Tuesday, February 09, 2021

Why Do We Kneel At Mass When the First Ecumenical Council Forbade It?

Why do we kneel at Sunday Mass? Kneeling is a sign of humility, one might suggest, which is an appropriate attitude to adopt during the worship of God. Who is going to be against this?

The answer, it seems, is the Fathers of First Ecumenical Council, which took place in Nicaea in 325AD. Here is Canon XX:
Forasmuch as there are certain persons who kneel on the Lord’s Day and in the days of Pentecost, therefore, to the intent that all things may be uniformly observed everywhere (in every parish), it seems good to the holy Synod that prayer be made to God standing.

“The days of Pentecost” is a reference to what we would call the Easter season today. 

In digging around for commentaries on the Council, I have come across various answers, some of which are more convincing than others to me. I have tried to summarize them below. 

I have some suggestions myself (again, see below), but these are pure conjecture. I thought I would throw this question open to NLM readers, who are likely far more knowledgeable on this matter than me.

So, can anyone help here with a more definitive answer?

Here are some answers that I found from commentators:

First is that in the period after the Council, people did not kneel on Sundays until the practice of the major elevation of the host was introduced in the 12th century, and as a result reverence for the Body and Blood of Christ increased. I find this most unconvincing, for to accept this, one would have to argue that the 4th-century Church Fathers had less reverence for the Real Presence than Catholics in the 12th century. This argument was used in one column I read, written by a Protestant commentator to support his assertion that belief in the Real Presence didn’t exist until the 12th century! 

The second suggestion is that this is a disciplinary canon, and does not indicate a dogma. We have to look at the context and consider how that will have changed over time. So, what has changed? Originally, standing was seen as the posture appropriate to the fulfillment of the fast as it resolves itself into feast. It signifies that we partake of the divine nature through this feast and so are raised up to Him. At the time of the Council, kneeling was seen as a sign of penitence and so was considered inappropriate. Over time, however, the action of kneeling began to mean something different. Rather than penitence, it meant deferential respect and honor, which is due to God at all times. As this perception of the meaning of kneeling changed, so the argument goes, it became steadily more common practice.

I have a third suggestion, and this is a hypothesis on my part, but I thought I would throw it out there. I am wondering what action the Fathers of the Council had in mind when they wrote this canon. Perhaps what appears in the English translation as kneeling is in fact the deep prostration, which we saw for example from a Bishop in the icon I discussed in a recent article?

Perhaps what we think of as kneeling today is in fact a more upright version of this deep prostration, and which replaced it as a result of the Council forbidding the deep prostration.

It seems to me that we might consider not just what the individual posture signifies, but also the symbolism of transition from one posture to another over the passage of sacred time in the course of the liturgical year, from Lent to Easter weekdays, for example. If at one moment of the liturgy, during a weekday in Lent, the posture is deep and at the same moment in the liturgy during Easter it is more upright, then that change would reinforce the message that we are transformed, supernaturally.

Maybe what has changed is not that the upright posture appropriate to the feast has gone, but rather, it is that the practice of deep prostration is no longer common. 

This being the case, the appropriate question seems to be not when did the contemporary upright kneeling begin, but rather, when did the practice of deep prostration cease? I’m wondering if it coincided with the introduction of pews, which happened in Catholic churches, as I understand it, under the influence of Protestant practice in the Reformation. The only time I have seen something close to a deep prostration in Roman Catholic churches is during the ordination of priests. 

So there you have it. Any thoughts?

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