On Kneeling and Sunday Church Prayers

Hieromartyr Metropolitan Seraphim of Chichagov

Hieromartyr Metropolitan Seraphim of Chichagov

My beloved spiritual children in Christ Our Only True God and Our Only True Savior,


[Why Are Prayers Said in Church without Kneeling on All Sundays and From Pascha Until Pentecost? From Orthodox Life, Vol. 27, No. 3 (May June, 1977), pg. 47-50]

As is evident from the Holy Scripture, bows, kneeling and prostrations were employed during prayer even in the Old Testament. The holy Prophet King David refers to bowing down to God or to His temple in many of the psalms, for example: "Bow down to the Lord in His holy court" (Psalm 28:2); "I shall bow down toward Thy holy temple in fear of Thee" (Psalm 5:8); "O come, let us worship and fall down before Him" (Psalm 94:6); "Let us go forth into His tabernacle, let us bow down at the place where His feet have stood" (Psalm 131:7), etc.

About kneeling, it is known that the holy Prophet Daniel, for example, thrice daily "knelt upon his knees, and prayed and gave thanks before his God" (Daniel 6:10). Full prostrations are also mentioned in the books of the Old Testament. For example: the Prophets Moses and Aaron besought God, "having fallen on their faces" (Numbers 16:22), to be merciful to the children of Israel who had grievously sinned. In the New Testament also, the custom of performing kneeling, prostrations and, of course, bows had been preserved and still had a place at the time of the earthly life of our Lord Jesus Christ, Who sanctified this Old Testament tradition by His own example, praying on bent knees and falling down upon His face. Thus, we know from the Holy Gospels that before His passion, in the Garden of Gethsemane, He "kneeling down, and prayed" (St. Matthew 26:39), "fell on the ground and prayed" (St. Mark 14:35).

After the Lord's Ascension, during the time of the holy Apostles, this tradition, of which the Holy Scripture also speak, existed unchanged. For example, the holy Protomartyr (First-Martyr) and Archdeacon Stefanos (Stephen) "knelt down," and prayed for his enemies who were stoning him (Acts 7:60); the Apostle Peter, before raising Tabitha from the dead, "knelt down, and prayed" (Acts 9:40), etc. It is an indisputable fact that, as under the first successors of the holy Apostles, so even in much later periods of the existence of the Church of Christ, kneelings, bows and prostrations upon the ground were always employed by true believers at domestic prayers and at the Divine Services of the Church. In antiquity, among the other bodily activities, kneeling was considered the outward manifestation of prayer most pleasing to God. Thus, Saint Ambrose of Milan says: "Beyond the rest of the ascetic labors, kneeling has the power to assuage the wrath of God and to evoke His mercy" (Book VI on the Six Days of Creation, ch. 9).

The holy Canons concerning bows and kneelings now accepted by the Orthodox Church and set for the books of the divine services, and particularly in the Church Typicon, are observed in Monasteries. But in general, Orthodox Christian laymen who have zeal are, of course, permitted to pray on their knees in church and to make full prostrations whenever they wish, excepting only those times when the Gospel, Epistle, Old Testament readings, six psalms and sermon are read. The Holy Church lovingly regards such people, and does not constrain their devout feelings. However, the exceptions with regard to Sundays and the days between Pascha and Pentecost apply generally to everyone. According to ancient tradition and a clear Church law, kneeling must not be performed on these days. The brilliant solemnity of the events which the Church commemorates throughout the period of Pentecost and on Sundays precludes, in and of itself, an external manifestation of sorrow or lamentation over one's sins for ever since Jesus Christ, "blotting out the handwriting of the ordinances that was against us,...nailing it to His Cross; and having spoiled principalities and powers, He made a show of them openly, triumphing over them in it" (Col. 2:14-15)--ever since then "there is, therefore, no condemnation to them who are in Jesus Christ" (Romans 8:1). For this reason, the practice was observed in the Church from the earliest times, beyond a doubt handed down by the holy Apostles, whereby on all these days, in that they are consecrated to the commemoration of the Glorious Victory of Jesus Christ over sin and death, it was required to perform the public divine service brightly and with solemnity, and in particular without kneeling, which is a sign of repentant grief for one's sins.

The Second Century writer Tertullian gives testimony concerning this practice: "On the Lord's Day" (i.e., Sunday) we consider it improper to fast or to kneel; and we also enjoy this freedom from Pascha until Pentecost" (On the Crown, ch. 3). Saint Peter of Alexandria (3rd century--cf. his Canon XV in the Rudder), and the Apostolic Constitution (Book II, Ch. 59), also say the same thing.

Subsequently, the First Ecumenical Council found it necessary to make this legally binding by a special Canon obligatory for the entire Church. The holy Canon of this Council states "Since there are some persons who kneel in church on Sundays and on the days of Pentecost, with a view to preserving uniformity in all parishes, it has seemed best to the holy Council for prayers to be offered to God while standing" (Canon XX).

Pointing out this holy Canon Saint Basil the Great explains the rationale and meaning of the practice established by it thus: "We stand up when praying on the first of the week, though not all of us know the reason. For it is not only that it serves to remind us that when we have risen from the dead together with Christ we ought to seek the things above, in the day of resurrection of the grace given us, by standing at prayer, but that it also seems to serve in a way as a picture of the expected age. Wherefore, being also the starting point of days, though not the first with Moses, yet it has been called the first. For it says: "The evening and the morning were the first day" (Genesis 1:5), on the ground that it returns again and again. The eighth, therefore, is also the first, especially as vespers that really first and true eighth day, which the Psalmist too has mentioned in some of the superscriptions of his psalm, serving to exhibit the state which is to succeed this period of time, the unceasing day, the day without a night that follows, the day without successor, the never-ending and un-aging age. Of necessity therefore, the Church teaches her children to fulfill their obligations to pray therein while standing up, in order by constantly reminding them of the deathless life to prevent them from neglecting the provisions the for the journey thither."

(To be continued)


"Glory Be To GOD For All Things!"--Saint John Chrysostom


With sincere agape in His Holy Diakonia,

The sinner and unworthy servant of God

+Father George