The Theology of Kneeling
by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger,
Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith
There are groups, of no small influence, who are trying to talk us out of
doesn't suit our culture", they say (which culture?) "It's not right for a grown man to do this -- he should face God on his
feet". Or again: "It's not appropriate for
redeemed man -- he has been set free by Christ and doesn't need to kneel any more".
If we look at history, we can see that the Greeks and
rejected kneeling. In view of the
squabbling, partisan deities described in mythology, this attitude was
thoroughly justified. It was only too obvious that these gods were not
even if you were dependent on their capricious power and had to make sure that, whenever
possible, you enjoyed their favor. And so they said that
was unworthy of a free man, unsuitable for the culture of
something the barbarians went in for. Plutarch and
regarded kneeling as an expression of
Aristotle called it a barbaric form of behavior (cf.
1361 a 36). Saint Augustine agreed with him in a certain respect: the
false gods were only the
masks of demons,
who subjected men to the
worship of money and to
self-seeking, thus making them "servile"
and superstitious. He said that the
and His love, which went as far as the
have freed us from these
powers. We now kneel before that
humility. The kneeling of
Christians is not
a form of inculturation into existing customs. It
is quite the opposite, an expression of Christian
culture, which transforms
the existing culture through a new and deeper knowledge and experience of
Kneeling does not come from any "culture" --
comes from the Bible and its knowledge of
God. The central
importance of kneeling in the
can be seen in a very concrete way. The word proskynein
(worship/adoration on one's knees)
alone occurs fifty-nine times in the New Testament,
twenty-four of which are in the Apocalypse,
the book of the heavenly Liturgy, which is presented to the
as the standard for Her own
On closer inspection, we can discern three closely related forms of posture:
is prostratio -- lying with one's
face to the ground before the overwhelming power of God;
especially in the New Testament, there is
falling to one's knees before another;
there is kneeling.
Linguistically, the three forms of posture are not always clearly
distinguished. They can be combined or merged with one another.
Joshua throws himself down
before the 'hidden' God -
woodcut by Gustave Dore
For the sake of brevity, I should like to mention, in the case of
just one text from the Old Testament and
another from the New.
In the Old Testament, there is an appearance of
God to Joshua before the taking of
an appearance that the sacred author quite deliberately presents as a
parallel to God's revelation of
Himself to Moses
in the burning bush. Joshua sees "the commander of the army of the Lord" and, having recognized
Who He is, throws himself to the ground.
At that moment he hears the words once spoken to Moses: "Put
off your shoes from your feet; for the place where you stand is holy"
(Joshua 5:15). In the mysterious form of the "commander of
the army of the Lord", the hidden God Himself speaks to
and Joshua throws himself down before Him.
Origen gives a beautiful interpretation of this text: "Is
there any other commander of the powers of the Lord than our Lord Jesus Christ?"
According to this view, Joshua is worshipping the
is to come -- the coming of Christ.
In the case of the
from the Fathers onward, Jesus'
prayer on the Mount of
Olives was especially important. According to Saint
Matthew (22:39) and Saint Mark (14:35),
throws Himself to the ground; indeed,
He falls to the
earth (according to Matthew). However, Saint Luke, who
in his whole work (both the Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles)
is in a special way the theologian of kneeling
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:
assumes, as it were, the fall of man, lets
Himself fall into
prays to the Father out of the lowest depths of
human dereliction and
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
He takes up all the hesitation of the
human will and endures it. It is this very
of the human will to the
divine that is the
of redemption. For the fall of
depends on the contradiction of
the opposition of the
to the divine, which the
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
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
for this redemptive truth, for this uniting of what is divided, for the
uniting that is communion with
God. Now we understand why the
loving way of addressing the Father, "Abba",
is found in this place (cf. Mark 14:36). Saint Paul sees
in this cry the prayer that the
Holy Spirit places on our lips (cf.
8:15; Galatians 4:6) and thus anchors our
in the Lord's prayer in Gethsemane.
Friday, the day of the Lord's
crucifixion, it is the
fitting expression of our sense of shock at the fact that we, by our
share in the responsibility for the death of
down and participate in His
shock, in His descent into
the depths of anguish. We
throw ourselves down
and so acknowledge where
we are and who we are: fallen creatures whom only
set on their feet. We throw ourselves down, as Jesus did,
before the mystery of
God's power present to us, knowing that the
Cross is the true burning bush, the place
of the flame of God's love, which burns but does
prostration comes from the awareness
of our absolute incapacity, by our own powers, to take on the priestly mission of
Christ, to speak with His "I". While the
lying on the ground, the whole congregation sings the Litany of the Saints.
