“Bow”—and we kneel or prostrate. “Worship”—and we sit. “From now on, let us observe the rule of bowing and worshiping as it should be observed,” I proposed to the “deacons” (using this term loosely to refer also to the minor orders) of our parish. When I was asked to serve as deacon coordinator, this was one of the newly implemented efforts that at first yielded much resistance. One deacon even likened me to a Pharisee, yet I desperately explained the reason behind our different postures in church, and by God’s grace, even the staunchest of opponents seem to have been convinced (for the most part).
WHAT’S THE BIG DEAL?
If there is any one rite and tradition that has been observed by nearly all Christians since nearly the beginning of Christendom, our posture in church (i.e., standing, bowing, prostrating, etc.) is near the top of the list. It was so important that the Council of Nicea laid out a canon about it. St. Basil the Great even spoke on this subject, putting it on the same list of traditions that he says are as important as written tradition (presuming he meant the Bible):
“Of the beliefs and practices whether generally accepted or publicly enjoined which are preserved in the Church, some we possess derived from written teaching, [while] others we have received delivered to us “in a mystery” by the tradition of the apostles; both of these in relation to true religion have the same force. And these no one will gainsay—no one, at all events, who is even moderately versed in the institutions of the Church.
[After listing the following as being on equal footing with what was given to us by written tradition—
- sign of the cross,
- praying towards the east,
- the anamnesis (invocation of the Holy Spirit to change the bread and wine into blood),
- blessing the water of baptism and the oil of chrism,
- renouncing Satan during the baptism rite—
St. Basil says:] We pray standing, on the first day of the week [i.e., Sunday], but we do not all know the reason.” (NPNF2-08. Basil: On the Holy Spirit)
So then, let us strive to “know the reason” for why and when we have certain postures in the Orthodox Church:
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LEGITIMATE CHURCH POSTURES & THE WHEN AND WHY
Originally, the rule was clear: no bending of the knees on Sundays, and the Holy Fifty Days after the resurrection feast. To this it seems to have been added Saturdays, as well as (in the Coptic Church particularly) major feasts of the Lord (of which there are seven), and after taking communion (on any day). Nowadays, exceptions are made for a special type of bending of the knee—a prostration of honor, to the Lord, or to clergy (explained below).
St. Basil points out something you may not have realized: the word for resurrection in Greek—anastasis—literally means “standing again.” Think about it: what do we celebrate every Sunday and during the Holy Fifty Days? The resurrection of our Lord! That explains why it makes sense to stand up on Sundays, and during the Holy Fifty Days. And since we still honor the Sabbath, we do not “work” by doing prostrations, but rather remain standing in honor of God. Moreover, prostrations of repentance focus on our destitute condition of sinfulness, and the work and effort needed to overcome our weaknesses; in contrast, the days we are called not to prostrate are more focused on the triumph of our acceptance into heaven and the joy we have in God.
This is most notably seen in the Coptic Church’s rites during the Great Lent: go to a liturgy during the weekdays and you will find the most solemn of hymns, and specific moments during the service where the priest calls everyone to prostrate; Saturdays and Sundays are much less solemn, and no such prostration rite is included. This distinction between days that permit prostration and those that do not is directly aligned with the early Church’s original prohibition of fasting on weekends and festive occasions. The early church used to prohibit any fasting on weekends, but eventually an exception was made, but required that the manner of fasting not be as stringent (no abstinence from food before breaking your fast, and no prostrations of repentance).
The requirement to stand on Sundays and the Holy Fifty Days was such a big deal that the bishops at the Council of Nicea instituted a canon about this (think about it, a host of other issues could have been discussed, and they spent part of their time dealing with this; and remember that St. Athanasius was among them):
Forasmuch as there are certain persons who kneel on the Lord’s Day and in the days of Pentecost [i.e., the Holy Fifty Days after the resurrection feast], therefore, to the intent that all things may be uniformly observed everywhere (in every parish), it seems good to the Holy Synod that prayer be made to God standing. (Canon 20; NPNF2-14. The Seven Ecumenical Councils)
(Notice the reasoning employed here: “that all things may be uniformly observed.” Even if you feel this rite/topic is of little significance, then at the least for the sake of uniformity let us apply the rite.)
