Since he had never been at my church, the pastor re-quested a tour of the facilities, which I was very pleased to give him. When we came into the nave, however, his eyes were quickly drawn to the newly installed kneelers, and he could not be silent, “Well, I see you have those Roman kneelers.” “Don’t your members kneel to receive the Body and Blood of the Lord,” I asked him. “Yes, they do,” he replied. “Then tell me something,” I said. “Why is it alright for Lutherans to do that, but ‘Roman’ practice when they kneel at the pew?”
Taken aback by my question, and perhaps getting the point that I was in no mood for his attempts to be witty, he replied, “Of course they don’t have to kneel to receive Holy Communion.” Ah, yes, the standard WELS’ answer to all liturgical ceremony: “We don’t have to do it.” This is true, insofar as it goes. But now his hypocrisy was starting to show, for if one is free not to kneel, then it only goes to follow that he is also free to kneel, should he desire to do so, without being labeled a “Romanist.”
As I was about to point out to him this rather significant fact, my eyes caught the bracelet he happened to be wearing that day, and I quickly changed my reply: “Yes, you’re right. It’s an adiaphoron. But (and now here’s where his bracelet came in) what would Jesus do?” 1
“Can you not keep watch with me for one hour?”
The Holy Evangelists give us a very clear picture of what Jesus did in the Garden of Gethsemane, on the night he was betrayed. St Luke informs us, “When He came to the place, He said to (His disciples), ‘Pray that you may not enter temptation.’ When He was withdrawn from them about a stone’s throw, and He knelt down and prayed, saying, ‘Father, if it is Your will, take this cup away from Me; nevertheless not My will, but Yours be done.’ Then an angel appeared to Him from heaven, strengthening Him. And being in agony, He prayed more earnestly. Then His sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground. When He rose up from prayer, and had come to His disciples, He found them sleeping from sorrow” (Luke 22:40-45).
Our Lord knelt. That is what he did while praying in Gethsemane, and that hardly surprises us considering the great agony he was in. St. Matthew is even more specific. He tells us that Jesus “fell on His face and prayed” (Matthew 26:39), which is the more drastic form of kneeling, called “prostration.” 2
Thus, when we kneel, we are in effect doing what Jesus did. But, and let there be no misunderstanding about this, not to imitate Jesus. It is, in fact, a most dangerous thing to attempt to imitate Jesus, for we can never “do Jesus” in the way and to the degree Jesus does Jesus. Still, if Jesus knelt when he prayed in Gethsemane, how can any Christian, much less one who was ordained into the Holy Office, attach the “Roman” label to it? 3
Our Lutheran Confessions state that while ceremonies 4 “are neither commanded nor forbidden in God’s Word” (FC, TD, Art. X,1), they are important nonetheless, for, “They teach the unlearned what they need to know about Christ” (AC, Art. XXIV). Specifically, they teach the real presence of Christ in created things such as water, word and bread and wine. Thus, Lutherans have traditionally observed many of the “usual” ceremonies in their Mass.5
One of these is kneeling, and since it is meant to teach the people “what they need to know about Christ,” we can call it “preaching from our knees.” Again, consider Jesus in Gethsemane. We see him “face down to the ground” in prayer. That tells us something, in fact, two things: 1) that he honors his Father, and 2) that he is in great agony. But what if we would substitute another posture for kneeling, such as standing for example: “Jesus was withdrawn from them about a stone’s throw, and he stood up and prayed, saying,” etc.? It just does not convey the same message, does it? For standing is an act of trust and victory, as when fans stand after their team has scored a touchdown, and as God’s people stand in the Mass when they pray and sing to confess their faith in a gracious God, who has forgiven them for Jesus’ sake. What about sitting: “Jesus was withdrawn from them about a stone’s throw, and he sat down and prayed, saying,” etc.? That does not fit the situation either. Sitting is the posture of a student before his teacher, as Mary “sat at Jesus’ feet and heard His Word” (Luke 10:39), and as God’s people sit down in the Mass when God’s Word is preached to them. The fact is, nothing expresses the reality of Gethsemane to us more clearly than does Jesus’ prostration. In that sense, he was preaching a sermon from his knees. As did he, so do we.
