Archbishop John C. Nienstedt in the Catholic Spirit
I enjoy doing school visits when I can celebrate Mass with the school community and visit classrooms besides.
In a recent question-and-answer session, a young student asked me why we kneel at Mass. I responded by saying that we, as human beings, are both body and spirit and that these two elements have a very direct influence on one another.
Obviously, whenever we pray we use our whole body, because we know that is the best way to engage our hearts fully. When we stand or kneel, bow or genuflect, we are expressing in action what we mean to say from our heart. Kneeling expresses adoration, humility and willing service.
The more I have thought about it, however, the more I realized there was much more to add to this answer.
Kneeling is not a common gesture in our society. People stand up for what they believe and they stand in the presence of dignitaries. We leap to our feet with joy at a touchdown of the Vikings or the presence of a loved one.
But kneeling is a much more meaningful and intimate gesture. A man takes to his knee when proposing to his future wife. We kneel in the presence of overwhelming mystery. We kneel to adore, and to ask for mercy, to offer humble reverence to our God.
The rubric for kneeling at Mass is found in the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM 2003), 43:
“The faithful should stand from the beginning of the Entrance chant, or while the priest approaches the altar, until the end of the Collect; for the Alleluia chant before the Gospel; while the Gospel itself is proclaimed; during the Profession of Faith and the Prayer of the Faithful; from the invitation, “Orate, fratres” (Pray, brethren), before the prayer over the offerings until the end of Mass, except at the places indicated below.
“. . . In the dioceses of the United States of America, they should kneel beginning after the singing or recitation of the Sanctus until after the Amen of the Eucharistic Prayer, except when prevented on occasion by reasons of health, lack of space, the large number of people present, or some other good reason. Those who do not kneel ought to make a profound bow when the priest genuflects after the consecration. The faithful kneel after the Agnus Dei unless the Diocesan Bishop determines otherwise.”
It should be noted that the universal GIRM states the faithful should kneel during the consecration from the first epiclesis to the memorial acclamation, but the U.S. bishops have requested and received permission for Catholics in the U.S. to kneel from the Sanctus until the Amen. They have done this because they believe that this gesture has important pastoral significance for U.S. Catholics in their reverence for the Eucharist.
Some context and history
As can be seen from the GIRM, the fundamental posture of the liturgy is standing. Standing is the natural gesture of respect toward authority — even today we stand when someone enters the room.
This is why the assembly stands when the celebrant enters and exits the church. Indeed, we know that standing is the normal posture for prayer we received from our Jewish ancestors and was common for early Christian prayer as well.
Standing is considered in the tradition to be the sign of the resurrection, as St. Basil the Great says in his treatise on the Holy Spirit: “We pray standing, on the first day of the week, but we do not all know the reason. On the day of the resurrection (or ‘standing again’; Greek ‘anastasis’) we remind ourselves of the grace given to us by standing at prayer, not only because we rose with Christ, and are bound to ‘seek those things which are above,’ but because the day seems to us to be in some sense an image of the age which we expect …” (Chapter 27).
It is this connection to the Resurrection which can still be found in rubrics which say that during the Easter season certain prayers, like litanies, are said standing and not kneeling.
Kneeling, however, is also an ancient posture of prayer. It seems that kneeling, both in the Christian and the Jewish tradition, was the posture used in especially intense periods of prayer and repentance.
Thus, Solomon dedicating the very first Temple to the Lord, prayed “kneeling down in the presence of all the multitude of Israel, and lifting up his hands towards Heaven” (2 Chronicles 6:13; cf. 1 Kings 8:54).
St. Stephen is described before his martyrdom in intense prayer: “falling on his knees, he cried with a loud voice” (Acts 7:59). St. Peter prayed kneeling when he asked God to raise Tabitha from the dead (Acts 9:40).
We see that the Lord himself prayed kneeling at the most intense moment of his agony in the Garden: “kneeling down, he prayed” (Luke 22:41).
The Book of Revelation describes the faithful kneeling even in heaven, when the 24 elders “fall down before him who is seated on the throne and worship him who lives forever and ever; they cast their crowns before the throne.”
At the most intense moments of prayer and adoration it is a natural gesture to fall to one’s knees.
The liturgy originally saw kneeling mainly as a penitential prayer, which is why the Council of Nicaea (A.D. 325) forbade penitents to kneel on Sundays and during the Easter season.
However, the meaning of this gesture developed in the tradition of our church so that little by little the gesture lost its exclusively penitential connotation. During the Middle Ages, in order to emphasize the reverence due to the real presence of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament, kneeling took the additional meaning of profound respect and adoration that is prevalent today.
We live in a society that has in many ways has lost reverence for things which are holy and sacred. We approach God in a way that is casual, almost as if he is on the same level as us. This lack of reverence can really reflect a lack of humility. It is a lack of recognition of who God is and who I am, and how I need to come before God with humility and reverence.
Humility is not a prized virtue in our society which often focuses on putting one’s self at the center of life, rather than God. Christianity, on the other hand, has always prized humility as the way to heaven, in imitation of Christ who humbled himself to come among us as human in order to restore us to communion with God.
As St. Paul made clear in Philippians 2:5-8: “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross.”
It is for this reason, Christ’s humility, that he is exalted above heaven and earth by the Father. And as St. Paul says, “that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth” (Philippians 2:10).
Here we find two important pastoral reasons why the U.S. bishops have required that all Catholics kneel during the Eucharistic Prayer from the Sanctus until the conclusion of the great Amen.
First is the desire to emphasize the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. We stand when we pray, except at those moments which are most sacred to us, those moments when Christ’s presence is most near. Then, in reverential adoration, we kneel before the Lord of the universe, even as the priest genuflects after the words of consecration.
Second, we live in a society in which people almost never kneel, all the more reason to keep this gesture of humility in our worship before God.
When we kneel we remind ourselves that we are not God and we are not in charge; rather, we are only creatures before our Lord who loves us so much that he comes to us as food to sustain our spiritual lives.
Yes, there is a lot behind the question of why we kneel at Mass. It is good to know why we do so.