The priest, new to me, was in his sixties. He was tall; he wore his weariness loosely, standing upright and controlling his breath. When he knelt at the altar, and when he rose from kneeling, his knees cracked. It was fine church music, this sound of his cracking knees.1
Rising above our time's cacophony of controversy and conversation about liturgy and worship — its purpose, shape, participants, words, and music — is the melody of knees kneeling, cracking under the weight of prayer.
Think for a moment about the posture of the people in the newspaper photos, magazine spreads, big screen movies, TV shows and commercials, billboards, check-out lane tabloids, and Internet-delivered images that have filled your line of sight this past week. Do you remember anyone kneeling? Running, yes. And driving, working, sitting, lifting a fist or two in triumph, drinking, eating, hitting, hurting, jumping, putting, strutting, hugging, having sex, doing yoga, catching a football, frying a fish, downing a Dew, smoking a cigarette, buying stock, surfing the Web, cheering a candidate, working a crowd, dancing in "Dockers." But not kneeling, at least, not usually.
Each of the postures in the plethora of images filling our days is a response to a call, a beckoning to heed someone or something. In a culture saturated with such shemas clamoring for our ultimate allegiance, the liturgy of the church is the shema Israel for the baptized people of God: "Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might."
|The kneeling's the thing. It's what makes liturgy worship. Kneeling is not all we do; but kneeling is the first and primary thing we do.|
Our knees crack with repentance for running off after other gods.
Our backs bend and our cross-marked foreheads near the floor in humble praise for the wonder of forgiveness and long-suffering love.
We kneel at the glory of Word made flesh, echoing from the page, issuing forth from lips, transforming lives through the ear.
The needs of the world, the cries of the poor, the pain of disease, the despair of unbelief, the loneliness of griefours, yes, but especially the needs and cries and pain and despair and loneliness of those who cannot or will not yet kneel in worship themselves or who kneel in other places for other reasonsdrive us to our knees, too.
For the sake of the world and on behalf of the world, we beseech the one God who can do something about the world's need for healing, the one God who heeds the cries and comes to deliver.
The cracking continues at the table of the Presence. Here we kneel to receive the gifts of God for the people of God: bread for the journey, wine for the wilderness; sustenance, nourishment, judgment, mercy, peace, power. Joined with the body of Christ of all times and places we add our meager Holys and Hosannas to the crackling chorus.
Here, on our knees, we glimpse and rehearse the goal of God, the mission: all things healed and whole and united in the crucified and risen Christ. Here, while we linger on our knees, we pause at a wrinkle in time: the future folds in on the present, and we are drawn forward for a foretaste of the feast to come.
Robert Jensen has suggested that "'Going to church' must be a journey to the place where we will behold our destiny, where we will see what is to come of us."3 So it is, especially in the Eucharistic celebration. Here, as Aidan Kavanagh suggests, we "do the World as God means it to be done in Christ."4 This, Kavanagh says, "is the greatest prophecy, the most powerful exorcism, of all."5
Kneeling in worship we, the baptized, are evangelized and and sent on a mission. We kneel for the executioner's axe-sharp blow on the neck of our sin, and we rise up, resurrected by the life-giving breath of good news. We are gathered into Christ, shaped, molded, renewed, reborn, and refocused, rehearsed for life with God at its very center.
Then, finally, wined and dined, our cracking knees straighten and we rise. We are lifted, raised, and sent from the service of worship to offer in our daily lives the worship of servicethe liturgy after the liturgy, as some of our Orthodox sisters and brothers say it. For this is the proper public work of the people: to embody and proclaim "out there"in the world on whose behalf we have gatheredwhat we have experienced, rehearsed, and received "in here," at the altar of God.
Ion Bria, a Romanian Orthodox theologian and former staff member of the World Council of Churches, suggests profound continuity between life at worship in the church and daily life in the world.
Above all, the eucharistic liturgy is not terminated in the prayerful intimacy of the worship, but it continues with diakonia, apostolic mission, visible and public Christian witness. The liturgy is not simply a tool for confessing Christ or an instrument of mission; rather, it must be seen as the starting event of the Christian movement for mission, the point of departure given to the church for pursuing its vocation in the wider society.6
"Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might."
Surely, in worship we stand and jump and dance and sit and lie down. Kneeling is not all we do; but kneeling is the first and primary thing we do when we who are baptizedprompted by the Spirit who calls, gathers, enlightens, sanctifies, and sends usheed the shema.
Welcoming the Outsider
But what are we to do about, with, and for those not baptized or who have forgotten their baptism into Christ and yet, drawn by the Spirit, gather among us? What of those who find the way we worship, this cracking of knees, foreign and mysterious?
Surely, we welcome them as we welcome Christ. We honor and explore the gifts they bring, and we risk being changed by them, trusting in the Living God over our time-honored, well-worn ways. We neither abandon "the tradition" as a hopeless impediment nor defend it blindly as a fortress. We trust God to incarnate the gospel in this time and place in the liturgy as in a manger.
When I visited the Taize community in France a couple of years ago, I was amazed to learn that this community's way of worship, especially the music that has traveled the modern world and worked its way into so much Christian worship in so many places, was not always the way it is now.
According to one of the brothers, originally their music was classical, complicated, difficult to sing, and tough to learn. The more pilgrims began to visit the place, however, the more the Taize brothers realized that their music was less than inviting to the strangers in their midst. Intentionally, and over time, the music changed, it became simpler, easier to learn, easier to remember, more akin to the heart and accessible to the soul of strangers.
But one thing did not change: the kneeling. All who worship at Taize kneel before the living God.
The kneeling's the thing. It's what makes liturgy worship.
St. Paul made the audacious claim that "as often as we eat this bread and drink this cup we proclaim the Lord's death until he comes."
For the new ones in our midst, the visitors, the "outsiders," the uninitiated, and the seeking, the worship itself is the witness; our kneeling is the proclamation that may invite them to enter the mystery and perhaps, someday, somehow, in the wonder of God's grace, to add their cracking knees to the ancient and forever chorus of "Holy!" and "Hosanna!"
But this witness of the assembly is by-product; it is residual result of the primary purpose of gathered liturgical assembly (wherever it happens and whatever it looks or sounds like): bowing, together and for a time, before the one, true, living God. In some sense, the opposite is true once the people of God are dispersed into diaspora at noon on Sunday each week. There, in the nit and grit of everyday life, worshipthe knee-cracking praise of the one true Godis the by-product of the hard work of witness, the mundane grace of missionary living.
"Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might." Go in peace. Serve the Lord.