Summary: Kneeling in worship of the God who abased Himself for our benefit is a physical way of signing our desire that our wills be in conformity with God's will.
June 27, 2011
St. Cyril of Alexandria
The Spirit of the Liturgy
What do we owe to God? What gift should we give Him? Before considering that question, we should ask about God’s nature and actions. The Scriptures today tell us much about this God we worship. First, before injustice and perversion, in response to a culture of sexual abuse like Sodom’s, He is perfect justice. Second, His mercy and compassion is also perfect. If there were only ten families in Sodom and Gomorrah that had not been complicite in homosexual injustice, He would have spared the cities. We can, and should, mourn over the legislative travesty in New York State that happened last Friday. We should pray for those who think they can redefine marriage as whatever they want it to be. But we should also pray that God move hearts to change, rather than pour out wrath.
The Gospel gives us another look at God’s nature, as it was manifest perfectly in Jesus Christ, His beloved Son. Jesus spent and gave up His life for us sinful humans. He was the complete expression of the kind of just compassion we just discussed. He didn’t even own a home. He walked throughout Palestine, healing and preaching and doing good for us. And He even gave us a sure path to union with God, to repaying our infinite debt to God. “Follow me,” He said. His moral code was simple: love one another as Jesus loved us. That means, of course, putting every action, thought and property of ours at Christ’s disposal.
There is a posture that signifies this total self-giving. It is genu-flectio. In Latin, that means “bending the knee.” The Greeks and Romans rejected kneeling in worship, because their mythologies, with all these petty, squabbling gods, proved on their own face that the gods were not God, even if the pagans thought they were dependent on these gods’ power. “And so they said that kneeling was unworthy of a free man, unsuitable for the culture of Greece, something the barbarians went in for. . .Aristotle called it a barbaric form of behavior.” (SOL 185) But Augustine restored an understanding of kneeling as worship, something the New Testament affirmed. Kneeling to pagan gods is kneeling to demons, “who subjected men to the worship of money and to self-seeking. . .He said that the humility of Christ and his love, which went as far as the Cross, have freed us from these powers. We now kneel before that humility. The kneeling of Christians is not a form of inculturation into existing customs. It is quite the opposite, an expression of Christian culture, which transforms the existing culture through a new and deeper knowledge and experience 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 NT, 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.” (186) We do on earth what the saints and angels do in heaven. We kneel in awed adoration. God has abased Himself for our benefit.
The most telling example of NT prayer can be seen in Luke’s account of the Agony in the Garden. Jesus, who was fully human and fully divine, knelt in anguished prayer. “This prayer. . .is an example for us, both as a gesture and in its content. The gesture: Jesus assumes, as it were, the fall of man, lets himself fall into man’s fallenness, prays to the Father out of the lowest depths of human dereliction and anguish. He lays his will in the will of the [Father]. . .He lays the human will in the divine. He takes up all the hesitation of the human will and endures it. It is this very conforming of the human will to the divine that is the heart of redemption.” (187)
In the first garden, Eve and Adam heard the will of God and said, “No.” All our weakness and sin flowed from that act of rebellion. In the garden of Gethsemane, Jesus discerned the will of God and said “Not my will, but Thine, be done.” “Those are the words of truth, for God’s will is not in opposition to our own, but the ground and condition of its possibility. Only when our will rests in the will of God does it become truly will and truly free. When we kneel, our body says to God, “thy will be done.” We are one with Jesus in His last and greatest prayer, sons and daughters of the Father.
Now one kind of kneeling is not appropriate, because it is the posture of a slave, not a son. That is the Muslim prostration, head on the floor and backside in the air. This is a servile prostration, looking down at the ground rather than up at the Blessed Sacrament. It is unworthy of Christians, who are children of God, not His slaves.