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What’s Behind Cardinal

Sarah’s Ad
Orientem Call?

This article originally appeared in the June 12-25, 2016 issue of

the National Catholic Register.
Cardinal Robert Sarah, Prefect of the Congregation for Divine
Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, gave a recent
interview to the French Catholic magazine Famille Chretienne. For
many commentators and readers, the subject of the interview was
his encouragement (again) for priest and people to face east, toward
the orient—ad orientem in Latin—at certain parts of the Mass.

Cardinal Robert Sarah, Prefect of the

Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, is “profoundly
convinced that
our bodies must participate in this conversion to God. The best way is certainly to celebrate—
priests and faithful—turned together in the same
direction: Toward the Lord who comes.”

Whatever opinion you may have on the direction of liturgical

prayer, this repeated call from Pope Francis’ Prefect is undeniably
attention grabbing. But there’s a more central message to the
interview that risks being overshadowed in light of the ad
orientemdiscussion: our cooperation in the work of God.
To Famille Chretienne’s credit, its headline put it perfectly: “How to
put God Back at the Center of the Liturgy.” Here, ultimately, lies the
foundation and context of Cardinal Sarah’s remarks and the
Church’s longstanding practice of ad orientemliturgical prayer.
The liturgy is about God. Vatican II’s Constitution on the Sacred
Liturgy, to which the Cardinal makes constant reference in the
interview, calls it “an exercise of the priestly office of Jesus Christ”
(n.7). Liturgically speaking, Jesus is the principal actor, the “prime
minister.” The work done in any liturgical celebration (the
Greek ergon, meaning “work,” is the root of “liturgy”) is his; we
participants are his co-workers, co-operators, and colaborers
But Jesus is both fully God and man. Does it not stand to reason
that his work is also divine and human? Indeed, it is. In his
interview, Cardinal Sarah voices concern that the human element of
the liturgy may eclipse the divine dimension.
An imbalanced understanding between the divinity and humanity of
Christ is not new. Fifth century Nestorians emphasized the
humanity of Jesus to the detriment of his divinity, while at the same
time Monophysites championed the divinity of Christ such that he
lost his humanity.
The spirit of Nestorius and of the Monophysites still lives today. For
his part, Cardinal Sarah sees today’s liturgy as particularly
susceptible to the Nestorian influence of the mundane, rendering
celebrations that are all too human: “The liturgy is the door to our
union with God. If the Eucharistic celebrations are transformed into
human self-celebrations, the peril is immense, because God
disappears. One must begin by replacing God at the center of the
liturgy. If man is at the center, the Church becomes a purely human
society, a simple non-profit, like Pope Francis has said. If, on the
contrary, God is at the heart of the liturgy, then the Church recovers
its vigor and sap!” Similarly, he critiques in the interview (as he has
done elsewhere) liturgies as entertainment, friendly meals, or
fraternal moments.
The liturgy is the great reordering principle—of the cosmos, of
history, and of us. Its content is the sacrificial work of Christ the
Priest who factually and definitively returns—literally, re-turns—all
things to the Father. This second Adam’s “Not my will, but thine be
done” from the tree reverses the “Not thy will, but mine be done” of
the first Adam at that first tree. He is the pontifex maximus—the
“greatest bridge builder”—between exit (exitus) and return
(reditus), bridging the gap between heaven and earth. To
understand anything besides this fact is to miss the heart of the
And here we come to a second main point of Cardinal Sarah’s
interview. This great act of divine and human turning, of metanoia,
of conversion, is so important because we the faithful are called to
participate in it. Active participation, that “aim to be considered
before all else” in the restoration and promotion of the liturgy
(Sacrosanctum Concilium 14), is participation in the reorienting
action of Christ. “The orientation of the assembly toward the Lord”
says Cardinal Sarah, “is a simple and concrete means to encourage a
true participation for all at the liturgy. …[I]t is to allow Christ to
take us and associate us with his sacrifice…. The Eucharist makes us
enter in the prayer of Jesus and in his sacrifice, because he alone
knows how to adore in spirit and in truth.”
Cardinal Ratzinger explained the essence of active participation
in The Spirit of the Liturgy: “[I]f we want to discover the kind of
doing that active participation involves, we need, first of all, to
determine what this central actio is in which all the members of the
community are supposed to participate” (Joseph Ratzinger, The
Spirit of the Liturgy (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2001), 171). The
action, as discussed above, is Christ’s divine and human work of
reorientation, of moving from self-centeredness to God-
centeredness. The people in the pews give themselves, united to
Christ the Head, as offerings to the Father precisely so that they,
too, may experience the fruit of Christ’s self-offering: resurrection
and glorification.
Now we can return (so to speak) to where we started and to what,
for many, is the most noteworthy takeaway of the Cardinal’s
interview. If the liturgy’s real substance is Jesus’ definitive return to
the Father, and if the baptized are called (“commanded” might be
the better word here) to join this saving work, then how might this
internal and unseen reality be expressed and fostered externally?
“To convert,” says Cardinal Sarah, that is, “to turn towards God”
both spiritually and physically.
He is invoking in this brief but powerful assertion what many 20th
century liturgical movement figures identified as the “sacramental
principle.” The sacramental principle is, first of all, a very human
principle. Composites of soul and body, men and women express
and encounter internal realities via external and bodily signs.
Happiness is signified by a smile; peace symbolized by a handshake;
love conveyed by roses; forgiveness expressed by the words “I’m
sorry.” (Indeed, words are so important that I could never make
known my thoughts on Cardinal Sarah’s interview, nor could you
ever know them, without my first signifying them in this text.) If
they lack outward signs, unseen realities are almost un-real: the
sensible expression actualizes (makes actual) insensible things.
Sacraments are a type of “efficacious sign” and, like signs, they
express and foster unseen truths. How, for example, do the unseen
realities of the Sacrament of Baptism—death to the old self, rebirth
to a new life, and cleansing from sin’s impurity (among others)—
become real? Through outward signs of water being poured as the
Trinity is being invoked. When these outward signs are missing
(e.g., baptism using ice or naming the Trinity as “Creator,
Redeemer, and Sanctifier”), so is the inward reality these signs
express missing.
When this principle is applied to interpreting Cardinal Sarah’s
interview, we understand that our internal conversion is, in part,
effected by our bodily conversion: “I am profoundly convinced that
our bodies must participate in this conversion. The best way is
certainly to celebrate — priests and faithful — turned together in the
same direction: Toward the Lord who comes…. It’s to turn together
toward the apse, which symbolizes the East, where the Cross of the
risen Lord is enthroned. By this manner of celebrating, we
experience, even in our bodies, the primacy of God and of
adoration. We understand that the liturgy is first our participation
at the perfect sacrifice of the Cross.” Specifically, “I [have] proposed
that the priests and the faithful turn toward the East at least during
the Penitential Rite, during the singing of the Gloria, during the
Propers and during the Eucharistic Prayer.”
The liturgy’s reality is the work of a divine person who, in his
human and divine natures, has turned creation back to God. His
action is carried on today in his Church and is effected in the most
powerful way in the liturgy. Liturgical participants, both clergy and
lay, signify this return through outward and bodily signs.
Is the ad orientem posture at particular points in liturgical prayer a
suitable sign for these spiritual realities?
A particular direction for liturgical prayer will not, in itself, signal
greater or lesser participation. Participants at an ad
orientemcelebration can still be passive spectators, while those at
celebrations versus populum can become truly engaged. Still, nearly
2000 years of practice, most of it coming long before Cardinal
Sarah’s interview, indicates that a common direction is theologically
sound, liturgically “right and just,” and pastorally effective.
For many, ad orientem signals a return to the days prior to Vatican
II, good or bad, real or imagined; or a particular political ideology of
the Church; or to a proper hermeneutic of reform; or a desired
influence between old and new forms; or a rejection of the Council;
or a type of Mediator Dei antiquarianism. These sentiments should
not be quickly dismissed, for there may be elements of truth in each.
Nevertheless, none of them reaches the heart of the matter.
If ad orientem posture, properly understood and prudently
implemented, can facilitate our conversion and put God at the
center of our lives, then why not return to its use? Such liturgical
considerations lie at the heart of Cardinal Sarah’s argument.

