Tuesday, July 15, 2008

kneeling in the Mass

Kneeling in the presence of our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament, a practice of long "standing" tradition in the West, is a beautiful and rich form of worship. It is one of those expressions which speaks volumes without words. But first let us establish that it is literally a form of worship. To kneel is to worship. The immediate response this sort of observation often elicits is that worship is a disposition of the heart, not what one does with his body. In modern America this, unfortunately, is what people like to tell themselves. A much healthier, and Catholic, way of thinking can be found in the pre-enlightenment age. Classic Anglicanism, for example, unabashedly has the groom vow to the bride, "With my body I thee worship," when he gives to her the wedding ring. The word in this context, let us hasten to add, is not a reference to divine worship, or adoration. It is the classic use of the word when one honors another. The man sacrifices his body, his very life, for the good of his wife, as Christ does so for His Spouse, the Church. A man doesn't merely have good ideas about his wife. He worships her bodily. Likewise, our Lord doesn't merely wish us well. He speaks us well (benediction), and His words are never hollow, but flow from His own self sacrifice. While we are on the topic of bodily sacrifice, let us also recall that Saint Paul tells us in Romans 12 to present our bodies as a living sacrifice. And lest we think there is some disconnect, some contradiction, between this kind of talk on the one hand and the value of reason and the mind on the other, let us point out that Paul goes on to say that this is, in fact, our "reasonable service." Worship has, then, an inherently physical dimension.

Worship is physical. Worship is a turning of our heart to the recipient. Worship is turning our mind, and dedicating our decisions, to the worshipped. It is all of these. If one does not worship God with the heart, he ought not be a hypocrite by worshipping physically. See Luther's treatise on adoration for a beautiful treatment on this. The Christian who worships with bended knees, though, is manifesting, expressing, the worship of his heart. He is worshipping God with his whole self, body, mind, spirit, for all of him is God's. God created, and redeemed, all of him.

I intimated earlier that kneeling is also a confession. It says a great deal about the kneeler, the One before whom he kneels, and about their relationship. Kneeling during the Eucharist confesses that one recognizes that someone special is in fact present, namely, that Christ Himself, the God-man, is truly present on the altar. It confesses that He is worthy to be worshipped and praised, and to be given complete submission. It confesses that He has something to give us, and so the kneeler disposes himself to that gift. Of course what He gives us is His very self, His life, His own sacred Body, His true life blood. In a dim way we see a reflection of this in the marital union, as corrupt and filled with mixed motives as it is, when a man gives his seed to his beloved spouse, which contains, in seed form, all that he is. What results from this union between our Lord and His Spouse, the Church and the Christian? We receive the forgiveness of sins, we are given strengthened faith, and we receive our very life in Him. When we receive Him into our bodies in faith, we realize in a most profound way that we are found in Him.

By the way, does this kind of sacramental talk have any real relevance in the real world? That is, does it relate at all to our mission in the world? Absolutely! Realizing how empty we are of ourselves, how barren of life we are by own own sinful nature, and indeed, by our own feelings at times, let us consider, in light of the Eucharist, this most beautiful passage in Bernanos' The Diary of a Country Priest:

"O miracle! Thus to be able to give what we ourselves do not possess, sweet miracle of our empty hands! Hope which was shrivelling in my heart flowered again in hers; the spirit of prayer which I thought lost in me forever was given back to her by God."

The context of this passage is the priest looking upon the dead woman he confronted the day before, and had ended up giving her absolution, and peace. Consider these words, though, in terms of what they might express about our effect on others in this world; consider even, for a moment, the feminine pronouns to be a reference to one's own soul.

The effect, on ourselves, on the Church, and on the world, of this new life Christ continually gives us, is immeasurable. There is no way to count it, predict it, measure it. So the neat and tidy scientific minds can never teach the faith adequately. For Christ doesn't work by flow charts and five year plans. He makes all things new.

How then can the Christian, in the face of such a wondrous gift, not worship his Creator and Redeemer with all his heart? When the communicant kneels, he is expressing this worship of the heart with his body. He is rendering eucharistic sacrifice. That is to say, he is giving thanks to God for the gift of this Sacrament. Bended knees, and opened mouth, are the Christian's ultimate "Amen!".

There is also a real Christological dimension to kneeling itself. Eminently quotable in this regard is Joseph Ratzinger, the current Pope Benedict XVI, who wrote the following in his book, The Spirit of the Liturgy:

"In the case of the New Testament, from the fathers onward, Jesus' prayer on the Mount of Olives was especially important. According to St. Matthew and St. Mark, Jesus throws himself to the ground; indeed, he falls to the earth (according to Matthew). However, St. 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."

Far from conforming to some ancient culture, Ratzinger argues, we are in fact participating in a unique and inherently Christian, even Christic, culture. He has much more to say, but I will let that suffice for the purposes of this little piece.

Kneeling would not be the most appropriate posture for the entire liturgy. Consider that those in the chancel are literally called 'circumstances', that is, those who 'stand around' the altar. In the presence of our Lord Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament, however, Catholic tradition wisely gives us the practice of kneeling. In light of the above, I thank God that in my parish the people kneel for the consecration, through the Agnus Dei. Being the extremist that I am, I have decided to also remain kneeling throughout the Communion, except when there is someone sitting right in front of me, for then I would be literally breathing down his neck. So far I don't seem to have caused any great scandal.

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