Bending the Knee 

When I was a seminarian, I had a summer assignment at a parish where the pastor gave me the task of training the altar servers.  I was very pleased when a pretty decent number of kids showed up to the training session. The first thing we practiced was processing down the aisle at the beginning of Mass. I told them that when they reached the end of the aisle they were to genuflect at the foot of the sanctuary before entering it. Then I watched with dismay as, one by one, each kid’s attempt to genuflect resulted in them falling over sideways onto the floor.  More than once I had seen these kids playing sports at the parish that required a lot more athletic skill than a simple genuflection. Yet, watching them, you would think I had asked them to perform a pirouette in work boots! It was as though they had never done it before. 

Genuflection is the act of touching one’s right knee to the ground. It’s something that Catholics have traditionally done for centuries in the presence of the Most Blessed Sacrament. We usually do it just before we take our seat in the pew, sometimes while making the sign of the cross.  We are expected to genuflect, however, whenever we pass by the tabernacle – the large, ornate, metal box in which the Eucharist is reserved. In both of our churches the tabernacle is located in the center of the back wall of the sanctuary. Thus, any time we cross in front of the sanctuary, we should genuflect towards the tabernacle. 

But why do we genuflect? A genuflection is an act of worship.  We human beings are not just spirits dwelling in fleshy bodies, we are embodied souls and ensouled bodies. And so, we don’t just worship God with our spirits, but also with our bodies. Through our act of genuflection, we humbly acknowledge that we are in the presence of the Lord, Who is there in the tabernacle both in Spirit and Flesh.  To genuflect is an act of adoration of the One who is all good and worthy of all our love. 

It’s important that adults in the parish give good example when genuflecting towards the tabernacle in church, so that young people learn to do it correctly. For those who find it physically difficult to genuflect, a reverent bow is appropriate. It’s not just about moving one’s body a certain way; it’s about performing a gesture of love for Our Savior in the Most Blessed Sacrament. By performing such acts of love, our devotion to Jesus in the Eucharist grows. If we’re not accustomed to genuflect, it will feel awkward. And when we feel awkward about it, we can end up doing it badly, making it even more awkward. The key is to just go for it. And if you need to hold the end of the pew to keep from falling over like a bunch of new altar servers, that’s perfectly fine. 

posted 10/8/22

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