So many others have spoken about this subject, including St. Peter the Seal of Martyrs, Scholar Tertullian, St. John Cassian, St. Jerome, St. Justin Martyr, along with the historians Ibn Kabar, Ibn Seba’a, and Ibn el-Assal; you can read what they said further below (link provided under “Further Resources”).
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Prostration (bending the knees, and often also placing your head on the ground)
Currently the rule (at least in the Coptic Church) is as follows: prostrating in worship of God and honor to the clergy is permitted any time, even days when bending of the knee is not permitted; however prostrations of repentance are strictly forbidden on such days.
What & Why:
Opposite of standing is prostrating. It appears that early in Christianity no bending of the knees for any kind of prostration (worship or repentance) was acceptable on the days that standing was required. But as time progressed, and I am speaking specifically here of the Coptic Church, there developed a distinction between prostration of worship / honor and a prostration of repentance (also known as metanoia—Greek word literally meaning “change of mind”), whereby prostrations of worship to God and also honor to clergy became exceptions to the rule of no bending of the knees. The transition to making an exception for a full prostration seems to have been gradual, as you have the canons of the 14th century Coptic historian Ibn Kabar indicating an exception for kneeling was in place during His time (without touching one’s head to the ground in a full prostration). He says about the Copts: “They all prostrate themselves before the Lord, or they kneel on the days where [there] are no prostrations.”
At our parish, prostrations of worship occur during the following instances:
- When the priest lifts the bread after the offertory (resembling Christ being lifted on the cross) and declares, “Glory and honor, honor and glory….”
- When the deacon says “worship God in fear and trembling” or otherwise asks us to worship. This is especially important during the anamnesis, when the priest invokes the Holy Spirit to descend and change the bread and wine to body and blood.
- During the confession before communion, honoring the Lamb that we are about to partake in.
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We bow (no matter the day or occasion) to express a feeling of shame over our sins, praying for forgiveness as well as asking for preparedness to partake of the communion.
When & Why:
Sadly, this is the least understood aspect of our posture in Church. The famed Fr. Matthew the Poor describes this posture as resembling the the tax collector (in the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector) who was “standing afar off, [and] would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!’” (Luke 18:13). With that in mind it makes sense to bow at the following times
- When the priest prays the absolution, absolving those present by the power granted by God to the clergy (cf. John 20:22–23). He prays two absolutions during the liturgy, and in one of them he clearly states that the absolution is for those who are “bowing their heads before You.”
- When the deacon says “bow your heads” just before taking communion. At that point we are asking God to forgive us and allow us to be worthy to partake of communion. That is why the first thing said audibly out loud by the priest is, “The Holies for the holy.” Here the priest is saying, the “Holies” (the Eucharist/communion) are for those who are “holy” (those who partake of it worthily). On this point, it is of value to share what Fr. Matthew the Poor wrote:
“Bow your heads down to the Lord.” This is the awesome sentence that the deacon cries out as he stands at the altar, calling the congregation and the clergy to bow their heads before God, before they take the Holy Communion. Then the priest calls out: “Sacraments are for the saints” [an alternative translation to, “The Holies for the holy”].
Unfortunately, neither the congregation nor the clergy answer this call as they should. Some hear the call and do not bow their heads, and some hear it and kneel. Both err in their hearing, their understanding, and their response.
Here the call is to bow heads before [the] Lord because it is the moment of repentance and confession of sins. It qualifies the congregation to receive the prayer of absolution from the lips of the priest [which occurs in an inaudible prayer while heads are bowed].
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Why should we bow our heads but not kneel? It is because it is not a call to honor God in worship, but a call to contrition, to confess our sins with fear and in humility. The deacon’s intent, by calling for the bowing of heads, is to remind us of a particular stance before God, that of the tax collector mentioned by Christ….