Praying Ad Orientem

Editor’s note: Bishop Serratelli’s article initially appeared in the

December 1 edition of The Beacon, newspaper of the Diocese of
Paterson, and is reprinted here with his kind permission.
The Kaaba of Mecca is Islam’s most holy shrine. It is said to have
been built by Abraham and his son Ishmael. It is considered “the
House of Allah.” Mosques throughout the world are built with a wall
niche, known as mihrab, pointing toward this shrine to indicate the
direction that Muslims should face when at prayer. By adopting a
common direction for their prayers, devout Muslims express their
unity as followers of Mohammed as worshippers of the one God.
Jews throughout the world also face a common direction when at
prayer. According to the Talmud, Jews outside of Israel pray in the
direction of Israel. Jews in Israel pray in the direction of Jerusalem.
Jews in Jerusalem turn toward the Temple Mount. And, if they are
on the Temple Mount, then they are to pray in the direction of
where the Holy of Holies once stood.
In 70 A. D., the Romans destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem, not
leaving one stone upon another. Yet, pious Jews continue to face the
direction of Jerusalem and the Holy of Holies when at prayer. This
sacred direction reminds them that they are lifting up their voice in
prayer to God, the all-Holy One, who had given them the Promised
Land as an inheritance and had chosen to dwell in the Holy of
Holies in the Temple in Jerusalem.
Now that the Temple is no more, the synagogue has become the
place of common prayer for all Jews. However, the design of some
synagogues does not position the congregation to face eastward
toward Jerusalem. In these instances, the faithful pray in the
synagogue facing the Ark that contains the Torah.
By facing the Torah, that is, God’s self-revelation in Sacred
Scripture, the congregants are at least spiritually turned to God. By
maintaining a common spiritual direction to their prayer, Jews
around the world express not only the unity of their faith, but also
their longing for all the scattered of God’s people to return to
Jerusalem and to a rebuilt Temple in the anxious anticipation for
the coming of the Messiah.
From the earliest days of the Church, Christians also faced east
when at prayer. In fact, Tertullian (160-220 AD) actually had to
defend Christians against the pagans who accused them of facing
east to worship the sun. Many Church Fathers, such as St. Clement
of Alexandria, St. Basil, and St. Augustine, also speak of the practice
of facing east. In the 3rd century, the Didascalia, a treatise on
church order from northern Syria, set down the rule of facing east
during the Eucharist. It said, “Let the place of the priests be
separated in a part of the house that faces east. In the midst of them
is placed the bishop’s chair, and with him let the priests be seated.
Likewise, and in another section let the laity be seated facing east”
(Didascalia, Chapter 12).
Before Christianity was legal in the Roman Empire, Christians
worshipped in their homes. One of the oldest known house
churches has been discovered on the far eastern edge of the Roman
Empire, in present day Syria, at Dura-Europos. This house church
dates from 233 A.D. Archaeologists have uncovered an assembly
room in the house where as many as 60 people would gather for
prayer. The room was designed with an altar against the east wall.
In this way, the priest and all the faithful would together be facing
east when celebrating the Eucharist.
Writing in the 7th century, St. John of Damascus gives three
explanations for the eastward stance of Christians at prayer. First,
Christ is “the Sun of Righteousness” (Mal 4:2) and “the Dayspring
from on high” (Lk 1:78). Facing the light dawning from the east,
Christians affirm their faith in Christ as the Light of the world.
Second, God planted the Garden of Eden in the east (cf. Gn 2:8).
But, when our first parents sinned, they were exiled from the garden
and moved westward. Facing east, therefore, reminds Christians of
their need to long for and strive for the paradise that God intended
for them. And, third, when speaking of his Second Coming at the
end of history, Jesus said, “For just as lightning comes from the east
and is seen as far as the west, so will the coming of the Son of Man
be” (Mt. 24:27). Thus, facing the east at prayer visibly expresses the
hope for the coming of Jesus. (cf. St. John Damascene, An
Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, Book IV, Chapter 12).
Holding fast to this ancient tradition of facing eastward at prayer,
the12th century builders of the first St. Stephen’s Cathedral in
Vienna oriented this church to be in line with sunrise on the feast of
St. Stephen. However, even from the early centuries, not all
churches adhered to this tradition. In fact, the Basilicas of St. John
Lateran and St. Lorenzo in Rome and St. Peter’s in the Vatican were
built facing westward. So also the important Basilica of the
Resurrection in Jerusalem. Thus, when a bishop or priest celebrates
the Eucharist in these churches, the people and priest face each
other. Nonetheless, the celebrant himself still remains facing the
east. By his position, the celebrant stands before the faithful as a
reminder to focus, not on him, but on Christ, whose coming they
Today, our churches do not conform to one standard architectural
design. Some are shaped like Rome’s ancient basilicas. Some
resemble a Latin cross; others, a Greek cross. And, many of the
more recently constructed churches favor the form of an
amphitheater. A quick overview of how the Eucharist has been
celebrated from the birth of Christianity shows us that, over and
above the physical design of any church, the spiritual orientation of
the faithful at prayer is most important.
In his book, The Spirit of the Liturgy, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI
wrote, “The common turning toward the east was not ‘a celebration
toward the wall,’…it did not mean that the priest ‘had his back to the
people’…. For just as the congregation in the synagogue looked
together toward Jerusalem, so in the Christian liturgy the
congregation looked together ‘toward the Lord’…. They did not close
themselves into a circle; they did not gaze at one another; but as the
pilgrim People of God they set off for the Oriens, for the Christ who
comes to meet us” (The Spirit of the Liturgy, p. 151).
Today, the Eucharist is almost universally celebrated by a priest
facing the people. This manner of celebration was introduced in
order to respond to the Second Vatican Council’s call for “full,
conscious and active participation of the laity” (Sacrosanctum
Concilium 12). To achieve this, as Benedict XVI insightfully reminds
us, “Every age must discover and express the essence of the liturgy
anew. The point is to discover this essence amid all the changing
appearances” (The Spirit of the Liturgy, p. 81). This means that, in
every liturgy, we need to be aware of what is taking place. We need
to be fully conscious that we are being made partakers in the
Paschal Mystery, sharing in the very Death and Resurrection of
Whether celebrated with priest and people facing each other or with
priest and people together facing the same direction, every
Eucharist is Christ coming to meet us, gracing us with a share in his
own divine life. Every Eucharist is a proleptic sharing in the feast of
heaven. Therefore, in every celebration of the Eucharist, both priest
and faithful should focus their attention not on each other, but on
the Lord.
In celebration of the ancient Coptic Rite of Egypt, a deacon exhorts
the faithful with the words “Look towards the East!” His age-old
exhortation, found also in Greek and Ethiopian liturgies, stands as a
strong reminder of the spiritual direction of our prayer. As
Christians, we join all our prayers to those of Christ. We turn our
eyes and our hearts ad orientem, to Christ, the Dayspring who
comes from the east to meet us in the Eucharist and will come at the
end of our earthly pilgrimage to gather us together into the home of
our Father, the New and Eternal Jerusalem.

