The Theology of Kneeling (26th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A, 2023-10-01)

Fr. Mikael Schink S.J.
26th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
Phil. 2:10

+ Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,

Although we just heard a significant Gospel text, I would like to take this opportunity for a meditation on the second reading from Philippians. As you may know, the Sundays of the liturgical year have two series of readings. The first series consists of the Gospel and the first reading. These two texts have been chosen so as to mutually clarify each other and usually treat similar subjects. Today’s readings for instance treat the contrast between words and actions in connection with conversion.

The second Sunday reading is part of an independent series of texts and is almost always taken from one of the New Testament epistles. Before the liturgical reform in 1969, there was for the most part only one reading besides the Gospel called the ‘epistle’. We are currently reading from St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians and will continue to do so the upcoming Sundays.

The Apostle Paul writes that “at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth” (Phil. 2:10). This is perhaps the most important Bible verse for what we could call “The Theology of Kneeling”. Isn’t it a reasonable question why we genuflect in mass, and when we enter and exit a Church? And why do we genuflect at Eucharistic Adoration?

In modern times, there have been groups in the Catholic Church who have tried to abolish genuflection. They say that it is not compatible with modern sensibilities or with non-European cultures. For it is unsuitable for a adult to genuflect. We should rather stand as a sign of the resurrection.

If one studies history, however, one notices that the heathen Greeks and Romans had a similar view. In light of the fact that their many gods and goddesses were all but morally perfect, their attitude is comprehensible. Plutarch and Theofrastus for instance considered genuflection superstitious, and Aristotle called it barbaric (Rhetoric 1361a36).

St. Augustine agrees when it comes to Greek and Roman gods and goddesses, which he holds to be nothing but demons. But at the same time, he says that we Christians worship Jesus Christ, who has liberated us from the tyranny of demons. Therefore, we bend our knees before him. (Ratzinger, Spirit of the Liturgy IV.2.3)

Genuflection is therefore not something the Church has taken over from Greek, Roman or even medieval cultures; it is rather something specifically Christian, a liturgical symbol that manifests a divine mystery and thereby leads us to the Father.

In the Gospels, we can read that Jesus prays on his knees several times. It is above all Luke who is the theologian of genuflection in a special way. He writes that Jesus in Gethsemane, just before his Passion, “knelt down and prayed” (Luke 22:41). He said: “Let your will be done, not mine”. His genuflection is an expression of this prayer, which in turn summarizes the whole mystery of salvation. For sin is nothing but a turning away from God’s will for the sake of seeking one’s own excellence in a disordered way. When we fall on our knees in Mass, we therefore unite ourselves with the suffering Christ, who also becomes present on the altar. Together with him, as members of the head, we turn to the Father saying – by the gesture of kneeling – “Thy will be done” together with the Lord.

By kneeling, Jesus and the Church together with him express humility. Humility means to not seek to be someone that one is not but rather to subject oneself to God’s will in order to be the one that God wants us to be and which we are meant to be, i.e. to find ourselves in God.

By the humility of kneeling, Jesus becomes an antitype of Adam, the first man. Whereas Adam and Eve through pride strove to be like God by eating of the fruit of the tree of knowledge, Jesus “did not cling to his equality with God but emptied himself to assume the condition of a slave”, as St. Paul writes in the reading (Phil. 2:6–7). He continues that the Lord, “humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross”. And this, i.e. his humility, was the reason that God “highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name”, so that “at the name of Jesus every knee should bow”. By humbling himself, Christ thus merited his own and our exaltation. By uniting ourselves with Christ in humility, we therefore become partakers of his resurrection and exaltation. In other words, we must fall on our knees to make it possible for God to raise us up.

There are many saints who have spent much time kneeling in prayer. Eusebius for instance writes in his Church Historyabout saint James, the brother of the Lord and the patriarch of Jerusalem, that he had calluses on his knees because he spent so much time in prayer on his knees doing penance for others.

In a similar vein, there is the story of Abba Apollo, the desert father. It is said that God forced the devil to show himself to Abba Apollo. It is supposed to have been a dreadful sight, but most astonishing was that the devil did not have any knees. In this way, the story expresses that it is diabolical not to kneel before God, as kneeling is a sign of humility, the opposite of pride (Ratzinger, Spirit of the Liturgy IV.2.3).

In this line of saints, we should also mention St. Ignatius of Loyola, who writes in his Autobiography that after his conversion, he had the habit of waking up at midnight to pray on his knees for seven hours (PB 23).

We may conclude our meditation by commenting on the passage in today’s reading where St. Paul writes that “every knee should bow” at the name of Jesus. This is of course a reference to the Last Judgment, when Jesus will come back to this world. Then, everyone will kneel before him, whether they want to or not. There is however also a liturgical reminder of this eschatological event: when the Blessed Sacrament is exposed for Eucharistic Adoration, it is customary to fall not just on one but on both knees before the Lord, as a reminder of the fact that “every knee should bow” before the Lord Jesus Christ.

Let us therefore turn to him who humbled himself and assumed the condition of a servant, the Lord Jesus Christ. Let us pray to him that we may unite ourselves with him in humility, obedience, and charity, so that we also may become partakers of his resurrection and thus one day be exalted together with him in heavenly glory. +Amen


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