Just thought I’d share. An interesting essay of sorts on the theology behind kneeling to pray and why the writer things it is important and still relevant today. Bolded empahsis is mine.
The Theology of Kneeling
From Cardinal Ratzinger’s The Spirit of the Liturgy
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”.
If we look at history, we can see that the Greeks and Romans rejected
kneeling. In view of the squabbling, partisan deities described in
mythology, this attitude was thoroughly justified. It was only too
obvious that these gods were not God, even if you were dependent on
their capricious power and had to make sure that, whenever possible,
you enjoyed their favor. And so they said that kneeling was unworthy of
a free man, unsuitable for the culture of Greece, something the
barbarians went in for. Plutarch and Theophrastus regarded kneeling as
an expression of superstition.
Aristotle called it a barbaric form of behavior (cf. Rhetoric 1361 a
36). Saint Augustine agreed with him in a certain respect: the false
gods were only the masks of demons, who subjected men to the worship of
money and to self-seeking, thus making them “servile” and
superstitious. 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.
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.
On closer inspection, we can discern three closely related forms of
posture. First there is prostratio — lying with one’s face to the
ground before the overwhelming power of God; secondly, especially in
the New Testament, there is falling to one’s knees before another; and
thirdly, there is kneeling. Linguistically, the three forms of posture
are not always clearly distinguished. They can be combined or merged
with one another.
For the sake of brevity, I should like to mention, in the case of
prostratio, just one text from the Old Testament and another from the
In the Old Testament, there is an appearance of God to Joshua before
the taking of Jericho, an appearance that the sacred author quite
deliberately presents as a parallel to God’s revelation of Himself to
Moses in the burning bush. Joshua sees “the commander of the army of
the Lord” and, having recognized who He is, throws himself to the
ground. At that moment he hears the words once spoken to Moses: “Put
off your shoes from your feet; for the place where you stand is holy”
(Josh 5:15). In the mysterious form of the “commander of the army of
the Lord”, the hidden God Himself speaks to Joshua, and Joshua throws
himself down before Him.
Origen gives a beautiful interpretation of this text: “Is there any
other commander of the powers of the Lord than our Lord Jesus Christ?”
According to this view, Joshua is worshiping the One who is to come —
the coming of Christ.
In the case of the New Testament, from the Fathers onward, Jesus’
prayer on the Mount of Olives was especially important. According to
Saint Matthew (22:39) and Saint Mark (14:35), Jesus throws Himself to
the ground; indeed, He falls to the earth (according to Matthew).
However, Saint Luke, who in his whole work (both the Gospel and the
Acts of the Apostles) is in a special way the theologian of kneeling
prayer, tells us that Jesus prayed on His knees. This prayer, the
prayer by which Jesus enters into His Passion, 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’s: “Not my will but
yours be done”. 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. For the fall of man depends on the contradiction of wills,
on the opposition of the human will to the divine, which the tempter
leads man to think is the condition of his freedom. Only one’s own
autonomous will, subject to no other will, is freedom. “Not my will,
but yours …” — 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.
The suffering and struggle of Gethsemane is the struggle for this
redemptive truth, for this uniting of what is divided, for the uniting
that is communion with God. Now we understand why the Son’s loving way
of addressing the Father, “Abba”, is found in this place (cf. Mk
14:36). Saint Paul sees in this cry the prayer that the Holy Spirit
places on our lips (cf. Rom 8:15; Gal 4:6) and thus anchors our
Spirit-filled prayer in the Lord’s prayer in Gethsemane.
In the Church’s Liturgy today, prostration appears on two occasions:
on Good Friday and at ordinations. On Good Friday, the day of the
Lord’s crucifixion, it is the fitting expression of our sense of shock
at the fact that we by our sins share in the responsibility for the
death of Christ. We throw ourselves down and participate in His shock,
in His descent into the depths of anguish. We throw ourselves down and
so acknowledge where we are and who we are: fallen creatures whom only
He can set on their feet. We throw ourselves down, as Jesus did, before
the mystery of God’s power present to us, knowing that the Cross is the
true burning bush, the place of the flame of God’s love, which burns
but does not destroy.
At ordinations prostration comes from the awareness of our absolute
incapacity, by our own powers, to take on the priestly mission of Jesus
Christ, to speak with His “I”. While the ordinands are lying on the
ground, the whole congregation sings the Litany of the Saints. I shall
never forget lying on the ground at the time of my own priestly and
episcopal ordination. When I was ordained bishop, my intense feeling of
inadequacy, incapacity, in the face of the greatness of the task was
even stronger than at my priestly ordination. The fact that the praying
Church was calling upon all the saints, that the prayer of the Church
really was enveloping and embracing me, was a wonderful consolation. In
my incapacity, which had to be expressed in the bodily posture of
prostration, this prayer, this presence of all the saints, of the
living and the dead, was a wonderful strength — it was the only thing
that could, as it were, lift me up. Only the presence of the saints
with me made possible the path that lay before me.