Bishop Arthur Serratelli has served as bishop of the Diocese of

Paterson, New Jersey, since 2004. In November he concluded his
term as Chairman of the US Bishops’ Committee on Divine
Worship. In October 2016 he was appointed by Pope Francis as a
member of the Holy See’s Congregation for Divine Worship and
the Discipline of the Sacraments. At present, he is the Chairman of
the International Committee on English in the Liturgy (ICEL). He
is a member of the Vatican’s Vox Clara Commission.

Ad Orientem: Thoughts on debating

the non-essential
By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Jul 15, 2016

When it comes to discussions of the liturgy, some readers find my viewpoint

appalling, while others regard it as a breath of fresh air. The reason is fairly simple: I
have an extremely “intellectual” piety, which means I find nearly every liturgical form
and setting to be a distraction rather than an aid to worship. For me the best
liturgical form and setting for the Mass is the simplest. I have no tendency to dress
the Mass up with human ornamentation, attempting to make it more beautiful than
it already is in itself. I am certainly annoyed by studied indifference or cheap
frivolity, but I am also left cold by elaborate ceremony (both in the Mass and

My favorite Mass has always been the unadorned daily “low” Mass of the Ordinary
Form of the Roman Rite, said in my own language. As far as suiting my own piety
goes, nothing else comes close. I don’t go to Mass to be moved emotionally. This
applies equally to elaborate musical settings, particular liturgical “styles”, and efforts
to make the community feel good about itself. It is true that I revere Palestrina and
generally deplore “Glory and Praise”, but—just between you and me—I find that
both distract me from the essence of the Mass.

What is the value of all this embarrassing self-disclosure? Simply this: It is important
to reflect on how our own personalities, tastes, and piety affect our judgment of
liturgy. If we recognize that we each respond to God on somewhat different
wavelengths—or, to put it differently, that we are all inherently biased in different
ways—we can escape false certainties about what is “the right way” to do things.
Liturgical discussion can be less passionate, and far more fruitful.

In any case, before anyone decides to burn me at the stake, I should point out that,
whatever else might be said about my own liturgical preferences, my sensibilities at
least put me within the tradition of that “noble simplicity” which is supposed to be
the chief characteristic of the Roman Rite. Detracting from the Rite’s nobility by
banal translations or any sort of frivolity is out. But so is detracting from the
Rite’s simplicity by convoluted phraseology, excessive repetition, or elaborate
cultural ornamentation.

The Mass, of course, must have a form; if it were formless it could not be the Mass
(or anything else). That form, obviously, ought not only to effect but to
communicate the fundamental purpose of the Mass. It should draw those present to
unite themselves to the sacred action—the making present of the Word in Scripture;
of the Word made flesh in obedient sacrifice to the Father for the remission of sin;
and of the Word physically ingested so that we may be assimilated to Christ,
extending and building the Mystical Body of Christ—that is, the Church, the Kingdom
of God. Moreover, the particular form which is used to make all this present and
active must be established by Christ’s own authority in the Church He established.
The Church is the sole custodian of these sacred mysteries.

This means that the first requirement for authentic participation in the Church’s
liturgy is the same sort of obedience to the Church that Our Lord offered to His
Father in effecting our salvation. No matter how strongly we may feel about this or
that manner of “celebrating” the Mass, the single most important factor in the
attitude we bring to Mass is obedience to the Church. This applies equally to
bishops, priests, deacons, religious, and laity, according to the example of Christ:
“Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered” (Heb 5:8),
and “being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto
death, even death on a cross” (Phil 2:8).

Cautionary Principles

In this context, an assessment of the best liturgical forms and settings is inescapably
hampered by two problems which can never be reduced to a single solution. The
first problem is that the Mass is an exceedingly rich mystery. Indeed, it is a grand
mystery which contains many mysteries. God encompasses this richness in His own
fullness, but we humans grasp mystery from our poverty, by focusing on one aspect
at a time, only gradually coming to a balanced apprehension of something
approaching the whole.

This problem results in a key liturgical principle: (1) It is impossible to devise a

liturgical form which conveys the full richness of the sacred mysteries; it is
inescapable that each form and setting will highlight some realities and, in that very
process, obscure others.
The second problem is that each human personality tends to see and respond
positively to some goods more than others, and to react differently to proposed
goods that may be only imperfectly understood, or indeed not understood at all. This
problem results in a second liturgical principle: (2) No single liturgical form or setting
is best for everyone, nor best for anyone all the time.

