In my Primary and secondary school days, teachers enforced discipline on students by the use of thick cane slashed across our backs and buttocks as punishment for wrong doing. This form of disciplinary measure was quite dreadful. We do pray for less dreadful disciplinary measures anytime we go against the rules and regulations of the school. One of such preferable punishment was kneeling. Most times this punishment is carried out on stony or rough dusty ground, inflicting pains on the knees while reducing the height and physique of the individual by half. Sometimes one is tempted to weigh which is worse between kneeling and several lashes of the cane, because kneeling for a long period can be tiring and humiliating. Outside my own personal experience I had come across a situation where a full grown man was seen kneeling in the presence of another man. I later found out that the man on his knees was a tenant begging his landlord whom he owes a year rent to give him more time to offset his debt. Of similar occurrence is another I experienced. Here, the man kneeling was not a tenant nor did he owe any sum of money, but he was kneeling in the presence of a superior colleague; a sign of obedience, submission and respect. I was a little perplexed when I experienced this in a wedding reception. The Bridegroom was sitting on a majestic thronelike chair and the bride was beside him, kneeling, and she was having a plate of cake in her hand with the intention of feeding the groom. This was similar to a friend’s traditional marriage ceremony I attended, where the bride knelt to give the bridegroom a cup of Palm wine acknowledging him as her chosen husband.
One significant experience of kneeling that I have seen and taken active part in, is that carried out in the Church and in other religious gatherings. Here, kneeling is not before any physical being or person, it is directed to the Divine. We kneel before the presence of the Most High God. So, kneeling can be seen as a punishment or reparation for an offense; as a gesture of begging and a form of pleading; as a sign of acknowledging one’s superior, and as a sign of respect and love. How do we translate kneeling in worship to God? It is the giving of reverence and adoration to God; the appropriate embodied form to the act of worship
THE ACT OF KNEELING
It is said that the present generation has lost the religious gesture of kneeling, and so the act of kneeling is eroding from our present day worship. It is evident when we stroll into the Church without any sign of reverence; when we sit during prayer, worship, consecration and benediction when we ought to be on our knees. We seem to have compromised the virtue of humility with a culture of self-security and independence. We want to stand up to God at all times, not recognizing the humble gesture of kneeling in adoration, repentance and service. The Hebrew verb ‘barak’ ‘to kneel’ has the same root with the word ‘berek’ ‘knee’. The Hebrews regarded the knee as a symbol of strength; to bend the knee is therefore to bend our strength before the living God as an acknowledgement of the fact that He is the source of all that we have and are. This is evident in King Solomon, at the dedication of the temple where he knelt in the presence of God before all the assembly of Israel (2Chrn 6:12-13).Genuflection is the act of bending the knee, particularly in worship. Genuflection could be of one knee, or of both knees. Kneeling involves the bending of both knees to the ground; whereby one is in a position where the body is standing on the knees.
KNEELING AS AN EMBODIED FORM OF WORSHIP
Kneeling is an act of worship. Our bodies are ordered as instruments of worship for they are the temples of the Holy Spirit. So, like a temple, the body is the physical location in which the soul worships. The position of our bodies may not hinder our prayers, but they can alter the state of our hearts. Kneeling is a posture for prayer that should condition not only our bodies but our hearts to the acknowledgement and sacredness of entering into God’s presence. This posture of prayer contributes to our piety, reveals our vulnerability, and set us in total surrender to God. Let us bow and bend low, let us kneel before the God who made us. (Psalm 95: 6). To knee is a gesture of humility before God’s presence.
Kneeling is evident in the Bible. First, there is ‘gonypetein’; to ‘fall on one’s knees’. It is an act of reducing oneself to a lower level before God. To fall on one’s knees signifies an act of supplication, a humble and earnest request or entreaty. In the gospel (Mk 1:40), a leper comes to Jesus and begs Him for help. He falls to his knees before Him in supplication. Also, the father of the epileptic boy (Mt 17:14) threw himself before Jesus on his knees begging Him to have pity on his son who has suffered a lot from the effect of the epilepsy. These acts of falling on the knees, are acts of supplication expressed fervently in bodily form while showing trust in a power beyond the mere human.
Second, is ‘proskynein’; ‘kneeling in worship’. Proskynein is said to occur about fifty-nine times in the New Testament. It connotes both kneeling and worship. Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman attest to the fact that the true worship (proskynein) given to God will no longer be done on the mountain or in Jerusalem, but in spirit and in truth. The account of the calming of the sea by Jesus after the feeding of the multitude with the request of Peter to walk on the sea presents an example of kneeling in worship (Mt 14:33). When Jesus entered the boat, the disciples knelt/worshipped (prosekynesan) him. Some translations say ‘knelt’ while others say ‘worshipped’. Both are saying the same thing, for the spiritual and bodily meanings of proskeynein are really inseparable: one is focusing on the interior and spiritual (worship), while the other focuses on the exterior and bodily (kneeling).