I shall never forget lying on the ground at the time of my own priestly and episcopal
ordination. When I was ordained bishop, my intense feeling of inadequacy, incapacity, in
the face of the greatness of the task was even stronger than at my priestly ordination.
The fact that the praying Church was calling upon all the
the prayer of the
Church really was enveloping and embracing me, was a
wonderful consolation. In my incapacity, which had to be expressed in the bodily posture
of prostration, this
prayer, this presence of all the
saints, of the
living and the dead, was a wonderful strength -- it was the only thing that could, as it
were, lift me up. Only the presence of the saints with me made possible the path that lay
Kneeling before another
Jesus heals the Leper -
by Piero di Cosimo -
from Cappella Sistina, Vatican
Secondly, we must mention the gesture of falling to one's
knees before another, which is described four times
in the Gospels
(cf. Mark 1:40; 10:17; Matthew 17:14; 27:29) by means of
the word gonypetein. Let us single
out Mark 1:40. A leper
comes to Jesus and begs
Him for help. He falls to his
before Him and says: "If you will, you can make me clean".
It is hard to assess the significance of the gesture. What we have here is surely
a proper act of adoration, but rather a
expressed fervently in bodily form, while showing a trust in a
power beyond the merely
The situation is different, though, with the classical word for
on one's knees -- proskynein.
I shall give two examples in order to clarify the question that faces the translator.
First there is the account of how, after the
of the loaves, Jesus stays with the
on the mountain, while the disciples struggle in vain on the lake with the wind and the
waves. Jesus comes to them across the water.
hurries toward Him and is
saved from sinking by the
Then Jesus climbs into the boat, and the wind lets up. The text
continues: "And the ship's crew came and said, falling at
His feet, 'Thou art indeed the Son of God'" (Matthew
14:33, Knox version). Other translations say: "[The
disciples] in the boat worshiped [Jesus], saying ..." (RSV).
Both translations are correct. Each emphasizes one aspect of what is going on. The
version brings out the bodily expression, while the RSV
shows what is happening interiorly. It is perfectly clear from the
structure of the narrative that the gesture of acknowledging
Jesus as the
Son of God is an
act of worship.
Jesus Heals the Man born
by El Greco - from Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
We encounter a similar set of problems in Saint John's Gospel when we
read the account of the healing of the
man born blind.
This narrative, which is structured in a truly "theo-dramatic"
way, ends with a dialogue between Jesus and the man
has healed. It serves as a model for the dialogue of conversion, for the whole narrative
must also be seen as a profound exposition of the existential and theological significance
In the dialogue, Jesus asks the man whether he believes in the
of Man. The man-born-blind replies: "Tell me who
He is, Lord". When Jesus says, "It is He Who is speaking to you", the man makes the
confession of faith: "I do believe, Lord",
and then he "[falls] down to worship Him"
(John 9:35-38, Knox version adapted). Earlier
translations said: "He worshiped Him". In
fact, the whole scene is directed toward the act of
faith and the worship
of Jesus, which follows from it. Now the
eyes of the heart, as well as of the
body, are opened. The man has in
truth begun to see.
Jesus and the Samaritan Woman
For the exegesis of the text it is important to note that the word
proskynein (worship/adoration on one's knees)
occurs eleven times in Saint John's Gospel, of which
nine occurrences are
found in Jesus' conversation with the
Samaritan woman by Jacob's
well (John 4:19-24). This conversation is entirely devoted to
the theme of worship, and it is indisputable that here, as elsewhere in
John's Gospel, the word always has the meaning of "worship".
Incidentally, this conversation, too, ends -- like that of the
healing of the
born blind -- with Jesus' revealing
Himself: "I who speak to you am He" (John 4:26).
I have lingered over these texts, because they bring to light something important. In
the two passages that we looked at most closely, the spiritual and
bodily meanings of
proskynein are really inseparable. The
bodily gesture itself is the bearer of the
spiritual meaning, which is precisely that of
Without the worship, the
bodily gesture would be meaningless, while the
act must of its very nature, because of the psychosomatic unity of
itself in the bodily gesture.
The two aspects are united in the one word, because in a very profound
way they belong together. When kneeling becomes merely
external, a merely physical act, it becomes meaningless. One the other
hand, when someone tries to take worship back into the purely
realm and refuses to give it embodied form, the
act of worship
evaporates, for what is purely spiritual is inappropriate to the
nature of man. Worship is one of those fundamental acts that affect the whole
That is why bending the knee before the presence of the
living God is something we cannot abandon.
