The Knees of Adoration

In the letter to the Philippians, there is a beautiful passage, a hymn and prayer of the early Church that confesses faith in Jesus Christ:

[T]hough he [Christ] was in the form of God, [he] did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness…he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross. Because of this, God greatly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth. (cf. Phil 2:6-11)

In this passage, the writer interweaves Old Testament faith and culture with the Gospel of Christ. Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger explains that in this hymn 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.” In the interweaving of Old and New Testaments, it becomes clear that, even as crucified, Jesus…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” [1]. The theologian eventually concludes that it is therefore in adoration, in this humble bowing down and kneeling to, that man partakes in the most authentic human culture: the culture of truth that loves the Creator and King. Hence adoration and prayer, which culminate in the Liturgical sphere, have a distinctively cosmic element; creation itself is most true and noble when everything that is becomes itself, and ergo gives praise to her God. Thus, if we look at this through an ontological and anthropological lens, we can conclude with Ratzinger: “The humble gesture by which we fall at the feet of the Lord inserts us into the true path of life of the cosmos” [2].

Furthermore, kneeling itself is a Christological gesture. In the Acts of the Apostles, the writer records Stephen’s martyrdom, and details that as they were stoning this loyal disciple of Jesus Christ, “he fell to his knees and cried out in a loud voice, ‘Lord do no hold this sin against them'” (7:60). Surely, this verse reminds one of Christ, who, in Luke’s Gospel, kneels in Gethsemane. Thus, Luke is showing that the kneeling of the first martyr is his entry into the prayer of Jesus. Something ontological, even mystical, is taking place here. When man abandons himself in his entirety, causing his knees to buckle, he falls to the ground, the dirt of which the first man was made. But in this descent of man to the ground, there is the humility of the God-man, Jesus Christ. In this descent of man to the ground, man encounters the prayer of Jesus Christ, and by acknowledging and crying out to the King of Kings, man is lifted into the clouds–into the realm of God Himself. Ultimately, the truest position for the human person that expresses his nature in relation to God is on one’s knees, looking up to the Crucified Lord and in that humble gaze of God’s glory, he tastes that blood and water–the elements of the Sacramental economy–from Jesus’ side that set man free, inundate him with grace.

Kneeling inserts man into the position of Him who is at the center of history, Jesus of Nazareth. How beautiful this Christological component of kneeling! It is no wonder that, according to a story of the Desert Fathers, the devil, appearing to “a certain Abba Apollo…looked black and ugly, with frighteningly thin limbs, but most strikingly, he had no knees“. Referencing this myth, Ratzinger declares that the very “inability to kneel is seen as the very essence of the diabolical” [3]. This is not an attack on any sort of physical inabilities that some unfortunately may suffer. The devil has no knees because he lacks so much that proper worship is literally impossible for him. May this serve as a reminder to us the harm and danger of sin, which deforms human nature–the knees of the soul, we could even say.

All of this reminds me of a quote by Pope John XXIII: “Man is never so great as when he is kneeling”. In an interview with Peter Seewald, Joseph Ratzinger addresses this very quote: “I believe that this attitude, which was already one of the primitive forms of Old Testament prayer, is something essential for Christians”. [4] But why is it so that this action and position is essential? What is the practical implication and understanding? In a society with philosophical structures that fail to see interiorly, it may appear that kneeling or standing–especially in the Sacred Liturgy, for-instance–don’t really matter, as long as one is merely “prayerful”; some may even propose kneeling to be archaic and now unnecessary. However, I disagree. We have noted the cosmic and Christological dimensions of kneeling, which should suffice to silent those groups that deem kneeling unimportant. Nonetheless, a critical look at the position is also revealing. In Ratzinger’s words: “It is the most impressive physical expression of Christian piety, by which, on one hand, we remain upright, looking out, gazing upon him, but, on the other, we nonetheless bow down” [5].

Lastly, any sort of discussion of kneeling is bound to remind one of its place and significance in the Liturgy, the culmination of prayer–as has already been stated. It is a miserable circumstance that kneeling, in some places, is losing its importance within the Mass. As the surest expression of abandonment and praise, what a perfect place for man to express his awareness of the reality that is the Divine Liturgy. Ratzinger writes powerfully:

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. [6]

If piety and orthodoxy, as well as orthopraxy, have any importance for Christians, then may we kneel. May we kneel in adoration of Christ the King, the perfect Mediator Dei, from whose being the entire universe was formed. May we kneel as we gaze into the Heart of God’s only Son, and in that gaze, soar the heavens above the dirt of the earth. May we kneel in thanksgiving, praise, and petition to the Almighty One. Indeed, may we kneel because we are in love, and in that falling to one’s knees, fall deeper into that Vastness of Being, the Trinity.

______

1. The Spirit of the Liturgy (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2000), 174

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid., 193 (emphasis original)

4. God And the World (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2002), 410

5. Ibid., 409 (emphasis added)

6. Spirit of the Liturgy, 194

4 thoughts on “The Knees of Adoration”

  1. Thank you, Tommy. May Catholics always and everywhere fall to their knees in increasing numbers in adoration before Christ our King and our example! Suscipe me, Domine!

  2. Great post. It reminds me of what Hans Urs Von Balthasar called for: Theologians on their knees. We need people who are in love with Christ and his bride in all areas of the Church and the world. Oremus!

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