Kneeling before the Lord our Maker - Lent Sermon Series 2 - The First Sunday of Lent

Older worshippers in the Church of England will perhaps recognize the title of this sermon, 'Kneeling before the Lord our Maker'. In the years when the service of Matins was the staple for Sunday morning church-goers, the opening hymn, as we would call it nowadays, was Psalm 95, often known simply as 'the Venite' from the first word of the Latin version of the psalm: Venite!--'O Come, let us sing to the Lord: let us heartily rejoice in the strength of our salvation'.Its first seven verses form one of the Psalter's greatest hymns of praise, and worshippers throughout the Church and through the Christian centuries have found it inspirational at the start of their worship.[1] In the sixth verse 'O come...' is repeated like a refrain; then the verse continues '...let us worship and fall down: and kneel before the Lord our Maker'.2

Those words were written in a less casual, less agnostic age. If there was indeed a God, and if God was, in fact, the creator of heaven and earth and of all things visible and invisible, then it was necessary to get one's bearings right when an individual or a community came before God in a spirit of intentional worship. As Evelyn Underhill once wrote of such an intentional God-fearer in her magisterial book, Worship, '[H]e is bound to take worship seriously, and ever more seriously with the deepening of his own spiritual sense'.[3] In psalm 95 the bearing of that 'spiritual sense' involves the outward posture of kneeling, or, more generally, going down on one's knee or knees, or, even more dramatically, prostrating one's whole body before God.[4]

An older piety that shaped me in my habits of worship, explained matters very simply: 'kneel to pray, sit to listen, stand to praise'. Kneel to pray. I wouldn't say that to kneel is the only way to prayer. I would say, though, that kneeling express outwardly the inner posture of prayer, the 'soul's intention',[5] with which all our prayer must begin and end.

What is that inner posture? It's the awareness of our littleness before God; it's a spirit of dependence.

To say that we're little and dependent is no criticism, no derogation from 'the glory of man', but rather a frank recognition of our place in the world of other people and in the vastness of the cosmos. From that point of view we are little and dependent. The outward posture of kneeling expresses that.

Yet a number of truths are at play in the attitude and expression of dependence marked by the kneeling worshipper.

There is, for instance, a recognition that our prayer, our resolve to pray, even our very capacity to pray, depends chiefly on God who both gives us that capacity and resolve, and elicits it from us.

Julian of Norwich once wrote in her Revelations of Divine Love that God is 'the ground' of our beseeching, or, as we could render her phrase, 'the foundation' of our praying.[6] That well-crafted phrase helps us see a little more what it means to kneel before the Lord our Maker. As the 'ground' of our beseeching God is the base, or basis, upon which we make any prayer at all. To lower our knees to the physical ground, or the floor that rests upon it, is to put ourselves intentionally in contact with that which supports and makes possible not just prayer but our entire existence as creatures--the earth, the fundamental floor upon which the drama of life is performed, and upon which all our buildings, sacred or otherwise, stand. And that physical ground reminds us that God is the ground upon which the 'life that really is life', life in Christ, is lived. So to kneel is to assume the most basic and necessary point of view, literally and metaphorically, by which we understand our place in the world, and our place before God.

In addition, to go onto one's knees declares something about the interior posture of the praying person. The ground, upon which we kneel, is in Latin humus, the root of our word humility. To put ourselves in touch with the ground is to identify with the receptive earth, for the earth surrenders herself to, well, everything. The earth, the ground, is self-surrender and receptivity.[7] That outer, bodily posture, then, bespeaks the foundational posture of our inner world. It's of a piece with Jesus' first Beatitude (as one translation puts it): 'How blest are those who know their need of God, the kingdom of Heaven is theirs' (Matthew 5.3).[8]

I was struck years ago reading a memoir of St John Paul II. He related how, when he was a boy, and sometime after his mother's death, he went to his parents' bedroom door in the middle of the night, but stopped as he peered into the room. He saw his widower father kneeling in prayer at the side of the empty bed. Blest indeed are those who know their need of God, the ground of our beseeching. A sharp sense of need and dependence drives us to our knees.

Jesus knelt. In that consummate act of humility he surely knelt down to wash the feet of his disciples. A few hours later he knelt again on the dewy ground the garden of Gethsemane, when, with the greatest decision of his life before him, he knew most sharply his need of God (John 13.3-11; Luke 22.39-46).

Years later, when he pondered the Lord's humility, his self-surrender unto death for us, St Paul encouraged believers to follow Jesus' example, insisting that 'at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth, and under the earth'--in that imitation of the body a sign that we have the same mind in us that was in Christ Jesus (Philippians 2.5-11).

And although it finds little place in our comfort-seeking, egalitarian age when chairs don't have kneelers, and when even party leaders won't bow before the Queen, public worship in sacred spaces like this remains still a time and a place to kneel. Where and when better to declare with our bodies what our faith teaches us about God, about ourselves, and about our world?

This is how one Christian wrote about the act of kneeling, as he tried to understand what it 'says'[9]:

                  He is the great God, who is today and yesterday,

                  whose years are hundreds and thousands, who

                  fills the place where we are, the city, the wide

                  world, the measureless space of the starry sky,

                  in whose eyes the universe is less than a particle

                  of dust, all-holy, all-pure, all-righteous, infinitely

                  high. He is so great, I am small, so small

                  that beside him I seem hardly to exist, so

                  wanting am I in worth and substance. To

                  appear less presumptuous, to be as little

                  and low as we feel, we sink to our knees

                  and thus sacrifice half our height; and to

                  satisfy our hearts still further we bow down

                  our heads, and our diminished stature speaks

                  to God and says, Thou art the great God; I am

                  nothing.[10]

Lady Julian once compared all that is to a mere hazelnut; and yet, she insisted, 'God loves it'.[11] How much smaller still is each of us. Yet the lower we kneel, the further we bend, the smaller we make ourselves as we 'come into his presence with thanksgiving',[12] the higher should rise our assurance that God loves us too.

Amen.

~

Preached by the Revd Dr Charles Miller, Team Rector

St Helen's Church, Abingdon-on-Thames

The First Sunday of Lent, March 5th 2017


[1] Psalm 95, whole or in part, has been used from ancient times in Christian East and West at the start of daily offices. See Evan Daniel, The Prayer Book, Its History, Language and Contents, 23rd ed. (London: Wells, Gardner, Darton & Co., 1913), pp. 107-8.

[2] The English version of verse 6 translates the Latin 'ploremus ante Deum qui fecit nos', with the sense 'cry aloud'. There is a connotation of lament. But that part of the verse is conditioned by the preceding verb 'procidere', that is, to fall down (-cidere; from cadere) before (pro-).

[3] Worship, 2nd edition (New York: Harper Bros., 1937),  p. 5.

[4] The sacred ministers traditionally prostrate that is, lie face down on the ground, at the start of the Good Friday liturgy.

[5] R Guardini, Sacred Signs, p. 20.

[6] Revelations of Divine Love, trans. Clifton Wolters (London: Penguin, 1966), p. 124 (ch. 41).

[7] Anthony Bloom and Georges Lefebvre, Courage to Pray ( New York: Paulist Press, 1973), p. 12.

[8] The New English Bible.

[9] On significant action as a kind of speech, see A. M. Allchin, The World is A Wedding (London: Darton, Lomgman & Todd, 1978), p. 34.

[10] Guardini, Sacred Signs, p. 20.

[11] Revelations, ch. 5 (p. 68).

[12] The translation in Common Praise: Daily Prayer, 'At the Dawning of the Day'.