An argument can be made (I know, because I have made it) that, assuming we are
properly disposed, a liturgy that we find ugly or annoying—a liturgy which causes us
to suffer—will do us more spiritual good than one which satisfies our own particular
sensibilities, no matter how “right” we believe those sensibilities to be. There is not
one of us who is worthy of the Mass, no matter how badly it is celebrated. The
greatest benefit lies in recognizing our own poverty in the face of the Divine
mystery, instead of permitting the manner of celebration to distract and anger us—
or permitting our souls to become attached to the splendor of the celebration more
than to its essential action.

Ad Orientem

With this in mind, let us consider the controversy stirred by Cardinal Robert Sarah’s
recommendation, as Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship, that priests
celebrate Mass ad orientem (literally, “to the East”). Phil Lawler, who clearly feels
more strongly about this than I do, has provided excellent commentary and follow-
up on the reaction Cardinal Sarah has provoked. Judging by this reaction, you would
think the Cardinal’s suggestion is somehow unspeakably novel and seriously
dangerous! The resistance may have a sinister element, of course; it may be rooted
in the secularism which has so sadly warped Catholic judgment in our day. At the
same time, it seems only fair to recall that we are speaking here of an option that
already exists but is almost never used. Whatever the reasons for this neglect when
so many other options are used regularly, we must acknowledge that the ad
orientem posture is not a prioriity for huge numbers of Catholic bishops and priests.

Having said this, there are still three main reasons for preferring this orientation (as
opposed to versus populum, “facing the people”):

 First, in the context of early Mediterranean and European Catholicism, it

became traditional to orient churches on an east-west axis, so that when the
priest said Mass he and the congregation could face toward Jerusalem, the
geographical location of our salvation in the passion, death and Resurrection
of Christ.
 Second, and at least partly because the sun may be taken as a powerful
symbol of the Divine light, this eastward orientation became associated with
looking toward the coming of the Redeemer—looking toward the coming
of Christ in glory. But here the direction is specified in Our Lord’s
own words: “For as the lightning comes from the east and shines as far as
the west, so will be the coming of the Son of man” (Mt 24:27).
 Third, the “ad orientem” directionality typically means that the priest and
people will face the same direction, such that the emphasis in the liturgical
form is on the priest’s offering of the Eucharistic sacrifice in persona Christi to
the Father.

This third point is rather obviously at the very center of the argument today. After
all, not all Catholic churches are oriented on the East-West axis and, obviously, there
are many places in the Catholic world now where facing east orients us toward
Jerusalem only the long way around, or where we must face some other direction
(such as north or south) to look toward Jerusalem at all. (You may smile, but I
recently received a message from a Catholic in Malaysia who asked what the value
was of facing east there, since nobody really wanted to look toward Korea or Japan.)
For the first two points then, we are left primarily with a symbolic rather than a
literal meaning—although I hasten to add that there is nothing wrong with that.

As many commentators have noted (most prominently Joseph Ratzinger before he

became pope), when the priest stands at the head of the people, all facing
(symbolically) toward Christ, it reduces the emphasis on the Eucharistic dimension of
community formation and increases the emphasis on the Eucharistic dimension of
propitiation and sacrifice to the Father. It seems very reasonable, then, that if the
Church finds this shift in emphasis will create a more accurate and more balanced
appreciation of the sacred mysteries, then increasing the use of the ad
orientem posture might play a very salutary role in our time.

The Other Side

But other legitimate thoughts are quite possible. The Last Supper is the pre-eminent
model for the Mass, and (presumably) was not orchestrated in this way. The Mass is
also a sacred meal in which we eat Christ’s Body and drink His blood, a veritable
foretaste of the heavenly banquet. The positive theological elements which received
new emphasis with the introduction of the versus populum posture in 1968 include
the universal priesthood, the universal call to holiness, the social dimensions of
Eucharistic transformation, and an awareness of baptism as an initiation into the full
Eucharistic life of the Church.

To take just one example, lay people fifty years ago would often say that they had
“heard” Mass. The linguistic implication is that the Mass was something that priests
alone did, and it was the privilege of the laity to listen in as they did it. I would not
want to press the implication too far, but it is worth noting that even those with the
greatest appreciation for Holy Orders do not use this language today. The point is
that, with versus populum, we are not dealing with something that lacks its own
intrinsic Catholic value.

Yet the strongest argument for the ad orientem posture remains. Although he did
nothing about this as pope, Joseph Ratzinger suggested just what we have been
discussing. He thought it likely that the ad orientem posture could refocus our
attention on the sacred character—the very real “otherness”—of the Mass, and so
might serve as a corrective to congregational narcissism. To accept this argument, of
course, one must accept that there is an excessive celebration of the community in
Catholic worship today, with too little emphasis on the need to transcend
merely human community; and that the versus populum orientation contributes
significantly to this problem.

My own dilemma is that I can accept the first point without accepting the second. I
agree that an excessive, non-repentant and often frivolous celebration of the
community is far too common today. But I am not so sure that this has been in any
significant sense caused by the orientation of the priest. Self-celebration,
shallowness, secularism, and frivolity vary greatly from place to place, even when
the orientation of the priest does not change. One may well ask whether it was
really the versus populum posture which led to our contemporary diminution of the
sense of the sacred at Mass.

Unanswered (Unanswerable?) Questions

Many have suggested that priests tend to become “personalities” who occupy center
stage when they face the people, eliminating our focus on the sacred mysteries
themselves. But is this really true? Related questions: Has there never been a kind
of showy, regal pomposity in those who have celebrated Mass “facing East”, both
before 1968 and in some quarters today? Have there been only a very few instances
of priests facing East who mumble through their prayers with little care and less
understanding? Has no priest facing East ever rushed through Mass, eschewing both
reverence and contact with his people? Have the faithful always, or even typically,
joined themselves to the central realities of the Mass whenever the ad
orientem posture was the norm?

And, perhaps more important: Have we not seen many fine priests in more recent
years who are perfectly capable of celebrating Mass facing the people with a
becoming care and dignity, keeping their focus and that of the congregation clearly
on Christ throughout?

It may be that versus populum was not so much a cause as one more opportunity
for abuse by those who, for reasons that we have discussed many times before, had
already fallen into a narcissistic secularism, devoid of that reverence, obedience and
joy which is proper to the celebration of all the sacraments of the Church. At some
point in all such historical discussions, we must beware of the common fallacy post
hoc ergo propter hoc. The orientation question may be critical. Or it may not.

