Kneel. Up. Down. Up. Down. Kneel. Up. Down. Up. Whew! Non-Catholics attending a Catholic Mass think a lot of things about the different postures Catholics take. Things like “Oh, up we go again.” And “Why are we kneeling?” And “Is it wrong if I kneel with my butt still on the seat, especially if I’m not sure why I’m kneeling in the first place?” I know non-Catholics think these things, because when I was a non-Catholic, those were my thoughts. I had no idea what was going on, or why. I just tried to keep up.
Now, as a Catholic, one of the things I’ve grown to appreciate about Mass is how each and every. single. thing. has significance. Every single movement, posture, word spoken, and thing done means something. The more you understand about what is going on in a Mass, the more you are able to appreciate its beauty. Which is why this post focuses on the “why” of the sitting, standing, and kneeling of a Catholic Mass.
Sitting is a posture of listening. Catholics sit for the first reading (often from the Old Testament), the Psalm (often actually sung), and the second reading (New Testament, not from the Gospel). We also sit for the offering, and the homily (sermon). We sit, ready to hear and receive. We sit to listen.
For Prayer: Standing has been a posture of prayer for Jewish people since before the time of Jesus. Standing during prayer is also seen throughout different parts of the Bible. So, as Catholics, we continue to utilize this posture for prayer today. Some examples of when we stand during Mass for prayer: When we pray the opening prayer (led by the Priest) say The Lord’s Prayer (as a congregation), and the Prayers of the Faithful (the prayer requests for the congregation).
For the Creed: We stand as we say in unison what Christians have believed from the earliest times, in the form of the Nicene or Apostles Creed. We stand to affirm our unity and our beliefs together as Christians.
For the Gospel: Standing is also a sign of respect. We have many readings from the Bible during Mass, but we stand for the Gospel out of particular respect, since these are the words and deeds of Jesus himself.
For the Procession: We stand at the beginning and end of Mass, also as a sign of respect as the celebrant (Priest or Bishop who is celebrating the Mass) processes in to begin the Mass, and processes out once the Mass has ended.
When we enter Mass, we genuflect, where we bend and touch one of our knees to the floor. We are humbly acknowledging Jesus in the tabernacle, in the Eucharist. Catholics believe that Jesus is fully present, body, blood, soul and divinity in the Eucharist, which is Holy Communion. We believe when Jesus said “This is my body,” that he meant it literally. Jesus is veiled behind the appearance of bread and wine, but His presence is fully and truly there. This is something that the very earliest Christians believed, and continue to believe right through to the present day in Catholicism. So we acknowledge that by genuflection.
Here’s a great video by Fr. Mike Shmitz, further explaining the reason for genuflection as we enter for Mass.
Kneeling is a posture of respect and adoration. Another time when we kneel is during the preparation for and before/after reception of the Eucharist (The Body and Blood of Christ in Holy Communion). We kneel, again, because we believe Jesus is fully and truly present in Communion. If you believed you were literally in the presence of Christ himself, falling to your knees would be a natural thing to do- probably even falling flat on your face. So, we always kneel during this part of Mass, and we remain kneeling until the elements are put back away in the tabernacle, and the tabernacle is closed.
Well, at least you now know that we Catholics aren’t just confused about what we do with our bodies during Mass. 🙂 And this was just a very basic description of what we do with our bodies as a whole. There are a host of other movements that the congregation and the celebrant do each Mass that carry additional meaning.
How we move our body affects and reflects the state of our mind. Slouching, for example, can be a reflection of someone’s sadness, or lack of confidence, or shyness, or it can move someone in that direction. While standing tall with one’s shoulders back can be a reflection of pride, or confidence, or bravery. And, even if you aren’t feeling brave, for example, but you take a posture of bravery, it can help get you there. The postures of Mass can, likewise, reflect your state of mind, or it can help put you in the right one.
Also, both inside and outside of Mass, bodily changes of posture just for the sake of moving aren’t super helpful to anyone. If you are sitting, standing and kneeling during Mass at all the right times, but your heart isn’t in it, or you are distracted, or not focusing on the reason why you are in a particular posture, then you lose the benefit of what the postures are meant to accomplish. But if you come into Mass and you genuflect towards the tabernacle, because you are humbly acknowledging Christ’s presence there, and if you sit, intent on listening with your mind, body, and soul, and if you stand, heart focused on prayer, and if you kneel acknowledging the presence of your Savior, then, then, you’ve got something.
As in all of the structures within Mass, and within Catholicism as a whole, there are so many tools to help move your heart, mind, and soul closer in relationship with Jesus. But you can’t just go through the motions. And if you truly engage, and accept and embrace the meaning behind what you are doing, the graces and joys and richness available to you in Mass and in the Catholic Church are immensely beautiful, and only bring you nearer to your Savior.