09 October 2017

Homily - 1 October 2017 - On the act of genuflecting

The Twenty-sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

Dear brothers and sisters,

As pundits and commentators across this nation debate the proper posture before sporting events as if it were a matter of the highest importance, Saint Paul reminds us today that, because of his “becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross, “every knee should bend, of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:8, 10-11). Is this not why we make a genuflection to the Blessed Sacrament each time we enter a church or chapel where the sanctuary candle gently burns?

It is not my intention today to comment upon the secular argument presently embroiling so many because whether one stands, kneels, or sits during the national anthem is not among the concerns of the Church. I do, however, wish to pose a related question: How different would this country be if Catholics cared as much about proper respect for the Blessed Sacrament as they seemingly do about a flag? To be sure, rage is certainly not a virtue, but when did you last hear of someone becoming upset enough to speak up about a lack of reverence toward the Eucharist? Romano Guardini once asked this question:

Is there anything more embarrassing than the manner in which some people, upon entering a church, after an anemic genuflection immediately flop into their seats? Isn’t this precisely how they take their places on a park bench or at the movies? Apparently they have no idea where they are…[1]

This does not seem to be a particular problem here at St. Augustine’s, but the fact that so many Catholics are apparently quite upset about a perceived disrespect of a flag but say nothing when the Blessed Sacrament is disrespected shows that something is awry in regards to our faith.

All this being said, there is something good to be found in the present debate, namely the recognition that “action is more than mere external happening.”[2] To put it another way, there is a recognition that

the nobler, the more difficult or important the task to be accomplished, the more completely I must give it my attention, earnestness, eagerness, and love, participating in it from the heart and with all the creative élan [energy] of the mind. That is composure: heart and mind concentrated on the here and now, not off on daydreams; it is being all here.[3]

If this is true of patriotic gestures, how much more so is it of what regards the divine? How much more so must we have proper composure before God?

Our word genuflect comes from two Latin words: genu, meaning knee, and flexio, meaning to bend. To genuflect, then, means to bend the knee and, as such, is a movement filled with much meaning.

In the first place, the act of genuflecting before God reminds us that “the body has a place within the divine worship of the Word made flesh.”[4] In the second place, it reminds us that “the bodily gesture itself is the bearer of the spiritual meaning, which is precisely that of worship. Without the worship, the bodily gesture would be meaningless, while the spiritual act must of its very nature, because of the psychosomatic unity of man, expresses itself in the bodily gesture.”[5] We must, then, have the proper composure when we genuflect if we are not to be like that son who said, “‘Yes, sir,’ but did not go” (Matthew 21:30).

Today, we tend to view the strength of a man as a being in his upper body, which is possibly why many, as we say, skip leg day. But this was not always the case with every people. For example, we often forget what the Hebrews knee. They “regarded the knees as a symbol of strength.”[6] If we think about this for just a moment, it makes great sense. If you take a stick and strike a man on his knees, what happens? He falls to the ground. His strength fails. This does not generally happen if you strike him on his upper body. “To bend the knee is, therefore, to bend our strength before the living God, an acknowledgment of the fact that all that we are we receive from him.”[7] It is a gesture by which we seek to place all that we are before God, to set ourselves aside in his service and for his honor.

To our modern ears, this might seem old-fashioned or an abnegation of our freedom and something demeaning to our own dignity. This is why Saint Paul tells us to “have in you the same attitude that is also in Christ Jesus” who “emptied himself” (Philippians 2:5, 7). Saint Augustine reminds us that Jesus “is said to have ‘emptied himself’ in no other way than by taking the form of a servant, not by losing the form of God.”[8] If the Son of God lost nothing of his dignity when he took our lowly flesh, neither will we lose any of our dignity when we bend the knee before him. When we kneel before God, we express in our body what should already have taken place in our hearts, a turning away “from the wickedness [we have] committed” to do “what is right and just” (Ezekiel 18:27). When we kneel before the humility of Jesus, we say to him, “The sins of my youth and my frailties remember not; in your kindness remember me, because of your goodness, O Lord” (Psalm 25:7). We should long to bend our knees before Jesus because he “guides the humble to justice, and teaches the humble his way” (Psalm 25:9).

If nothing else, the act of genuflecting should remind us that

we do not come to church to attend the service (which usually means as a spectator), but in order, along with the priest, to serve God. Everything we do – our entering, being present, our kneeling and sitting and standing, our reception of the sacred nourishment – should be divine service. This is so only when all we do overflows from the awareness of a collected heart and the mind’s attentiveness.[9]

Let us, then, strive to have the proper composure whenever we make a genuflection, lest our external action not mirror our internal desire. Let us recognize the Eucharistic Lord who is present with us humbly bow down in love.

Whenever we bend the knee before the Lord Jesus, we cannot fail to remember that

He has himself knelt down to wash our feet. And that gives to our adoration the quality of being unforced, adoration in joy and in hope, because we are bowing down before him who bowed down, because we bow down to enter into a love that does not make slaves of us but transforms us. So let us ask the Lord that he may grant us to understand this and to rejoice in it and that this understanding and this joy may spread out from this day far and wide into our country and our everyday life.[10]


[1] Romano Guardini, Meditations Before Mass (Manchester, New Hampshire: Sophia Institute Press, 1993), 29.
[2] Ibid., 27.
[3] Ibid., 27-28. Emphasis original.
[4] Joseph Ratzinger, The Spirit of the Liturgy, trans. John Saward (San Francisco, California: Ignatius Press, 2000), 176-177.
[5] Ibid., 190.
[6] Ibid., 191.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Saint Augustine of Hippo, Contra Faustum, 3.6. In Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, New Testament Vol. VIII: Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians. Thomas C. Oden, et al, eds. (Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter Varsity Press, 1999), 230.
[9] Romano Guardini, Meditations Before Mass, 31. Emphases original.
[10] Joseph Ratzinger, God is Near Us: The Eucharist, the Heart of Life, trans. Henry Taylor (San Francisco, California: Ignatius Press, 2003, 113.

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