Finally, we must beware of all the personal, cultural and theological variables: What
impact will a reversal of orientation have on people today? Will it be just another
change that impresses on them the Church’s lack of stability? If it becomes another
frequently used option (not a norm), will this enhance or undermine our sense of
liturgical timelessness? One of the problems with the liturgical changes following the
Second Vatican Council (I mean apart from failing to follow the Council’s directives,
poor implementation and widespread disobedience) was the introduction of rapid
and sweeping changes which seemed to put everything up for grabs. This was a
very bad way to communicate the eternal! How do we make improvements without
falling into the same trap?

At the risk of even greater self-disclosure, I will confess that I am uncomfortable

with liturgical surprises (read “options”). Like a child (every child is a traditionalist
when it comes to family celebrations), I want tomorrow’s Mass to be said “right”—
meaning the same way it was said yesterday. As a case in point, I do not like
flipping between two versions of the Creed (the Nicene and the Apostles’).
Predictability is, for me, a significant liturgical virtue. Do options foster novelty?

More questions: If most people today have never experienced ad orientem before
(and they haven’t), will it seem strange, off-putting, or rude (as a straw poll among
my very Catholic grandchildren suggests)? Will the message be that the laity are
more involved in the action of the Mass, or less? Even if the necessity of Holy Orders
becomes more obvious, will the priestly character of all the baptized be less fully
understood, reducing their felt responsibility for mission and holiness? (See liturgical
principles 1 and 2, above.)

I do not know the answers. The debate is certainly legitimate; it ought to be of at

least passing interest to anyone who cares about building up the Body of Christ. It is
obviously of interest to me. But I do not know the answers, and I have no horse in
the race. I also have no liturgical talents, and no vocation to that very significant
sphere of Catholic service. What I do know is that the word “Eucharist”
means thanksgiving—as in “thanksgiving for the works of God”. And since I am
unworthy of even the meanest Mass, I intend to remain grateful for all of them.

When multiple chalices

are used for Mass, must
water be added to each
A: Canon 924 §1 states that “The most holy Eucharistic sacrifice
must be offered with bread and with wine in which a little water
must be mixed.” Further, the Congregation for Divine Worship and
the Discipline of the Sacraments stated in a letter dated April 30,
2012, that in the case of several chalices “it is sufficient” to add
water only to the main celebrant’s chalice. Mixing water into all the
chalices, however, “would not in any way be considered to be an
abuse” (see Committee on Divine Worship Newsletter, May-June
The practice of mixing water with wine was commonplace among
Mediterranean peoples and references are made by Homer and
other ancient authors. Avoiding drunkenness was often given as the
reason, and this view persisted throughout the centuries. The 15th
century artist Piero del Pollaiolo’s depiction of Lady Temperance
has her pouring a thin line of water into a jug of wine.
Though the practice has cultural and practical roots, the Church has
long held that in the context of the Mass there are several symbolic
meanings. The words spoken by the priest or deacon preparing the
chalice are: “By the mystery of this water and wine may we come to
share in the divinity of Christ who humbled himself to share in our
The wine represents the Lord and the water represents the people,
echoing the words of Revelation 17:15: “The waters that you saw
where the harlot lives represent large numbers of peoples, nations
and tongues.” Thus, the mingling symbolizes the divine Lord’s
taking on our human flesh in the Incarnation. And so we hope, in
the words of St. Peter, to “come to share in the divine nature” (2 Pet.
1:4) through the reception of the Holy Eucharist.
St. Cyprian of Carthage (d. 258), in an epistle written to a Brother
Cecil, expanded upon other theologically important meanings. Just
as the water cannot be separated from the wine after mingling, so
too “nothing can separate the Church…from Christ as long as it
clings and remains in undivided love.” For this reason, St. Cyprian
goes on to argue that the wine cannot be offered without the water
or the water without wine any more than the water and flour can be
offered alone and become the body Christ.
In a homily by St. Faustus of Riez (d. 495) we find that the meaning
of the water and wine is not just a cultural tradition but is a
necessary part of the rite from what we know of the Passion of Our
Lord. “Blood and water flowed from his sacred side when he was
pierced with the lance,” he wrote. And the Council of Trent affirms
this interpretation when it taught that the water is to be mixed into
the wine (see Session XXII).
Though the roots of the practice may be cultural, the deeper
theological meaning reminds us of how intimately our Savior loves
us and invites us to participate in his divine life through the
reception of his body and blood.

—Answered by Deacon Omar Gutierrez, Archdiocese of Omaha

For the reception of Holy
Communion, should
there always be a paten?
In both the Ordinary and Extraordinary Forms of the Roman Rite
Mass, the Church assumes the use of the Communion plate; the
paten is the vessel holding the hosts. The General Instruction of the
Roman Missal (GIRM) includes the Communion plate in the list of
things to be prepared for Mass (see n. 118c). The
instruction Redemptionis Sacramentum also mentions it, citing
GIRM, n. 118: “The Communion plate for the Communion of the
faithful should be retained, so as to avoid the danger of the sacred
host or some fragment of it falling” (n. 93). Neither document
stipulates that is to be used specifically or only when Holy
Communion is received on the tongue.

