Why Kneel Before God? - Purpose/Meaning of Kneeling Prayers of Pentecost
How many of you have a dog? Even if you do not, you may notice dogs doing something around certain people, especially their owners. They often fall down to the ground and roll over onto their back. You may think they are looking for a good tummy rub but actually they are expressing of submission or obedience. It is a concrete way of saying you’re in charge, I’m not.
Orthodox Christians have a particular way of expressing our submission and obedience to God. We do this in a small way by bowing our heads. Repeatedly throughout the various worship services we hear the priest or deacon say, “Let us bow our heads to the Lord.” This petition occurs right before a prayer in which we usually ask for something. We ask for things from God because we realize: 1) that we are powerless to obtain them and, 2) God has the power to grant/give them. Bowing our heads is physical way of expressing our words and emphasizing that we don’t necessarily deserve what we ask for. In other words, bowing our heads is an expression of humility before God. “God you are greater than me. I need you.”
In a greater way, we express our submission and obedience to God by bending our knees or kneeling. At every Divine Liturgy, during the Small Entrance of the Gospel, we sing “Come let us bow down to Christ and worship Him the Son of God…” It comes directly from Psalm 95:6-7 “Oh come let us worship and bow down; Let us kneel before the Lord our Maker. For He is our God, and we are the people of His pasture and the sheep of His Hand.” The words used are “proskyneisomen”or “worship”, and “prospesomen” which literally means “to fall down”. (proskynetarion = shrine; proskynetis = pilgrim)
At the end of the Divine Liturgy today, we will pray a portion of the Kneeling Vespers of Pentecost. The full service will be celebrated this afternoon in a Pan-Orthodox gathering at St. George Antiochian Orthodox Church in West St. Paul. Before each Kneeling Prayer, the priest or deacon will say, “On bended knee let us pray to the Lord.” What will we be asking for from God in these prayers?
The First Kneeling Prayer acknowledges that Jesus Christ Himself kneeled when praying to His Father in the Garden of Gethsamene (Luke 22:41). The prayer goes on and we ask God to 1) Hear us, 2) Accept us, 3) Forget our sins, 4) Purge our sinful thoughts, 5) Make us worthy to return to Him, 6) Visit us, 7) Free us from the Devil, 8) Make our lives secure in His holy/sacred laws, 9) Entrust us to a guardian angel, 10) Gather us into His Kingdom, 11) Grant us forgiveness, 12) Cleanse us by the Holy Spirit.
In the Second Kneeling Prayer we ask God to 1) Teach us how to pray and what to pray for, 2) Govern my life, 3) Make known the way I should walk, 4) Grant wisdom, 5) Renew my spirit, 6) Make my mind firm, 7) Not be fooled by worldly delights, 8) To desire enjoyment of future/heavenly treasures, 9) Grant mercy, 10) Sanctify/make us holy, 11) Extend a helping hand, 12) Accept our prayer.
The Third Kneeling Prayer, interestingly, is for our departed loved ones, in which we ask God to: 1) Give rest to their souls, 2) Place their spirits/names in the book of life, and 3) Forgive their sins. No doubt this final prayer is also for us as we anticipate the time when we will leave this earthly life and join our departed loved ones.
Now kneeling down in worship in church and saying the words are only two of three components in being submissive, obedient and humble before God. The third element is the actions of our life once we walk up into the social hall and out the doors back to our homes and daily life. God will have a difficult time hearing us if we never talk to Him in prayer each day. He cannot accept us if we do come to Him. He cannot forget our sins if we keep committing the same ones over and over again. God cannot purge our sinful thoughts if we keep holding on to them. He cannot make our lives secure if we keep ignoring is sacred and holy commandments. He cannot forgive us if we do not forgive others.
God can cleanse us if we bathe in the Sacrament of Holy Confession. He can teach us how to pray and what to pray for if we regularly practice prayer. He can grant wisdom, renew our spirit and make our mind firm if we read daily from His required textbook—the Holy Bible. God extends His helping hand to us all the time, but we must make an effort to stretch out our hand to Him.
The last fifty days we have celebrated with great joy the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. As we remember His victory over sin and death, let us kneel down with the Apostles and Disciples, to receive the Paraklete, the Comforter, God’s Holy Spirit. Let us remember that we too can be victorious over sin and spiritual death by joining ourselves to Christ, to become like Him. However, we can imitate Christ, we can have Him live in us, only by the power of the Holy Spirit. We can do nothing good without Christ and the Holy Spirit. Let us be inspired to wear holes in our pants and put callous on our knees as we fall down before God the Father. Let our hearts and minds also fall down in humility before the Holy Trinity and help us to be humble before our neighbor. Amen.