Why Do We Kneel in Prayer?
O come, let us worship and bow down, let us kneel before the Lord, our Maker! – Psalm 95:6
There used to be a time—and it wasn’t too long ago!—when pews or sitting furniture of any kind were completely absent from the sanctuary.
Let’s be honest, we’re a bit removed from the ancient traditions of the Church when it comes to furniture and prayer. We now live in an age when pews are being exchanged for comfortable chairs, kneelers have gone by the wayside, and comfort is more important than anything else. But be it the triclinium of the early church or the empty naves of the ecclesia and great basilicas, the fact is that our tradition of prayer and worship is almost exclusively based on standing and kneeling.
It cannot be overstated that liturgical worship is participatory and whole-bodied in nature. Whereas many traditions and churches have separated themselves from the faith and worship of the historic church and thereby relegated their experiences to the purely mental, liturgical worship incorporates sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch. Rather than a 45-minute sermon geared toward one’s ability to think—and I think that right doctrine is good!—worship according to the ancient practices and ordo of the church engage the whole person, intentionally, because God desires the worship of all who we are. According to James K.A. Smith, “In rationalist worship spaces, even the wallpaper is didactic.”
It is common to kneel during all prayer, during the confession and absolution of sins, during the Eucharistic prayer after the Sanctus, and during the blessing given by the priest. Kneeling in such contexts is far more than keeping to tradition or the status quo, it is the intentional decision of the individual and parish to honor the Lord verbally and physically. To kneel is to submit, it is to worship, and it is to recognize that He is King and we are not. This is why actions are just as important as words: when the Lord of lords “enters” into our worship through the assembly, Word, and Eucharistic elements it is only natural and right to proclaim our loyalty to him through word and deed. Failure to do so, while not inherently wrong, would be to separate our minds from our hearts and bodies.
All of this is to lead us to one simple question: why do we kneel in prayer?
The biblical witness, the ancient practices of Judeo-Christian worship, and a whole-bodied theology of worship offer insight into this rich and robust experience.
Laced throughout Scripture are the powerful stories of individuals who gestured with their bodies when in pray to honor God. It is abundantly clear that the position of our bodies can and should match the spiritual realities and attitudes of our hearts. Offerings, sacrifices, gestures, movements, songs, proclamations, actions, rituals, and ceremonies have been at the heart of Christian worship since the time of the Garden when Adam and Eve were to direct the worship of creation back to the Creator.
In Exodus 3, Moses encounters the Living God in the burning bush and is commanded to remove his shoes because, “they place where [he’s] standing is holy ground.” The simply removal of sandals demonstrated and acknowledged the holiness of God. David danced “undignified” before the LORD when the Ark of the Covenant was returned from Philistia.
Daniel 6 records Daniel’s thrice-a-day practice of kneeling in prayer to YHWH, a practice which brought about his evening stay in the Lion’s Den (Daniel 6:10). Solomon knelt before the altar and the LORD in prayer with his hands stretched toward heaven (1 Kings 8:54). Ezra falls on his knees before the LORD at the evening sacrifice (Ezra 9:5). In his epistle to the church at Ephesus, St. Paul writes a prayer and says that he “bows his knee before the Father,” (Ephesians 3:14). The prophet Isaiah and the New Testament writers all point toward the day when “Every knee shall bow and tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.” Even Jesus knelt in prayer to the Father (Luke 22:41) while in the Garden of Gethsemane before his arrest and subsequent murder.
Perhaps most obvious is the verse from Psalm 95 when the psalmist urges the assembly, “O come, let us worship and bow down, let us kneel before the Lord, our Maker!” (Psalm 95:6). There is an inherent connection between kneeling and worshipping: that which we do with our bodies is as expressive as our words, if not more so.
The book of the Acts of the Apostles is the earliest glimpse we have into the most primitive years of the church and throughout its pages we find Peter and the other apostles kneeling in prayer. Peter knelt before raising Tabitha (9:40), Paul after speaking before a crowd (20:36), and Luke recounts another experience in Acts 21:5. The earliest Christians believed firmly in the act of kneeling for prayer.
I have already pointed out the two most obvious practice of Jewish worship and the worship of the early church in the verses above: daily prayer. Counter to semi-popular belief from the early 19th century, the worship of the church grew up in and continued the practices of Israel as she worshipped YHWH in the Temple and synagogues. Our worship is appropriately Judeo-Christian in nature and the offering prayer at set times throughout the day is not a Christian invention. As early as Daniel—and perhaps earlier—we see prayer occurring three times a day.
Daily prayer involved kneeling, a la Psalm 95:6 and Daniel 6:10, as a gesture of humility and reverence. The Church began facing toward the East—in order to look for the Lord’s second coming in the sky—during Sunday worship and the celebration of the Eucharist. To kneel in prayer while facing toward the East was to submit yourself fully to God’s story, plan, and holiness.
It became common in the church’s worship to kneel during the words of the Eucharistic prayer as the pinnacle moment of the liturgy. The traditions of both Judaism and Christianity point to the fact that kneeling is the most primitive and basic of gestures and it cannot be separated from prayer.
We are whole people made by a Holy God and our worship of Him ought to acknowledge such a reality: to kneel is to worship through prayer.
 Preface to Liturgy as Way of Life by Bruce Ellis Benson
Photo: Public Domain
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