—From the April 2018 Bishops’ Committee on Divine


Female Priesthood in
Catholic Church Is
By Hannah Brockhaus
VATICAN CITY (CNA/EWTN News)—The teaching of the Catholic
Church on the impossibility of ordaining women to the priesthood,
now or in the future, is clear—and to sow confusion by suggesting
otherwise is a serious matter, wrote the Vatican’s top authority on
In a May 29 article in Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano,
Cardinal-elect Luis Ladaria, head of the Congregation for the
Doctrine of the Faith, wrote that “Christ wanted to give this
sacrament [of holy orders] to the twelve apostles, all men, who, in
turn, transmitted it to other men.”
“The Church has always recognized herself bound by this decision of
the Lord, which excludes that the ministerial priesthood can be
validly conferred on women.”
Taking this into account, as well as Pope St. John Paul II’s 1994
apostolic letter Ordinatio sacerdotalis, which states that all
Catholics must “definitively” follow this teaching, Ladaria said, “it is
a matter of serious concern to see the emergence in some countries
of voices that question the finality of this doctrine.”
To argue that the Church’s prohibition on women priests has not
been defined “ex cathedra” and that a pope or council could change
the teaching in the future “creates serious confusion among the
faithful,” and undermines the authority of the magisterium, he said.
Ladaria spelled out several reasons why the Catholic Church cannot
ordain women to the priesthood, the first being that it is part of the
substance of the sacrament of holy orders that the person receiving
ordination be a man. And the Church cannot change this substance
because the sacraments, as instituted by Christ, are the foundation
of the Church.
Contrary to what some have argued, this limit on holy orders,
Ladaria explained, does not prevent the Church from being effective
in her ministry, because if the Church cannot change something, it
is because “the original love of God intervenes on that point.”
God is “at work in the ordination of priests, so that the Church
always contains, in every situation of her history, the visible and
efficacious presence of Jesus Christ ‘as the principal source of
grace,’” Ladaria said, quoting Pope Francis’s apostolic
exhortation, Evangelii gaudium.
Following the tradition of the Catholic Church in this teaching is a
matter of obedience to the Lord, he continued, noting that the
Church is called to deepen her understanding of the sacramental
priesthood: that the priest stands “in the person of Christ” and is a
spouse of the Church, making his being a man an “indispensable
part” of the sacrament.
He pointed to the fact that Benedict XVI and Pope Francis have
both confirmed Pope St. John Paul II’s teaching in Ordinatio
sacerdotalis, on the impossibility of ordaining women in the
Catholic Church.
In a press conference aboard the papal plane returning from
Sweden, Nov. 1, 2016, Pope Francis said: “On the ordination of
women in the Catholic Church, the last clear word was given by St.
John Paul II, and this remains.”
Ladaria also wrote about the example of the Blessed Virgin Mary,
who is the most “complete figure” in the Church’s history though
she was never an ordained minister.
“Thus we see that the masculine and the feminine, the original
language that the creator has inscribed in the human body, are
taken on in the work of our redemption,” he said.
“Precisely the fidelity to the design of Christ on the ministerial
priesthood allows, then, to deepen and further promote the specific
role of women in the Church, given that ‘in the Lord, neither man is
without woman, nor woman is without man’ (1 Corinthians, 11:11).”
The Catholic Church can also bring light to the culture concerning
“the meaning and the goodness of the difference between man and
woman,” he continued.
“In this time, in which the Church is called to respond to the many
challenges of our culture, it is essential that [the Church] remains in
Jesus, like the branches in the vine,” Ladaria said, quoting Jesus’
words from the Gospel of John: “If you keep my commandments,
you will remain in my love.”
“Only fidelity to his words, which will not pass, ensures our rooting
in Christ and in his love,” he concluded. “Only the acceptance of his
wise design, which takes shape in the sacraments, reinvigorates the
roots of the Church, so that it may bear the fruit of eternal life.”

What are the norms

directing Eucharistic
By ADOREMUS STAFF May 12, 2018

Holy Communion and Worship of the Eucharist Outside Mass was

one of the first of the Church’s ritual books published after the
Second Vatican Council, promulgated by the Congregation for
Divine Worship on June 21, 1973, which happened to be the
Solemnity of Corpus Christi that year. The text contains a number of
Eucharistic rituals, including the “Rite of Distributing Holy
Communion Outside Mass with the Celebration of the Word” and
“Administration of Communion and Viaticum to the Sick by an
Extraordinary Minister.”
The book’s third chapter, “Forms of Worship of the Holy Eucharist,”
includes three sections: “Exposition of the Holy Eucharist,”
“Eucharistic Congresses,” and “Eucharistic Processions.” This
chapter on forms of Eucharistic worship, as with the first two and
the text generally, contains not only a brief theological treatment of
the topic (lex credendi), but also the rubrics and texts used for
celebrating (lex orandi).
As Holy Communion and Worship of the Eucharist Outside
Massexplains, “When the Eucharist is carried through the streets in
a solemn procession with singing, the Christian people give public
witness of faith and devotion toward the sacrament” (101).
“The annual procession on the feast of Corpus Christi, or on an
appropriate day near this feast, has a special importance and
meaning for the pastoral life of the parish or city. It is therefore
desirable to continue this procession…when today’s circumstances
permit and when it can truly be a sign of common faith and
adoration” (102).
“It is fitting,” the text says, “that a Eucharistic procession begin after
the Mass in which the host to be carried in the procession has been
consecrated” (103).
Concerning the procession’s specifics, the rite encourages “stations
where the Eucharistic blessing is given…. Songs and prayers should
be so directed that all proclaim their faith in Christ and direct their
attention to the Lord alone” (104).
The priest himself vests in a white cope, while “lights, incense, and
the canopy under which the priest carrying the Blessed Sacrament
walks should be used in accordance with local customs. It is fitting
that the procession should go from one church to another.
Nevertheless, if local circumstances require, the procession may
return to the same church where it began. At the end of the
procession, Benediction with the Blessed Sacrament should be
given in the church where the procession ends…. Then the Blessed
Sacrament is reposed” (105-8).

The Theology of Kneeling


The theology of kneeling is explained by Joseph Cardinal

Ratzinger, the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the
Faith, in the following excerpt from a chapter, “The Body and the
Liturgy”, in The Spirit of the Liturgy, published by Ignatius Press in
2000, reprinted with permission. This important work, by the
Catholic Church’s chief official on Catholic doctrine, was reviewed
for AB by Father Paul Scalia (The Scandal of the Liturgy,
Dec.2000/Jan 2001). See also Jesuit Father James Schall’s
column on the book.
Other excerpt from this book on the Adoremus site are; Art and
Liturgy: A Question of Images – Part I, from the February
2002 AB; Part II of The Question of Images, from March 2002
AB, Music and Liturgy, from the November 2001 AB, The Altar
and the Direction of Liturgical Prayer, from the May 2000 AB.