Kneeling is also a sign of Penance. Prayer on one’s knees is specifically penitential, characteristic of days of fasting, a sign of morning, humility and repentance. According to St. Basil, to kneel is to show by our action that sin has cast us to the ground. Thus when we kneel in prayer we are acknowledging our fallen state and we look on to God as the only one who can restore us back to our feet; he is the one capable of restoring us back to righteousness.
Kneeling is a posture for private prayers and silent meditations. This is very common for priests and monks whose prayers usually go with scriptural readings. They pray and meditate silently on their knees especially before the tabernacle or the exposition of the Blessed Sacrament. St. Stephen knelt in prayer during his martyrdom (Acts 7:60). We find the same posture being adopted in prayer by St. Peter (Acts 9:40), St, Paul (Acts 20:36), and the Christians who accompanied Paul when getting ready for on his journey (Acts 21: 36).
Kneeling is a sign that we adore Christ. It is a humble piety to kneel before Christ in the Blessed Sacrament, to bend the knee before the tabernacle in genuflection, and to genuflect on entering into the Church. Also, kneeling down at the celebration of the Eucharist and kneeling down to receive the Holy Communion are but little sublime acts of adoration that we must preserve and protect. In kneeling we obtain mercy. It is easier to remember that we are sinners when we kneel. It is easier to share the same mercy kneeling down, not from a higher moral level but from our shared sinful condition. We are both body and soul, and therefore the postures we have in prayer do sometimes affect our attitude to it.
The sacraments too celebrate the culture of kneeling. In the sacrament of Baptism, adults climb into the font and kneel in the water while being baptized. In the sacrament of holy Eucharist, we kneel during the prayer of consecration. Priests themselves kneel immediately after the Elevation of the Host and the Chalice to acknowledge the reality behind the sacred species. Also, altar rails serve as kneeling points to the reception of Christ the Great king in the Eucharist. The anointing with the chrism and the invocation of the Holy Spirit is done while the catechumen is kneeling in the sacrament of confirmation. Kneeling humbles; we cannot celebrate mercy without repentance, thus we kneel in humility and repentance especially in the sacrament of Reconciliation where we kneel down to confess our sins and receive pardon. Even in matrimony, the couples receive the nuptial blessings after the ‘Our Father prayer’ on their knees, and also during the reception of the Holy Communion. Both kneeling and prostration is required during the celebration of the sacrament of Holy Orders.
Prostration ‘prostratio’ is an extended form of worship. The Book of Joshua talks about Joshua throwing himself on the ground when he saw the ‘commander of the Lord’s army’ as the Israelites camped around Jericho to conquer it. It is modeled in the same fashion as of God’s appearance to Moses in the burning bush, for Joshua was asked to remove his shoes from his feet for the place where he stood was holy (Josh 5:14-15). Origen in interpreting this scripture passage says that the commander of the Lord’s army is our Lord Jesus Christ, and Joshua was prostrating before the One who is to come. Jesus too threw himself to the ground in prayer to the Father (Mt 26:39, Mk 14:35). As he enters into his passion, Jesus prays for the will of the Father to be done. The Church too adopts this posture on Good Friday and at ordinations.
Kneeling down to greet or serve someone is highly valued. The purpose is not to humiliate the one kneeling but it is a show of affection and appreciation of the other person. When we look at kneeling by wives as part of subordination to their husbands, practiced in marriage ceremonies and their homes, we see something unique. Though some see this act as a sign of meekness and subjugation, this act is a humble gesture of the wife who knows her place in her home. In these wedding ceremonies, the husband after been fed by the wife, raises his wife up and sit her on his laps and feed her like a baby. In her humility to her husband, the wife is exalted and taken care of by the husband. We too experience this every time we kneel and present ourselves as humble before God who always raises us over our challenges and difficulties.
When kneeling becomes a mere external physical gesture, it becomes meaningless. On the other hand, when one tries to take worship back into the purely spiritual realm and refuses to give it embodied form, the act of worship evaporates, for what is purely spiritual is inappropriate to the nature of man. We have to incorporated physical gesture with spiritual worship. Worship is one of those acts that affect the whole man. This is why bending the knee before the presence of the living God is something we cannot abandon. So, let us bow and bend low and kneel before the God who made us. (Psalm 95: 6).