F WE ARE TO WORSHIP GOD not merely out of routine or habit, but with an intelligent love and a loving intelligence, we need to understand why we are doing what we do. For example, why do we kneel? What is so important, so meaningful, about this posture that we use it before and after Mass, during the Eucharistic prayer, and at other times of the Mass as well, including―as once was the universal custom and still is the universal norm―when we receive Holy Communion?
There are two especially beautiful explanations I have seen. The first is an article, “Knees to Love Christ,” by Bishop Thomas Olmsted (available here).
The other is a passage from St. Thomas Aquinas’s Commentary on the Epistle to the Ephesians:
Humility makes a prayer worthy of being heard: “He hath had regard to the prayer of the humble: and he hath not despised their petition” (Ps. 101:18). And, “The prayer of him that humbleth himself shall pierce the clouds: and till it come nigh he will not be comforted.” (Ecclus. 35:21).
Therefore, he immediately starts his prayer in humility, saying: “For this cause,” that you fail not in the faith, “I bow my knees to the Father.”
This is a symbol of humility for two reasons. First, a man belittles himself, in a certain way, when he genuflects, and he subjects himself to the one he genuflects before. In such a way he recognizes his own weakness and insignificance. Secondly, physical strength is present in the knees; in bending them a man confesses openly to his lack of strength.
Thus external, physical symbols are shown to God for the purpose of renewing and spiritually training the inner soul. This is expressed in the prayer of Manasse: “I bend the knee of my heart.” “For every knee shall be bowed to me: and every tongue shall swear” (Is. 45:24).
We will understand better the importance of this training of the inner man in humility before the awesome holiness of God if we reflect on the fundamental problem of fallen man. The serpent’s tactic in the Garden of Eden was to suggest to Eve that she should think of God as being “on the same playing field,” as “one of us”―and, therefore, as one who is in competition with us, jealous of our status, eager to keep us down. This, of course, is the primal lie, and when Eve surrendered her mind to it, and Adam submitted his mind to hers, they became custodians of the lie, estranged from the true God, from each other, from their own selves, and from the whole of nature. Thus had begun the ever-increasing self-alienation of man, where every step away from God was a step of greater misery, a loss of divine likeness and human integrity at one and the same time. The one and only cure is to submit to God in total trusting obedience, for He alone can give us freedom and happiness, just as He alone gives us our living, moving, and being.
Traditional Christian liturgies of East and West dramatically emphasize God’s transcendence over us, His benevolent reign, His rightful demand of our whole heart, soul, mind, and strength, and our corresponding duty to worship him by offering sacrifice with contrite and humble hearts. In spite of the illusions fostered by modern democracy, we are not equals before Jesus Christ our God; He is our Lord and master, and we are His disciples, servants, and adorers. Yes, He lovingly calls us His friends, but let us never forget that He is not just any friend, but the Lord of heaven and earth, who has called us into His marvelous light, and who deserves (and rewards) our absolute self-surrender, which no creature can either demand or receive. This is why kneeling, within a tradition that has long expressed and cultivated humility by means of it, is no mere incidental or external feature that we can take or leave; it is part of our fundamental spiritual discipline.
Note how well things fit together in the sacred liturgy as it developed organically. As long as communion is given on the tongue, there is reason to kneel―not only for its symbolic and formative value, but also because kneeling makes it easier for the priest or deacon to distribute communion on the tongue. And once this becomes the practice, a communion rail is obviously helpful, not only to effect a symbolic distinction between the sanctuary and the nave, but also to offer bodily support to those who are kneeling. Moreover, the priest is accompanied by a server holding a paten, out of respect for the Blessed Sacrament and lest it fall to the ground.(*)
All of these customs grow up organically once the fundamental principle is allowed to breathe freely: Our Lord Jesus Christ is really, truly, substantially present in the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar. “At the Name of Jesus, every knee shall bend…”
It is worth noting that the Instruction Redemptionis Sacramentum of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments (March 25, 2004) requests the use of such a paten even in the context of the Ordinary Form: “The Communion-plate [patina, i.e., paten] for the Communion of the faithful ought to be retained [oportet retineatur], so as to avoid the danger of the sacred host or some fragment of it falling” (n. 93). The General Instruction of the Roman Missal lists the communion-plate or paten as an item that should be placed on the credence table for the celebration of Mass.
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