“ON THE FIRST DAY OF THE WEEK we pray standing, but everyone does not know why.” This issue, raised in the fourth century by St. Basil the Great, may be just as timely today. In most Eastern Churches standing is the most appropriate posture for prayer. Sitting is always in order for those who are physically weaker (due to sickness, age, pregnancy, etc). Kneeling, however, is not considered proper on Sundays or during the Paschal season, which ends today.
St Basil gives two reasons why we should pray standing on Sunday: the first is that it is the day on which Christ rose from the dead. St Peter of Alexandria (+311) notes that this practice was already a tradition in his day: “…on Sunday we celebrate a day of joy because of Him who was raised from the dead on that day, during which time we no longer kneel according to the tradition we have received.” St Hilary of Poitiers, a Western father, wrote in his commentary on the psalms that this tradition was of apostolic origin.
Is Kneeling Ever Allowed?
The first Christians followed the practice they inherited from Judaism: standing for prayer. The Lord’s own words confirm this: “And when you shall stand to pray, if you have anything against anyone, forgive him” (Mark 11:25). One of the earliest images of Christian art shows the Holy Virgin standing at prayer, with her arms outstretched, a practice many follow today.
But there were occasions when the Jews knelt for prayer. Repentance was such an occasion – to this day Jews kneel in the synagogue on Yom Kippur. They also knelt to emphasize the particular intensity of their prayer. Thus the Lord Himself, during His agony in the garden after the Last Supper, “knelt down and prayed” (Luke 22:41). Kneeling expressed the powerful emotion in His prayer at that moment.
The Eastern Churches kneel for the same reasons. Kneeling is especially appropriate as a sign of repentance, such as during the Fasts or in the mystery of Confession. Whenever we are praying intensely, as for a special intention, kneeling is also appropriate, except… on Sundays. Proclaiming our faith in Christ’s holy resurrection trumps our personal concerns.
St Basil gives another reason why we pray standing on Sundays: it is the “eighth day,” the foreshadowing of eternity and our own resurrection. He writes, “…we not only remind ourselves by standing during prayer of the grace that was given to us on this Day of Resurrection, but also that the first day of the week seems to be somehow the image of the eternity to come.
“During all the fifty days after Pascha we are reminded of the anticipated resurrection …during this time the customs and orientation of the Church have taught us to prefer the standing position in prayer, thus transposing our minds from the present to the future by this outward physical reminder” (cited in a 6th-7th century canonical collection).
The First Council of Nicaea extended this practice to the whole Church newly embraced by the Roman Emperor. The twentieth canon of that council states: “Seeing that certain people kneel on Sunday and during the Pentecost season, so that there might be the same practice in all the communities, it has been decided by the holy council that prayers should be addressed to the Lord standing.”
The “Kneeling Service” of Pentecost
In the evening of Pentecost, after the last and greatest day of the Paschal season has concluded, we kneel again for the first time since the end of the Great Fast. Three prayers of supplication, said kneeling, are added to the rite of vespers when the deacon invites us, “Again and again on bended knees let us pray to the Lord.”
The first prayer, addressed to the Father, is a prayer of repentance. The priest prays “…on bended knees and with heads bowed because of our sins and the unawareness of the people… recall our souls from the captivity of sin and accept us who kneel down before you.”
The second prayer, addressed to Christ, adds a note of intense supplication: “Guide my life along Your ways… Show me the road that I must walk… Let me be constantly aware of Your presence and of Your future coming in glory… and strengthen me in the hope of the treasures to come.”
The final “kneeling prayer” is a prayer of supplication for our departed brethren “imprisoned in Hades.” We ask that the all-merciful Lord “establish then in peace and joy in the mansions of the just.” With the end of the Paschal celebrations, repentance and intercession – and, therefore, kneeling – are once again our daily tasks.
There is another aspect to our ordinary Christian life which is emphasized at this service: the presence of the Holy Spirit in us, His temple. Once again we hear the prayer “O heavenly King,” which begins most of our services and formal prayers. We invoke the Holy Spirit, “present in all places and filling all things,” that He may enliven by His divine power our worship and all that we do in Christ’s name. The Church, which received the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, continually prays that the power of this Spirit remain active in our midst. “Master, who at the third hour sent Your Holy Spirit upon the disciples, take Him not away from us but renew Him in us, we pray.”
Pentecost and the Holy Trinity
The third kneeling prayer also introduces a theme which became particularly prominent in the Slavic Churches: that Pentecost is the feast of the Holy Trinity. The priest prays: “On this last day of the feast of Pentecost, You have revealed to us the mystery of the Holy Trinity, one in essence, co-eternal, undivided and yet distinct.”
We know that the Church celebrates the Theophany at Christ’s baptism as a manifestation of the Trinity in the world. As we pray in the troparion, “The Father’s voice bore witness to You, calling You His beloved Son and the Spirit, in the form of a dove, confirmed the truth of this word.” The Church also sees the Trinity revealed at Pentecost. The Spirit, who proceeds from the Father, is sent by the Son to rest on the apostles and, through them, on all who would believe. The famous Trinity icon by St Andrei Rublev has been interpreted as portraying this moment in the history of our salvation. The Son, pointing to the Spirit (on the viewer’s right) looks to the Father for His blessing. The Spirit bows His head in acceptance of His mission of revealing the Son to the world.
Today the Apostles of Christ have been strengthened by Power from on high. The Comforter has renewed them. He has placed in them a new knowledge of the Mysteries which they proclaim to us, teaching us to worship the compassionate God, Three Persons in one simple and eternal nature. Illumined by their preaching, let us adore the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, praying that we may be saved.
Stichera at the Kneeling Service