Genuflecting is an act of humility, love, and submission to our King of kings. Thus, we genuflect whenever we pass a tabernacle – for as Catholics we believe that Jesus Christ is truly present in body, blood, soul, and divinity in the Holy Eucharist.
I’ve caught myself genuflecting in public a number of times. There’s just something about entering a row of seats that sends the message, “genuflect,” to the rest of my body. It’s a mistake that I’ve laughed about with my friends while at the movies, but also one that has challenged me to understand the meaning behind the motion, not just go through the motion.
We genuflect at church because we are in the presence of God. This action should always be directed towards the tabernacle - wherever it may be placed in the church - because that is where Christ resides. It is a gesture of reverence, and the enactment of Paul’s words in Philippians, “That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth.” (Philippians 2:10)
Historically speaking, the act of genuflecting on one knee comes from court etiquette. When in the presence of a medieval king or noble you would drop to one knee, signaling respect as well as pledging your service to your leader. When helping them onto their horse or into a carriage, you would offer them your strength by kneeling on your left leg and providing the stronger, right leg to step up on. The Catholic Church adopted this tradition over time. The left knee was always used to give reverence or offer one's strength to a king. God has always been known to the Christians and the Jews as a king who is rich in mercy and boundless in love. We read in scripture multiple times that He is the, “King of king and Lord of lords.” Therefore, it is fitting that we bend our knees and pay our respects when we are in his presence. It also means that when we genuflect and offer Christ our left leg, we are offering Him our weakness, because we are nothing but weakness without Him. That being said, we should be genuflecting whenever we pass a tabernacle – for as Catholics we believe that Jesus Christ is truly present in body, blood, soul, and divinity in the Holy Eucharist.
We can think of the action of genuflecting in three ways. First, it is an act of humility. Kneeling before someone has always been a sign of submission. When we choose to kneel to the tabernacle, we not only acknowledge that Jesus is present in the Holy Eucharist, we acknowledge that He is more powerful than we are. It’s like saying, “You are God and I am not.” We bend our knee to His will, signifying that we give our hearts and our loyalty to Him – He is our king.
Second, genuflecting is a posture of action. The movement itself signifies that we are at his service to bring light to the darkness and healing to the broken. We are his servants called to action. Thus, when we enter the church, we bend our knees and begin to actively participate in the mass – God’s call to us to be in communion with Him. When we leave, we bend our knees as well, going forth and participating in God’s mission to spread the Good News. It is as Pope Benedict XVI has said,
“Our religion, our prayer, demands bodily expression. Because the Lord, the Risen One, gives himself in the Body, we have to respond in soul and body … all the spiritual possibilities of our body are necessarily included in celebrating the Eucharist: singing, speaking, keeping silence, sitting, standing, kneeling.”
Finally, genuflecting is a movement of love. We know that when a man decides to commit his life to the woman he loves, he gets down on his left knee to ask her to marry him. In this way, he is offering his strength, his right knee, to her, and reserves his right knee for God alone. Similarly, when we get down on one knee in front of our God we are expressing our total and complete love to Him, saying, “Let me love you my whole life.”
So, the next time you have the opportunity to genuflect, don’t rush the action. I encourage you to truly think about what it means to get down on your right knee. Sometimes we can find ourselves bending our knee a few degrees and rushing in or out of the pew. But think of it this way – if Jesus were standing in front of you, would you rush through that action? Our God is present in the tabernacle - let’s choose to show Him the reverence he deserves.