I would like you to consider God’s command in regard to the temple. No one, except the High Priest, and he only on the Day of Atonement and only with blood, could enter the Holy of Holies, or he would surely die. This too was a sermon, a sermon on sin and on how it had separated the people from their God. Now when Jesus by his bloody death atoned for sin, “the veil (that separated the Holy of Holies from the Holy Place) was torn in two from top to bottom” (Matthew 27:51). Washed in the Blood of Christ (Holy Baptism), we can approach him in the Mass without the threat of being struck down dead right on the spot. 6 Nevertheless, the Old Adam still clings to us. The Christian is still sinful and righteous at the same time (simul justus et peccator). What better way is there then, for him to approach the holy Lord God of Sabaoth than on his knees? After all, we have nothing to offer him that would appease his wrath. Indeed, all we have are our sins. Therefore, blessed is the man who believes this and so approaches him on his knees begging for mercy. 7
Note the strong emphasis here on the Real Presence. That really is the key to our understanding of kneeling and all ceremony for that matter. If the Mass were nothing more than a time to talk about God and in so doing to get motivated and equipped to serve God, as some suppose it is, then kneeling before a stone or wood Altar and before simple bread and wine would be an act of gross idolatry. But, of course, the Mass is more than an opportunity to talk about God. It is essentially an encounter with God. It is where we come to meet our Lord and Savior, who has so graciously come down to us in water, word, and bread and wine. So in the Mass, we do what Jesus did in Gethsemane. We preach from our knees and in so doing, express our humility, that we are sinners begging for mercy, and offering our adoration to him who has come incarnationally to bless us with his gifts of salvation.
But do we have to kneel? Of course not, and to anyone who would try to bind our consciences to this or any ceremony, we quote the Apostle Paul, “Stand fast therefore in the liberty by which Christ has made us free, and do not be entangled again with a yoke of slavery” (Galatians 5:1). Still we dare not turn our freedom into anarchy and have a Mass in which everyone does what is right in his own eyes. There must be order (1 Corinthians 14:40), but there’s so much more to this than allegiance to the “doctrine of tidiness.” Having been set free from the demands and punishment of the law, we are now free to attend Mass, to approach Christ, to receive his gifts of salvation and to worship him in a reverent and dignified manner, as truly befits him. Or to express it another way, now that we don’t “have to,” we “get to” kneel before Christ.
Understanding what we are preaching by kneeling, why not do so? That is the more appropriate question to ask. Why not kneel before the Lord our Savior: as did the Magi (Matthew 2:11), Peter (Luke 5:8), the leper (Luke 5:12), the women on Easter Day (Matthew 28:9), and, of course, as did Christ before his Father in Gethsemane?
Why not? The Blessed Dr. Luther gave us this answer in a September 15, 1537 sermon:
The following tale is told about a coarse and brutal lout. While the words “and was made man” 8 were sung in church, he remained standing, neither genuflecting nor removing his hat. He showed no reverence, but just stood there like a clod. All the others dropped to their knees when the Nicene Creed was prayed and chanted devoutly. Then the devil stepped up to him and hit him so hard it made his head spin. He cursed him gruesomely and said: “May hell consume you, you boorish ass! If God had become an angel like me and the congregation sang: ‘God was made an angel,’ I would bend not only my knees but my whole body to the ground!” 9
This story is pure fiction of course, but it does answer the question. If one is physically able to do so, there just is no good reason not to kneel and reverence the God who “is man, man to deliver.” 10
Why not? St. Paul also gave us an answer in his Epistle to the Philippians, “At the Name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth” (2:10).11 Indeed, throughout the Holy Scriptures, and especially in the Psalms, God’s people are encouraged to bow and to kneel before the Lord who has come to save them. And believing that this is exactly what he has done for us, who deserved only his temporal and eternal punishment, why not?
Since, kneeling is not commonly observed in many of our WELS churches, and even where it is, rarely is it done frequently throughout the Mass, two questions arise: how and when? So I will deal with both very briefly. First, how is one to kneel?
Full kneel: “This is done by first bending the right knee to touch the floor next to the heel of the left foot and then bending the left knee and placing it near the right. The reverse process is observed in rising… While kneeling, the body should be kept upright with its weight on the knees and the back straight” 11
Genuflection (half kneel): “A genuflection is begun by standing up straight. Next, the right knee is bent until it touches the floor where the right foot stood. The back remains straight and the head does not incline forward. The reverse is done to complete the genuflection.” 12
Bow: There are two different forms. One form is the “head bow” – simply nodding the head forward, the other is the “profound bow.” “We do that by bending forward from the waist, slowly, gracefully, naturally.” 13 When is it appropriate to bow or kneel? As with any ceremony, their usage can and does vary from place to place. But I offer the following as suggestions:
- Anytime you pass the Altar – bow.
- As you enter then leave the nave – genuflect.
- When the Processional Crucifix passes – bow.
- During the Confession and Absolution – kneel.
- At the words: “He was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of
the Virgin Mary and became Man” – genuflect.
- During the Consecration of the elements (from the
Sanctus to the Verba through the Agnus Dei) - kneel.
- At the Elevation of the Host and the Cup - bow.
