SHOULD WE KNEEL ON SUNDAYS?
by Fr. Michael Koblosh
The whole man, i.e., the soul and body, take part in worship, because the whole man has been assumed by the Son of God in his Incarnation and must be redeemed for God and for his Kingdom. Therefore the various positions of the body in worship have a liturgical significance, are expressions of worship. Standing is the basic liturgical position ('let us stand aright') because in Christ we have been redeemed, given back our true human stature, risen from the death of sin and from the submission to the animal and sinful part of our nature. Thus the Church forbids any other position (kneeling, prostration) on the Lord's Day, when we commemorate Christ's Resurrection and contemplate the glory of the new creation. Kneeling and prostrations, being rites of repentance, are reserved for the penitential seasons of the liturgical year (Lent), but are also prescribed on certain occasions as rites of adoration (before the Cross, the Altar, etc.). Sitting is limited to the teaching parts of the service (reading of the prophecies, the sermon, etc.). The Gospel, however, is always listened to in the standing position.
Protopresbyter Alexander Schmemann, Liturgy and Life
Standing, and not kneeling on Sunday, the First Day of the Week, the Lord's Day, is a very ancient tradition:
And on the day called Sunday, all...gather together in one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits. Then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs and exhorts...Then we all rise together and pray...then bread and wine are brought...
(St. Justin Martyr, 160, [in his youth, Justin knew people who had seen and heard Christ])
We consider it forbidden to pray on bended knees on the Lord's Day. (Tertullian, 210)
There are many other observances in the Church which, though due to tradition, have acquired the authority of the written law, as, for instance, the practice of not praying on bended knees on Sunday. (St. Jerome, 330)
Since there are some communities that still bend their knees on the Lord's Day and on the days of Pentecost, this Holy Council decrees that the common prayers (i.e., at Liturgy) are to be rendered to God standing.
(Canon 20 of the First Ecumenical Council, Nicaea, 325)
On the first day of the week we stand when we pray. The reason is that on the day of Resurrection, by standing at prayer, we remind ourselves of the grace we have received. (St. Basil the Great)
We remind ourselves of the grace we have received. Here is a concise explanation of an apparently minor ritual detail. The "grace" he is referring to is the grace and gift of baptism and chrismation. Through baptism we are joined to Christ's unique, "life-creating" death. Being put to death in His death, we at once begin to rise from the dead and are anointed with the new life of the resurrection in the Kingdom of God.
In his epistle to the Colossians, St. Paul says, "You have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is our life, appears, then you will also appear with him in glory." (Col. 3:3-4) In other words, the future life of heaven is already given here and now, by anticipation and foretaste. At the end, what is given now will be fulfilled in the resurrection of the body. St. Paul logically follows in his description of how people, who are "putting off the old nature and putting on the new" should 'look' and behave: They should not be immoral, impure, greedy, vulgar, for these have to do with the old, fallen life. Rather, they should be holy, compassionate, kind, patient, meek and, above all, filled with love. Love is the "new law," the "new commandment" of the new life, the "sign" and proof of the Resurrection. And they should sing songs of thanksgiving and joy in their hearts. Moral behavior here is not an end in itself, but functions to radiate the new life we have received at baptism, for Christianity is about resurrection and radical, inner, transformation and not about "values," or morality as such.
It is this internal experience of dying to the old and rising into the new that is at the very core of Orthodox Christianity, and that is behind the tradition of not kneeling on Sunday. That day is the day of resurrection. As the first day of the week, it is the first day of creation, when light appears. It is the day of the Spirit. And it is the day in which the end is described for it was on the Sunday that St. john had his vision of the end of the world, recorded in the Book of Revelation. It is the day of beginnings and ends. St. Basil calls Sunday the eighth day of the week, eight being the biblical number signifying eternity. Thus it is that day that the Church assembles to celebrate and proclaim herself as the very foretaste of the "new creation," the beginning of resurrection and the anticipation of the Coming of the Lord in power.
At Sunday Liturgy, all preparation expressed by kneeling and prostrating comes to fulfillment, and so we stand. The "fast" is fulfilled as it resolves itself into "feast." The Lord is coming! The Lord is yet to come! But there, where the Church assembles on the Day of the Lord, the Lord comes! And He is made known to her in the "breaking of the bread."
Of and in itself, kneeling at Sunday Liturgy is a minor ritual detail. One can kneel every Sunday, and still find God's Kingdom. And one can stand and still be condemned. But connected with the internal life and vision of the Church and with the very definition of who and what we are in Christ, the whole issue touches upon something far more serious and wonderful. The Holy Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council did not travel for weeks in the ancient world to assemble to discuss ritual details. When we, as Orthodox Christians, begin to truly understand why they turned their attention to such an issue as kneeling on Sunday, we will begin the journey of renewal, inner transformation, and re-empowerment. We have but to open our hearts and minds to the vision of Sunday Liturgy and do it and we can conquer the world. Ultimately, all parish "problems" and "crises" are rooted in internal spiritual life and Liturgy. And it is only on that basis that the issue of kneeling or not kneeling on Sunday has any relevance or meaning.
Father Michael Koblosh is Rector of Holy Ghost Church in Bridgeport, CT
St. Justin Martyr on Kneeling
A Response to Fr. Koblosh