This prayer posture developed later in history than you might have thought
Is it the right knee, or the left knee?
During Lent, most of us turn to a few more devotional practices. Another rosary or two. Stations of the Cross, reconciliation services, eucharistic adoration and Benediction.
All these entail certain prayer gestures and postures, including kneeling and genuflection. Yet, surprisingly, while the two have a similar history — only one has been around since the time of the apostles.
Kneeling, as an aspect of prayer, dates back thousands of years into the Jewish roots of our faith. However, kneeling was also a sign of subjugation offered to conquerors, and the posture of supplication. So, in the Bible, we see people kneeling before God with requests, as when Solomon prayed before God’s altar (1 Kgs 8:22).
Not in the East
Genuflection, on the other hand, dates back only about 1,000 years and was not made obligatory in the church until the late 15th century, according to “The Catholic Encyclopedia.” Also, genuflection as a prayer posture only exists in the Western church. It is not practiced by either Eastern rite Catholics or members of Orthodox churches. For those churches, the profound bow or the prostration are used — as they were in the early church — as the deepest signs of reverence for God, and only God.
At first, genuflections had nothing to do with honoring God. They were directed at the bishop, as a sign of respect. To this day, one may genuflect to a bishop or other church prelate — but always on the left knee.
The custom of genuflecting — as a sign of respect and even of service — arose out of the honor given to medieval kings. Remember how knights go down on one knee (the left) as they are knighted? And even today, when the folded flag of a fallen veteran is offered to the family — the presenting officer will go down on his left knee, if the recipient is seated.
When I attended Catholic school, before the changes of Vatican II, I remember that we had to genuflect — on the left knee — whenever the priest came into or left our classroom.
Genuflecting on the right knee, however, was reserved for when we went to church. This is because genuflecting on the right knee is a sign of worship and is reserved for God alone.
This right knee/left knee protocol may explain why there is some confusion about when to genuflect at all when in church. We have all seen people who come into church and genuflect to the altar. Force of habit maybe because, at one time, the tabernacle was always present on the altar or behind it.
Look for the light
Today, this is not always the case, since a tabernacle can be located in different places. Since bowing is the proper sign of reverence to the altar (when no tabernacle is near it) while genuflection (on the right knee) is reserved for God, we only genuflect to the body of Christ reserved in the tabernacle. (If in doubt, just look for the sanctuary light, which is kept burning by the tabernacle whenever the sacred species is present.)
Now, there are times when people genuflect on both knees. This is something we were also taught to do, at one time, whenever the sacred host was exposed. So you might still see this done during eucharistic adoration. However, in 1973, the Sacred Congregation for Divine Worship changed the rule, saying that the right knee genuflection was to be used, whether the sacrament was reserved or exposed.
The same right knee genuflection is used for relics of the true Cross and on Good Friday, during and after the Adoration of the Cross.
Kneeling and penance
Kneeling (since the church’s earliest times) and genuflection (later) have often been associated with penance. For a time, those doing penance were required to kneel while the rest of the congregation stood.
“The Catholic Encyclopedia” notes that St. Augustine, St. Basil and others taught that, since kneeling was associated with punishment, standing — as an attitude of joy, praise and thanksgiving — was more appropriate for Sunday Mass. In fact, for a time, kneeling on Sunday and during Easter season was forbidden during the celebration of Sunday Mass.
Today, of course, kneeling as a sign of worship, is part of each Mass.
As Bishop Thomas Olmsted of Phoenix, noted in an article on kneeling, “Our body plays an important role in our communication with the Lord. Far from being trivial, what we do with our knees, whether we sit or stand, whether we genuflect or kneel, greatly impacts on our inner attitude before the Lord. It can stir our devotion or diminish it. If done sloppily or ignored, it hinders our openness to God’s grace. But if done out of love, it assists us in humbly seeking God’s mercy and in entering into loving communion with the Lord.”
Lent is a time when we all seek God’s mercy and long to draw closer to him in love. Genuflection helps remind us of that desire and inclines us toward worship and prayer.
Sources: Catholic Encyclopedia”; “Knees to Love Christ” in “Adoremus” Bulletin; U.S. bishops’ Committee on the Divine Worship; Orthodox Christian Information Center at orthodocinfo.com; fisheaters.org; “Eucharistiae Sacramentum” by the Sacred Congregation of Divine Worship