Kneeling Before Another
Secondly, we must mention the gesture of falling to one’s knees before
another, which is described four times in the Gospels (cf. Mk 1:40;
10:17; Mt 17:14; 27:29) by means of the word gonypetein. Let us single
out Mark 1:40. A leper comes to Jesus and begs Him for help. He falls
to his knees before Him and says: “If you will, you can make me clean”.
It is hard to assess the significance of the gesture. What we have here
is surely not a proper act of adoration, but rather a supplication
expressed fervently in bodily form, while showing a trust in a power
beyond the merely human.
The situation is different, though, with the classical word for
adoration on one’s knees — proskynein. I shall give two examples in
order to clarify the question that faces the translator.
First there is the account of how, after the multiplication of the
loaves, Jesus stays with the Father on the mountain, while the
disciples struggle in vain on the lake with the wind and the waves.
Jesus comes to them across the water. Peter hurries toward Him and is
saved from sinking by the Lord. Then Jesus climbs into the boat, and
the wind lets up. The text continues: “And the ship’s crew came and
said, falling at His feet, ‘Thou art indeed the Son of God’” (Mt 14:33,
Knox version). Other translations say: “[The disciples] in the boat
worshiped [Jesus], saying …” (RSV). Both translations are correct. Each
emphasizes one aspect of what is going on. The Knox version brings out
the bodily expression, while the RSV shows what is happening
interiorly. It is perfectly clear from the structure of the narrative
that the gesture of acknowledging Jesus as the Son of God is an act of
We encounter a similar set of problems in Saint John’s Gospel when
we read the account of the healing of the man born blind. This
narrative, which is structured in a truly “theo-dramatic” way, ends
with a dialogue between Jesus and the man He has healed. It serves as a
model for the dialogue of conversion, for the whole narrative must also
be seen as a profound exposition of the existential and theological
significance of Baptism.
In the dialogue, Jesus asks the man whether he believes in the Son
of Man. The man born blind replies: “Tell me who He is, Lord”. When
Jesus says, “It is He who is speaking to you”, the man makes the
confession of faith: “I do believe, Lord”, and then he “[falls] down to
worship Him” (Jn 9:35-38, Knox version adapted). Earlier translations
said: “He worshiped Him”. In fact, the whole scene is directed toward
the act of faith and the worship of Jesus, which follows from it. Now
the eyes of the heart, as well as of the body, are opened. The man has
in truth begun to see.
For the exegesis of the text it is important to note that the word
proskynein occurs eleven times in Saint John’s Gospel, of which nine
occurrences are found in Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman
by Jacob’s well (Jn 4:19-24). This conversation is entirely devoted to
the theme of worship, and it is indisputable that here, as elsewhere in
Saint John’s Gospel, the word always has the meaning of “worship”.
Incidentally, this conversation, too, ends — like that of the healing
of the man born blind — with Jesus’ revealing Himself: “I who speak to
you am He” (Jn 4:26).
I have lingered over these texts, because they bring to light
something important. In the two passages that we looked at most
closely, the spiritual and bodily meanings of proskynein are really
inseparable. The bodily gesture itself is the bearer of the spiritual
meaning, which is precisely that of worship. Without the worship, the
bodily gesture would be meaningless, while the spiritual act must of
its very nature, because of the psychosomatic unity of man, express
itself in the bodily gesture.
The two aspects are united in the one word, because in a very
profound way they belong together. When kneeling becomes merely
external, a merely physical act, it becomes meaningless. One the other
hand, when someone 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. Worship is one of those fundamental acts that affect the whole
man. That is why bending the knee before the presence of the living God
is something we cannot abandon.
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 berek, “knee”. 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.
Particularly important for our question is the account of the
martyrdom of Saint Stephen. The first man to witness to Christ with his
blood is described in his suffering as a perfect image of Christ, whose
Passion is repeated in the martyrdom of the witness, even in small
details. One of these is that Stephen, on his knees, takes up the
petition of the crucified Christ: “Lord, do not hold this sin against
them” (7:60). We should remember that Luke, unlike Matthew and Mark,
speaks of the Lord kneeling in Gethsemane, which shows that Luke wants
the kneeling of the first martyr to be seen as his entry into the
prayer of Jesus. Kneeling is not only a Christian gesture, but a
The Name Above All Names
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.
However, we also hear the voice of the Apostle, who enters into this
prayer and hands it on to us, and, ultimately, we perceive here both
the profound inner unity of the Old and New Testaments and the cosmic
breadth of Christian faith.
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 Cross has become the world-embracing sign of God’s
presence, and all that we have previously heard about the historic and
cosmic Christ should now, in this passage, come back into our minds.
The Christian Liturgy is a cosmic Liturgy precisely because it bends
the knee before the crucified and exalted Lord. Here is the center 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). Again, there is a story that
comes from the sayings of the Desert Fathers, according to which the
devil was compelled by God to show himself to a certain Abba Apollo. He
looked black and ugly, with frighteningly thin limbs, but most
strikingly, he had no knees. The inability to kneel is seen as the very
essence of the diabolical.
But I do not want to go into more detail. I should like to make just
one more remark. 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.