You step into the church and the central aisle stretches before you all the way to the altar. You dip your hand in the holy water (we'll talk about that another time) and make the sign of the cross, then find the pew where you want to sit and drop to one knee before standing up again and entering the pew. Sudden failure of muscle function? No, that's a Catholic showing reverence by genuflecting.
"Genuflect" sounds like it ought to have some big meaningful etymology, but really it just comes from the Latin for "to bend the knee." Hang out on a street in 1st-century Rome when the emperor or the statue of a god was passing by and you'd see knees being bent all over the place. The Romans considered it a sign of veneration: you were showing with your body that the emperor or statue or whatever was divine, and you were not.
Early Christians didn't much like the genuflecting, since it was part of that whole polytheistic worship that didn't sit too well with their monotheistic ways. But the meaning behind the action changed over time, and instead of being a sign of worship for divinity, genuflecting became simply a sign of respect for those in high authority. Watch a movie with lots of knights and castles and you're likely to see a scene where a king walks through a room and everyone drops to one knee - genuflecting, but not worshipping, especially since half of them were probably plotting how to take the guy's throne as they stood back up.
Christians started adapting the practice for -- you guessed it -- high Church authority, meaning popes and bishops, who had the same sort of worldly power as kings and nobles. But over time they also began genuflecting before holy objects, like the altar, saints' relics, the crucifix, things like that. Here we're leaving simple respect for authority and once again entering the realm of adoration and reverence. What was old became new again, but with a twist: Christians dropped the symbol until it lost its original meaning, picked it up when it had a acquired a new meaning, and then reinterpreted that new meaning into one that was really similar to the original. Pretty cool, huh?
Nowadays genuflecting is seen as a sign of adoration and therefore reserved for God alone, so Catholics genuflect before the blessed sacrament, the bread and wine transformed into the body and blood of Christ. That's why Catholics drop that knee when they come into church: the sacrament is already present in the altar area in a tabernacle.
But Catholics don't continue to hang out there on the floor, checking out the carpet pattern or choosing to say their prayers in toto in the aisle, seeing as how they would kind of be in the way of the other worshippers. Nor do they pretend like they are proposing to someone in the pew ahead of them; hey, that's the only other time you're likely to see people very consciously getting down on one knee.
9/15/2009 4:00:00 AM