In saying this, we come to the typical gesture of
kneeling on one
or both knees. In the
Hebrew of the Old
Testament, the verb barak,
"to kneel", is cognate
with the word berek, "knee". The
regarded the knees as a symbol of strength, to
the knee is, therefore, to
our strength before the living God,
an acknowledgment of the fact that all that we are we receive from
In important passages of the Old Testament, this gesture appears as an expression of
The stoning of Saint Stephen -
by Vasari, Giorgio
At the dedication of the Temple, Solomon
the presence of all the assembly of Israel" (2Chronicles 6:13). After
the Exile, in the afflictions of the returned Israel,
which is still without a Temple,
repeats this gesture at the time of the evening sacrifice: "I
... fell upon my knees and spread out my hands to the Lord my God" (Ezra
9:5). The great psalm of the Passion,
Psalm 22 ("My God, my God, why have
You forsaken me?"), ends
with the promise: "Yes, to Him shall all the proud of the
earth fall down; before Him all who go down to the dust shall throw themselves down"
(v. 29, RSV adapted).
The related passage Isaiah 45:23 we shall have to consider in the
context of the New Testament. The Acts of the Apostles
tells us how Saint Peter (9:45), Saint Paul (20:36), and
the whole Christian community (21:5)
pray on their
Particularly important for our question is the account of the
of Saint Stephen. The first man to witness to
his blood is described in his suffering as a perfect image of
Whose Passion is repeated in the
martyrdom of the witness, even in small
details. One of these is that Stephen, on his knees, takes
up the petition of the crucified
do not hold this sin against them" (7:60). We should remember that
unlike Matthew and Mark, speaks of the
kneeling in Gethsemane,
which shows that Luke wants the kneeling
of the first martyr to be seen as his entry into the
prayer of Jesus.
is not only a "Christian"
gesture, but a "Christological"
The Name above all Names
For me, the most important passage for the theology of
kneeling will always be the great
hymn of Christ
in Philippians 2:6-11. In this pre-Pauline
we hear and see the prayer of the
apostolic Church and can discern within
it Her confession of
faith in Christ. However, we also hear the voice of
the Apostle, who enters into this prayer and hands
to us, and, ultimately, we perceive here both the profound inner unity of the
and New Testaments and the cosmic breadth of
The hymn presents Christ as the
of the First Adam. While Adam high-handedly
at likeness to God,
Christ does not
count equality with God, which is
His by nature, "a thing to be grasped", but humbles
death, even death on the
Cross. It is precisely this
comes from love, that is the truly
divine reality and procures for
the "name which is above every name, that at the name of
Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth"
The Ghent Altarpiece -
Adoration of the Lamb -
by EYCK, Jan van - from Cathedral of St Bavo, Ghent
Here the hymn of 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, every tongue shall swear'". In the interweaving of
and New Testaments, it becomes clear that, even as
bears that "name above every name" -- the
name of the Most High -- and is Himself God by nature. Through
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
above all gods. The Cross has become the world-embracing sign of
presence, and all that we have previously heard about the historic and
cosmic Christ should now, in this passage, come back into our minds.
The Christian Liturgy is a
cosmic Liturgy precisely
because it bends the
knee before the crucified and
exalted Lord. Here is
the center of authentic culture - the culture of truth.
The humble gesture by which we fall at the feet of the
inserts us into the true path of life of the cosmos.
Detail of Satan -
Temptation on the Mount -
by DUCCIO di Buoninsegna -
from Frick Collection, New York
There is much more that we might add. For example, there is the touching story told by
in his history of the Church as a tradition going back to
in the second century. Apparently, Saint James, the "brother of the Lord", the first bishop of
and "head" of the
Christian Church, had a kind of 'callous'
on his knees, because
he was always on his knees
worshipping God and begging
for his people (2, 23, 6).
Again, there is a story that comes from the
sayings of the Desert Fathers, according to which the
devil was compelled by
God to show
himself to a certain Abba Apollo.
and ugly, with
thin limbs, but most strikingly, he
had no knees. The inability to
is seen as the very essence of the diabolical.
But I do not want to go into more detail. I should like to make just one more remark.
The expression used by Saint Luke to describe the
of Christians (theis ta gonata) is
in classical Greek. We are dealing here
with a specifically Christian word. With that remark, our reflections turn
full circle to where they began. It may well be that kneeling
is alien to modern culture -- insofar as it is a culture, for
culture has turned away from the faith and no longer knows the
One before Whom
the right, indeed the intrinsically necessary gesture. The man who learns
to believe learns also to
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
"I have been driven many times to my knees,"
said George Washington,
overwhelming conviction that I had nowhere else to go".
Prayer at Valley Forge