It is because of sin that we bow our heads at these serious moments, before taking Holy Communion. These are not mere rites, but they express grief, pain and shame. It is the burden of the sins that we recall that inevitably causes our heads to fall on our chests. This remorse and great grief renders man completely unable to lift his head towards heaven. It is this attitude that is appropriate in these critical moments of Divine presence and the presence of the body and blood of Christ.”
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This is basically the “lazy man’s prostration.” This is where a person takes their hand and touches the ground (rather than prostrating fully, bending their knees, and having their head touch the ground). The same rule for prostrations applies here.
Unfortunately, this too is very commonly misunderstood. I see it most when this is used as a prostration of repentance, particularly after the priest prays over the deacons’ vestments: all the deacons conclude the blessing of the vestments with saying the Lord’s prayer, and then everyone (including on Sundays) typically touches the ground and says: “I have sinned, forgive me.”
I’ll never forget when I first learned this was in dereliction of an ancient rite. I was in a church where a very strict bishop was visiting, and he blessed the deacons’ vestments, and I, along with the few others with me, did the usual half-metanoia on a Sunday, and he immediately rebuked us all and said firmly, “There are no metanoias on Sunday.” Some thought of him as being a closed-minded bishop. I was like, “What is he talking about?” After understanding the reason for his rebuke, I truly admire his zealousness in preserving ancient rites.
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Flat on the ground
This is the posture of monks as they lay covered by some sort of sheet whereby a funeral rite is prayed over them after they have figuratively died to the world and embarked on a new life wed to Christ their bridegroom.
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SITTING/RELAXING IS NOT A TRADITIONAL CHURCH POSTURE DURING WORSHIP SERVICE
I admit, with my flat feet and all, it is quite the relief when it is time to prostrate; but I should be focused solely on the intention behind my actions. I am sad to say that most of us see times of prostration as an opportunity to relax, or get on our phone, or talk with the person next to us, or joke about something, etc. At the time we should be honoring God, we are focused on ourselves and/or others. Sadly, even though people could get on their knees (in spite of the pews we have in place in nearly most Coptic churches today), when it is time to worship most people just sit. They see this as a time to get comfortable.
In the 3rd century, St. John Cassian says that when Coptic monks used to prostrate, they would get up very fast to avoid resting or sleeping. That is why praying while standing is better than kneeling at one’s bedside and getting comfortable and sleepy. For the aforementioned reasons, the traditional arrangement of Orthodox Churches does not include pews. Early Coptic Churches (e.g., St. Sergius and St. Bacchus) are designed in this way. The Russian Orthodox Church is well known for maintaining this tradition. Unfortunately, the wide acceptance of pews in Orthodox Churches today seems somewhat indicative of our laziness in modern times.
The fact that we do not understand the ritual and spiritual distinctions related to standing, worshiping, and bowing, is further indicative of our lack of connection to the liturgy, whereby we are participating to some degree in “vain worship” which the Lord strongly criticized. The deacon says BOW and we all kneel. The deacon says to WORSHIP and yet we sit.
It is sad to see such widespread disconnect with the spirit of the words of liturgy. I hope that this post helps improve that degradation of spirituality. And I hope that you spread the message!
For a wealth of quotes and information on this subject which I’ve complied together over the years, see this PDF (click here)
- Fr. Matthew the Poor, on “Collective Fasting and Repentance”
- Bishop Mettaous, The Spirituality of the Rites of the Holy Liturgy
- Fr Shenouda Maher Ishak: Sunday the Day of the Lord chapter 5, p.42 1st ed. (Arabic)
- Fr Athanasius, Dictionary of Church’s Terminologies, 2nd book, p.187 1st ed (Arabic).
- Fr Athanasius, Dictionary of Church’s Terminologies, 3rd book, p.291-292 1st ed (Arabic).
- Image credit: adopted from an image in the public domain, located at Wikipedia