- At the Communion rail when approaching/ leaving –
bow; while receiving the Sacrament – kneel.
- At the name of Jesus – bow.
Note: In some churches the custom of kneeling for The Prayer of the Church is also observed; in others, it is the custom of standing, as a confession of faith.
I would like to share my own experience with you. As many pastors know, church weddings can be a nightmare. Most guests haven’t a clue about proper church etiquette. Many talk aloud, laugh, and carry on as if they were outside and not in God’s house. Despite the occasional camera flash, as well as other faux pas, when the crucifer, candle bearers, even occasionally the thurifer, and the pastor come in and genuflect before the Altar, I can say that the behavior improves noticeably. Not that all may like it, but they will respect it because it says, “This is important. We take this seriously. We are approaching our God.”
That is what ceremony does when it is properly observed in the Mass. That is the sermon that kneeling also preaches. Yes, it is what Jesus did. But that is not really why we Lutherans do it. Instead, we kneel to preach to ourselves, our family, our fellow members, and to all the visitors who have shown up, that we are beggars in the presence of a gracious and merciful God who has come to bless us. We don’t have to do it. We know that. But we believe it and therefore confess it.
“Oh, come let us worship and bow down; let us kneel before the Lord our Maker” (Psalm 95:6). §
1 It seems to me that the “What-Would-Jesus-Do Christians” do not really want to do what Jesus did, but rather want Jesus to do what they are doing. In other words, they set up their own righteous acts and then ascribe them to Jesus, so that they will feel good about themselves. This became evident to me whenever I confronted one of them on the issue of ceremonies: what Jesus did. Why aren’t you doing it?”
2 This ceremony can take a number of forms that vary in degree from a simple bow of the head, to a bow at the waist, to a genuflection (one knee), to a full kneel, to prostration.
3 Now to be fair, let me say that I do not think for a moment that the pastor who made this comment really believes that anyone who kneels is a practicing Roman Catholic. But that he even made such a comment at all betrays the “Roma-phobia” that has swept over much of Protestantism today. Who knows? If we start kneeling too much, we just might end up praying to Mary or kissing the Pope’s ring (my attempt at being facetious).
4 Ceremonies are the sum of the actions, words and setting of the Mass.
5 “Falsely are our churches accused of abolishing the Mass, for the Mass is retained among us, and celebrated with the highest reverence. Nearly all the usual ceremonies are also preserved” (AC XXIVC,1). “We do not abolish the Mass, but religiously maintain and defend it… and the usual public ceremonies are observed, the series of lessons, of prayers, vestments, and other like things” (AP, XXIV,1). I find a rather interesting connection between these statements and what was written in my Call: “In extending this Call to you we solemnly charge you to preach the gospel of our Lord among us in its truth and purity, to administer the Sacraments in accordance with the inspired Word of God and the Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church as incorporated in the Book of Concord of 1580, and to establish and maintain sound Lutheran practice at all times.”
6 This is the meaning of the Trinitarian Baptismal Formula at the start of the Mass: “In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (not, “We begin in the Name of…). We can approach God without fear, though we are by nature sinful, because we have been cleansed in Holy Baptism.
7 Surely kneeling brings to mind the last words that Dr. Luther wrote: “We are beggars- this is true!”
8 One appropriate time to genuflect in the Mass is at the words of the Creed, which confess the Incarnation of Jesus Christ.
9 AE 22 p. 105
10 “All My Heart This Night Rejoices” (CW: 37, st. 2)
11 David Saar, ” The Bride of Christ, Vol. XXVI, No. 3, p. 28.
13 Ralph R. Van Loon, Acolyte Handbook. p. 34.
Here isa letter this article inspired.
Mrs. Delores Staats writes
Thank you for your little paper. Since I am a “refugee from LC-MS and left that body because of women suffrage and the CGM [Church Growth Movement], I am so relieved to know somebody in WELS is aware of these problems and taking up the “battle!”
At age 74 I’m getting a bit weary after 30 years of it in LC-MS, only to discover the WELS seems to be going down the same road. You seem to be the answer to my many prayers that God would put a stop to this CGM since nobody around here will believe me that something is wrong. You are so right in defining the problem and my prayers are with you.
Among other things I might add how impressed I was as a child to see my Dad and Mother kneel during the confession of sins, for Holy Communion. There were no kneelers, but they were on the floor and sideways leaned against the pew.
What I miss most is a reverent attitude in the presence of Almighty God. It would be nice to see some bowing or genuflecting again. This really has a powerful impact on the children, I believe, from my own experience. (I hate this “Good Morning” stuff!)
8MM Thank you for your kind comments and permission to publish this letter. Your letter is representative of many others we have received from other “refugees,” lay and clergy, both those coming and going. (JWB)