There are groups, of no small influence, who are trying to

talk us out of kneeling. “It doesn’t suit our culture”, they say
(which culture?) “It’s not right for a grown man to do this — he
should face God on his feet”. Or again: “It’s not appropriate for
redeemed man — he has been set free by Christ and doesn’t need to
kneel any more”.
If we look at history, we can see that the Greeks and Romans
rejected kneeling. In view of the squabbling, partisan deities
described in mythology, this attitude was thoroughly justified. It
was only too obvious that these gods were not God, even if you were
dependent on their capricious power and had to make sure that,
whenever possible, you enjoyed their favor. And so they said that
kneeling was unworthy of a free man, unsuitable for the culture of
Greece, something the barbarians went in for. Plutarch and
Theophrastus regarded kneeling as an expression of superstition.
Aristotle called it a barbaric form of behavior (cf. Rhetoric 1361 a
36). Saint Augustine agreed with him in a certain respect: the false
gods were only the masks of demons, who subjected men to the
worship of money and to self-seeking, thus making them “servile”
and superstitious. He said that the humility of Christ and His love,
which went as far as the Cross, have freed us from these powers. We
now kneel before that humility. The kneeling of Christians is not a
form of inculturation into existing customs. It is quite the opposite,
an expression of Christian culture, which transforms the existing
culture through a new and deeper knowledge and experience of
Kneeling does not come from any culture — it comes from the Bible
and its knowledge of God. The central importance of kneeling in the
Bible can be seen in a very concrete way. The
word proskynein alone occurs fifty-nine times in the New
Testament, twenty-four of which are in the Apocalypse, the book of
the heavenly Liturgy, which is presented to the Church as the
standard for her own Liturgy.
On closer inspection, we can discern three closely related forms of
posture. First there is prostratio — lying with one’s face to the
ground before the overwhelming power of God; secondly, especially
in the New Testament, there is falling to one’s knees before another;
and thirdly, there is kneeling. Linguistically, the three forms of
posture are not always clearly distinguished. They can be combined
or merged with one another.
For the sake of brevity, I should like to mention, in the case
of prostratio, just one text from the Old Testament and another
from the New.
In the Old Testament, there is an appearance of God to Joshua
before the taking of Jericho, an appearance that the sacred author
quite deliberately presents as a parallel to God’s revelation of
Himself to Moses in the burning bush. Joshua sees “the commander
of the army of the Lord” and, having recognized who He is, throws
himself to the ground. At that moment he hears the words once
spoken to Moses: “Put off your shoes from your feet; for the place
where you stand is holy” (Josh 5:15). In the mysterious form of the
“commander of the army of the Lord”, the hidden God Himself
speaks to Joshua, and Joshua throws himself down before Him.
Origen gives a beautiful interpretation of this text: “Is there any
other commander of the powers of the Lord than our Lord Jesus
Christ?” According to this view, Joshua is worshipping the One who
is to come — the coming of Christ.
In the case of the New Testament, from the Fathers onward, Jesus’
prayer on the Mount of Olives was especially important. According
to Saint Matthew (22:39) and Saint Mark (14:35), Jesus throws
Himself to the ground; indeed, He falls to the earth (according to
Matthew). However, Saint Luke, who in his whole work (both the
Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles) is in a special way the
theologian of kneeling prayer, tells us that Jesus prayed on His
knees. This prayer, the prayer by which Jesus enters into His
Passion, is an example for us, both as a gesture and in its content.
The gesture: Jesus assumes, as it were, the fall of man, lets himself
fall into man’s fallenness, prays to the Father out of the lowest
depths of human dereliction and anguish. He lays His will in the
will of the Father’s: “Not my will but yours be done”. He lays the
human will in the divine. He takes up all the hesitation of the
human will and endures it. It is this very conforming of the human
will to the divine that is the heart of redemption. For the fall of man
depends on the contradiction of wills, on the opposition of the
human will to the divine, which the tempter leads man to think is
the condition of his freedom. Only one’s own autonomous will,
subject to no other will, is freedom. “Not my will, but yours …” —
those are the words of truth, for God’s will is not in opposition to
our own, but the ground and condition of its possibility. Only when
our will rests in the will of God does it become truly will and truly
The suffering and struggle of Gethsemane is the struggle for this
redemptive truth, for this uniting of what is divided, for the uniting
that is communion with God. Now we understand why the Son’s
loving way of addressing the Father, “Abba”, is found in this place
(cf. Mk 14:36). Saint Paul sees in this cry the prayer that the Holy
Spirit places on our lips (cf. Rom 8:15; Gal 4:6) and thus anchors
our Spirit-filled prayer in the Lord’s prayer in Gethsemane.
In the Church’s Liturgy today, prostration appears on two
occasions: on Good Friday and at ordinations. On Good Friday, the
day of the Lord’s crucifixion, it is the fitting expression of our sense
of shock at the fact that we by our sins share in the responsibility for
the death of Christ. We throw ourselves down and participate in His
shock, in His descent into the depths of anguish. We throw
ourselves down and so acknowledge where we are and who we are:
fallen creatures whom only He can set on their feet. We throw
ourselves down, as Jesus did, before the mystery of God’s power
present to us, knowing that the Cross is the true burning bush, the
place of the flame of God’s love, which burns but does not destroy.
At ordinations prostration comes from the awareness of our
absolute incapacity, by our own powers, to take on the priestly
mission of Jesus Christ, to speak with His “I”. While the ordinands
are lying on the ground, the whole congregation sings the Litany of
the Saints. I shall never forget lying on the ground at the time of my
own priestly and episcopal ordination. When I was ordained bishop,
my intense feeling of inadequacy, incapacity, in the face of the
greatness of the task was even stronger than at my priestly
ordination. The fact that the praying Church was calling upon all the
saints, that the prayer of the Church really was enveloping and
embracing me, was a wonderful consolation. In my incapacity,
which had to be expressed in the bodily posture of prostration, this
prayer, this presence of all the saints, of the living and the dead, was
a wonderful strength — it was the only thing that could, as it were,
lift me up. Only the presence of the saints with me made possible
the path that lay before me.
Kneeling before another
Secondly, we must mention the gesture of falling to one’s knees
before another, which is described four times in the Gospels (cf. Mk
1:40; 10:17; Mt 17:14; 27:29) by means of the word gonypetein. Let
us single out Mark 1:40. A leper comes to Jesus and begs Him for
help. He falls to his knees before Him and says: “If you will, you can
make me clean”. It is hard to assess the significance of the gesture.
What we have here is surely not a proper act of adoration, but
rather a supplication expressed fervently in bodily form, while
showing a trust in a power beyond the merely human.
The situation is different, though, with the classical word for
adoration on one’s knees — proskynein. I shall give two examples in
order to clarify the question that faces the translator.
First there is the account of how, after the multiplication of the
loaves, Jesus stays with the Father on the mountain, while the
disciples struggle in vain on the lake with the wind and the waves.
Jesus comes to them across the water. Peter hurries toward Him
and is saved from sinking by the Lord. Then Jesus climbs into the
boat, and the wind lets up. The text continues: “And the ship’s crew
came and said, falling at His feet, ‘Thou art indeed the Son of God'”
(Mt 14:33, Knox version). Other translations say: “[The disciples] in
the boat worshiped [Jesus], saying …” (RSV). Both translations are
