, from my mouth has gone forth in righteousness a word that shall not return: 'To me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear'.' In the interweaving of Old and New Testaments, it becomes clear that, even as crucified, Jesus bears that 'name above every name' - the name of the Most High - and is Himself God by nature. Through Him, through the Crucified, the bold promise of the Old Testament is now fulfilled: all bend the knee before Jesus, the One who descended, and bow to Him precisely as the one true God above all gods.
The Christian Liturgy is a cosmic Liturgy precisely because it bends the knee before the crucified and exalted Lord. Here is the centre of authentic culture - the culture of truth. The humble gesture by which we fall at the feet of the Lord inserts us into the true path of life of the cosmos.
There is much more that we might add. For example, there is the touching story told by Eusebius in his history of the Church as a tradition going back to Hegesippus in the second century. Apparently, Saint James, the 'brother of the Lord', the first bishop of Jerusalem and 'head' of the Jewish Christian Church, had a kind of callous on his knees, because he was always on his knees worshipping God and begging forgiveness for his people (2, 23, 6).
The expression used by Saint Luke to describe the kneeling of Christians (theis ta gonata) is unknown in classical Greek. We are dealing here with a specifically Christian word. With that remark, our reflections turn full circle to where they began.
It may well be that kneeling is alien to modern culture - insofar as it is a culture, for this culture has turned away from the faith and no longer knows the one before whom kneeling is the right, indeed the intrinsically necessary gesture.
The man who learns to believe learns also to kneel, and a faith or a liturgy no longer familiar with kneeling would be sick at the core. Where it has been lost, kneeling must be rediscovered, so that, in our prayer, we remain in fellowship with the apostles and martyrs, in fellowship with the whole cosmos, indeed in union with Jesus Christ Himself.
Reprinted from AD2000 Vol 22 No 2 (March 2009), p. 20
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