Since we were asked to ensure our children understood both the Sign of the Cross and how to properly genuflect, I’m once more utilizing you wonderful readers as my guinea pigs. Many thanks.
Last year, one of my students had slipped a “Why do people stoop when they come into church” question into the Question Box. This had tied in pretty well to a lesson on the Real Presence of Christ within the Blessed Sacrament which we had covered about two weeks prior. So to answer his question, I simply pointed out that the “stooping” motion was really a person touching his or her right knee to the ground in a show of reverence to God who is truly, fully present in the tabernacle.
I then had them practice genuflection as I noticed so many people (adults, too!) who did “stoop” which is probably what solicited the confused question from my student.
Anyway, why do we genuflect?
Most people understand that we’re reverencing God, but why is the act of genuflection an act of reverence to begin with?
Well, let’s take a look at this history of genuflection, shall we?
Even in the animal world, lowering your gaze signifies humility in the presence of someone superior. To conform your entire body to reflect the downward cast of your eyes highlights the significance of your humility that much more. Thus, high-ranking leaders like kings, emperors and dignitaries required (by custom and law) that their subjects genuflect or kneel in their presence.
This reverence translated well into Christianity which was already rich in the tradition of showing humility courtesy of its Jewish roots.
It was (and still is in some customs) Jewish tradition to kneel before the Word of God to kiss the scrolls in order to show reverence to the Divine. The Levites were also known to “fall on their faces” before God in the Holy of Holies in order to show humility and reverence while asking God for His mercy and blessings. To this day there are some Orthodox Jews who hold fast to the practice of full prostration in prayer to order their bodies after their hearts so that they can reflect the utmost humility before the Throne of God.
Thus, this practice translated into the first Christians kneeling to kiss the epistles of the apostles before they were read… to kissing relics… to kissing the rings of the bishops and popes in authority. We Catholics do not simply stoop. We are ordering our bodies after the humility in our hearts so that we can properly pay homage to the God of the Universe.
At least that’s what we should be doing, anyway.
Also, this sign of humility is a sign of subjugation.
For example, way back when, high ranking officials in armies were given foot soldiers who served as human stools (for lack of a better term). They would genuflect before their leader’s horse to allow themselves to be used as a stepping stool so their commanding officer could easily take to the saddle and lead a charge.
When we genuflect before Christ in the Blessed Sacrament, we not only order our bodies after what’s in our hearts… we’re also offering ourselves to Him for whatever services He may ask of us.
So that, my friends, is why we genuflect upon entrance into a church. That is why we kneel before the Blessed Sacrament during Adoration. That is why the priest and ministers genuflect (or deeply bow) when crossing the front of the tabernacle.
And that’s why you should, too! Please don’t half it. It confuses others (especially children) who see it as stooping. If you’re going to order your bodies after the faith that’s in your heart, make sure your body reflects the true and deep humility that our faith encourages (if you’re able). If a genuflection is simply impossible due to age, illness, etc, refrain from stooping and simply give a deep bow. Even a head nod is better than a lackluster stoop.
The point is to pay reverence and humility to the God of Creation.