correct. Each emphasizes one aspect of what is going on. The Knox
version brings out the bodily expression, while the RSV shows what
is happening interiorly. It is perfectly clear from the structure of the
narrative that the gesture of acknowledging Jesus as the Son of God
is an act of worship.
We encounter a similar set of problems in Saint John’s Gospel when
we read the account of the healing of the man born blind. This
narrative, which is structured in a truly “theo-dramatic” way, ends
with a dialogue between Jesus and the man He has healed. It serves
as a model for the dialogue of conversion, for the whole narrative
must also be seen as a profound exposition of the existential and
theological significance of Baptism.
In the dialogue, Jesus asks the man whether he believes in the Son
of Man. The man born blind replies: “Tell me who He is, Lord”.
When Jesus says, “It is He who is speaking to you”, the man makes
the confession of faith: “I do believe, Lord”, and then he “[falls]
down to worship Him” (Jn 9:35-38, Knox version adapted). Earlier
translations said: “He worshiped Him”. In fact, the whole scene is
directed toward the act of faith and the worship of Jesus, which
follows from it. Now the eyes of the heart, as well as of the body, are
opened. The man has in truth begun to see.
For the exegesis of the text it is important to note that the
word proskynein occurs eleven times in Saint John’s Gospel, of
which nine occurrences are found in Jesus’ conversation with the
Samaritan woman by Jacob’s well (Jn 4:19-24). This conversation is
entirely devoted to the theme of worship, and it is indisputable that
here, as elsewhere in Saint John’s Gospel, the word always has the
meaning of “worship”. Incidentally, this conversation, too, ends —
like that of the healing of the man born blind — with Jesus’
revealing Himself: “I who speak to you am He” (Jn 4:26).
I have lingered over these texts, because they bring to light
something important. In the two passages that we looked at most
closely, the spiritual and bodily meanings of proskynein are really
inseparable. 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,
express itself in the bodily gesture.
The two aspects are united in the one word, because in a very
profound way they belong together. When kneeling becomes merely
external, a merely physical act, it becomes meaningless. One the
other hand, when someone tries to take worship back into the
purely spiritual realm and refuses to give it embodied form, the act
of worship evaporates, for what is purely spiritual is inappropriate
to the nature of man. Worship is one of those fundamental acts that
affect the whole man. That is why bending the knee before the
presence of the living God is something we cannot abandon.
In saying this, we come to the typical gesture of kneeling on one or
both knees. In the Hebrew of the Old Testament, the verb barak, “to
kneel”, is cognate with the word berek, “knee”. The Hebrews
regarded the knees as a symbol of strength, 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. In important passages of the Old Testament, this gesture
appears as an expression of worship.
At the dedication of the Temple, Solomon kneels “in the presence of
all the assembly of Israel” (II Chron 6:13). After the Exile, in the
afflictions of the returned Israel, which is still without a Temple,
Ezra repeats this gesture at the time of the evening sacrifice: “I …
fell upon my knees and spread out my hands to the Lord my God”
(Ezra 9:5). The great psalm of the Passion, Psalm 22 (“My God, my
God, why have you forsaken me?”), ends with the promise: “Yes, to
Him shall all the proud of the earth fall down; before Him all who
go down to the dust shall throw themselves down” (v. 29, RSV
The related passage Isaiah 45:23 we shall have to consider in the
context of the New Testament. The Acts of the Apostles tells us how
Saint Peter (9:40), Saint Paul (20:36), and the whole Christian
community (21:5) pray on their knees.
Particularly important for our question is the account of the
martyrdom of Saint Stephen. The first man to witness to Christ with
his blood is described in his suffering as a perfect image of Christ,
whose Passion is repeated in the martyrdom of the witness, even in
small details. One of these is that Stephen, on his knees, takes up
the petition of the crucified Christ: “Lord, do not hold this sin
against them” (7:60). We should remember that Luke, unlike
Matthew and Mark, speaks of the Lord kneeling in Gethsemane,
which shows that Luke wants the kneeling of the first martyr to be
seen as his entry into the prayer of Jesus. Kneeling is not only a
Christian gesture, but a christological one.
The Name above all Names
For me, the most important passage for the theology of kneeling will
always be the great hymn of Christ in Philippians 2:6-11. In this pre-
Pauline hymn, we hear and see the prayer of the apostolic Church
and can discern within it her confession of faith in Christ. However,
we also hear the voice of the Apostle, who enters into this prayer
and hands it on to us, and, ultimately, we perceive here both the
profound inner unity of the Old and New Testaments and the
cosmic breadth of Christian faith.
The hymn presents Christ as the antitype of the First Adam. While
the latter high-handedly grasped at likeness to God, Christ does not
count equality with God, which is His by nature, “a thing to be
grasped”, but humbles Himself unto death, even death on the Cross.
It is precisely this humility, which comes from love, that is the truly
divine reality and procures for Him the “name which is above every
name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven
and on earth and under the earth” (Phil 2:5-10).
Here the hymn of the apostolic Church takes up the words of
promise in Isaiah 45:23: “By myself I have sworn, from my mouth
has gone forth in righteousness a word that shall not return: ‘To me
every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear'”. In the
interweaving of Old and New Testaments, it becomes clear that,
even as crucified, Jesus bears that “name above every name” — the
name of the Most High — and is Himself God by nature. Through
Him, through the Crucified, the bold promise of the Old Testament
is now fulfilled: all bend the knee before Jesus, the One who
descended, and bow to Him precisely as the one true God above all
gods. The Cross has become the world-embracing sign of God’s
presence, and all that we have previously heard about the historic
and cosmic Christ should now, in this passage, come back into our
The Christian Liturgy is a cosmic Liturgy precisely because it bends
the knee before the crucified and exalted Lord. Here is the center of
authentic culture – the culture of truth. The humble gesture by
which we fall at the feet of the Lord inserts us into the true path of
life of the cosmos.
There is much more that we might add. For example, there is the
touching story told by Eusebius in his history of the Church as a
tradition going back to Hegesippus in the second century.
Apparently, Saint James, the “brother of the Lord”, the first bishop
of Jerusalem and “head” of the Jewish Christian Church, had a kind
of callous on his knees, because he was always on his knees
worshipping God and begging forgiveness for his people (2, 23, 6).
Again, there is a story that comes from the sayings of the Desert
Fathers, according to which the devil was compelled by God to show
himself to a certain Abba Apollo. He looked black and ugly, with
frighteningly thin limbs, but most strikingly, he had no knees. The
inability to kneel is seen as the very essence of the diabolical.
But I do not want to go into more detail. I should like to make just
one more remark. The expression used by Saint Luke to describe
the kneeling of Christians (theis ta gonata) is unknown in classical
Greek. We are dealing here with a specifically Christian word. With
that remark, our reflections turn full circle to where they began. It
may well be that kneeling is alien to modern culture — insofar as it
is a culture, for this culture has turned away from the faith and no
longer knows the one before whom kneeling is the right, indeed the
intrinsically necessary gesture. The man who learns to believe
learns also to kneel, and a faith or a liturgy no longer familiar with
kneeling would be sick at the core. Where it has been lost, kneeling
must be rediscovered, so that, in our prayer, we remain in
fellowship with the apostles and martyrs, in fellowship with the
whole cosmos, indeed in union with Jesus Christ Himself.