Understanding the Meaning of the Postures of Ordination: Kneeling, Prostration, Laying on of Hands
We know well the power of non-verbal communication. The way we sit, or cross our legs, the way we hold our posture, smile, shake another person’s hand: these influence the opinions of others. Any self-help book or “tips to success” will make sure to drive home this point.
Less do we think about how our posture communicates to God.
In the Catholic mass, postures and gestures contain a true power. Not a power to influence the opinions of others, but to change the people within the church. In the mass of a priestly ordination, gestures and postures have the power to transform a man into the representative of Christ on Earth. This sequence of gestures, postures, and prayers is set forth in what is called The Rite of Ordination.
The Rite of Ordination takes place within the context of a mass, and many of us have been fortunate enough to attend an Ordination mass at some point. Yet, it can be difficult for many onlookers to distinguish the different movements of the candidates, priests, and bishop. Even less clear will be the meaning and symbolism of these movements.
Below we will review three of the postures found within an ordination mass and explore what has been said about their origins and significance, with special reference to Pope Benedict XVI’s The Spirit of the Liturgy. Illustrating pictures are taken from recent Augustinian ordinations.
Kneeling (before the bishop and altar)
In the Rite of Ordination, the candidate first kneels before the bishop as he pledges his “Promise of Obedience.” As Catholics, we take for granted the gesture of kneeling as simply a sign of respect. Maybe further, we see it as a sign of submission. In both these cases, kneeling can seem outdated and out-of-place in modern culture.
Yet, as Pope Benedict XVI notes, kneeling was not a gesture taken from any certain culture or historical period; rather it was taken from Christ himself. The ancient Greeks and Romans who converted to Christianity would not have recognized kneeling as a familiar or even dignified form of worship. Nevertheless they would adopt the practice of kneeling, not because Christians knelt, but because Christ knelt.
Christ does kneel, as the Gospel of Luke tells, on the Mount of Olives on the night he was betrayed. This was Christ's night of dread and self-abandonment, when he fell most heartily into human sorrow and desperation. This was when Christ spoke to His Father of His fears over the approaching Passion, and resigns, saying, “not my will, but yours be done.”
Pope Benedict XVI explains the significance of Jesus' kneeling at this moment:
The gesture: Jesus assumes, as it were, the fall of man, lets himself fall into man's fallenness, prays to the Father out of the lowest depths of human dereliction and anguish. He lays His will in the will of the Father's...He lays the human will in the divine.
By kneeling, the candidate for ordination replicates the gestures of Christ when he was in the midst of a crisis of will. If the candidate is going to be fit to serve on Earth as Christ “in person,” it is only appropriate that he should participate in this posture of Christ.
The frequent examples of people falling to their knees before Christ also demonstrates that love, faith, and worship affects the body of the man as well as his spirit. As a physical body, the candidate gives his power over to God, and he does so by buckling at his knees. “The Hebrews regarded the knees as a symbol of strength,” Benedict XVI sates, “to bend the knee is, therefore, to bend our strength before the living God, an acknowledgment of the fact that all that we are we receive from Him."
Prostration (lying face down on the ground)
After the Promise of Obedience, the candidate lies prostrate on the floor while the bishop, priests, and parishioners recite the Litany of Saints, calling out to the communion of saints for their strength and support. They ask also that the saints intercede to God on the candidate’s behalf.
Prostration can carry the symbolism of death--the death to self that comes before the candidate's rebirth into priestly service. At some ordinations you will even see shrouds placed over the prostrate candidates.
Prostration is a rare sight. Outside of ordinations, the only other time a mass-going parishioner might see a prostration is during a Good Friday service, the day when we await the resurrection and “participate in [Christ’s] shock, and his descent into the depths of anguish.”
In the ordination, prostration also represents the candidate’s overwhelming humility before the call to priesthood. As Pope Benedict XVI recalls:
I shall never forget lying on the ground at the time of my own priestly and episcopal ordination. When I was ordained bishop, my intense feeling of inadequacy, incapacity, in the face of the greatness of the task was even stronger than at my priestly ordination. The fact that the praying Church was calling upon all the saints, that the prayer of the Church really was enveloping and embracing me, was a wonderful consolation.
Laying On of Hands
The candidate becomes a priest within the “Laying on of Hands.” The bishop first places his hands on the candidate's head and recites the Prayer of Ordination. At this moment, the bishop confers the Holy Spirit upon him. Here is the pivotal and sacramental moment of Holy Orders, when gestures stop being merely symbolic, and become powerful and transformative.
All priests present at the mass will then do the same in turn. The laying on of hands enters this priest into an unbroken lineage that, Tradition upholds, leads back to the first apostles. While Jesus on multiple occasions placed his hands on people in acts of blessing and healing, this gesture is intended to replicate the gesture that Jesus' disciples used to spread the Holy Spirit after the Pentecost. Indeed, the New Testament tells us that the apostles used the laying on of hands to confer responsibilities and impart the gifts of the Holy Spirit:
When they arrived, they prayed for the new believers there that they might receive the Holy Spirit, because the Holy Spirit had not yet come on any of them; they had simply been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. Then Peter and John placed their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit. When Simon saw that the Spirit was given at the laying on of the apostles’ hands, he offered them money and said, “Give me also this ability so that everyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 8: 14-19)
The protocol of using hands is given further grounding in the text, The Apostolic Tradition, composed by Hippolytus of Rome in 215 AD. Here Hippolytus sets out a ritual for the ordinations of bishops, priests, deacons, widows, and others so that, he says, "those who are well-informed may uphold the apostolic tradition that has lasted until now." In order for this tradition to remain unbroken, he relies upon the direct placement of hands. "With the assent of all, the bishops will place their hands upon [the elect], with the council of priests attending quietly," Hippolytus says.
Hippolytus expressed awe that the lineage of the apostles had remained unbroken up to the third century. How much more amazement can we find in its presence now in the twenty-first century!
So strong, yet so fragile, reliant upon simple gestures and humble postures.