This is an email that I sent when one of my friends asked me what the deal was for kneeling to receive the Blessed Sacrament; why do people do it in general, and why do I do it in particular.
Once upon a time, everyone received Communion kneeling, all the time, for about one thousand years. For well-nigh a millennia, if not longer, every Catholic in the world assumed the practical posture of respect, and humility, before his God (the other being prostration, but that is not practical for receiving a consumable). They knew what they were doing and they knew why they were doing it – for probably all of that time, the countryside was crawling with kings and barons and dukes and earls and lords and things, who all wanted their subjects to assume the proper posture for being in their presence. People understood that they should bow or even kneel to their temporal superior, who quite possibly held their livelihood in gloved, bejeweled fingers. How much more must they have understood that it is right and proper to conduct themselves with even more humility before the Blessed Sacrament, which is God. People should know who and what they are in relation to each other and especially to God. One of the gifts of the Holy Spirit is “fear of the Lord”. It is not such for nothing.
However, time passed and what with the Enlightenment and the Age of Reason, people began to get uppity. Sometimes it was good, and we had the American Revolution. Sometimes it went overboard, and we had the bloodbath of the French Revolution. England went through a totally schizophrenic phase and couldn’t decide what religion it was going to be that year or whether or not they’d suffer the current monarch to live. As nobility gradually lost more and more power, and the monarchy gradually became more and more of a joke, ordinary people didn’t have much of a temporal hierarchy to show them how to behave towards a spiritual hierarchy. Little by little, the formal acts denoting the balances of rank and respect faded into empty courtesies. Men stopped kneeling to anyone, and bowed to whomever they wished. It became a greeting between anybody. Those bows became slighter and slighter until they turned into head nods. Men stopped doffing their hats with a flourish, and substituted tipping them instead. That tipping turned into touching, that touching to motioning somewhere in the vicinity of his hairline. The curtsy found itself on a milk carton. This loss of meaningful motion, if you will, had a sort of “trickle-up” effect – it started with one’s local baron and went up from there.
However, when even the kings and queens were being met with bows meant more to pacify their sense of propriety than any actual deference, the Church was different. People still clung to the knowledge that Churchmen were still a people set apart, and since they dealt with the holies, the mysteries, their affairs of God, laymen showed them more respect than their secular counterparts. But just because the decay was slower, did not mean it wasn’t happening. First a skirt-chasing king and then an overreacting monk sent colossal shock waves through Christendom. Suddenly there was a sense that Church leaders were no more than men, and somewhat distasteful ones at that. Confidence was shaken and respect lost. Even through it all, though, the notion that God was supreme, and that the Blessed Sacrament was indeed His Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity, remained. People still knelt down to receive their Lord. They still understood, on some level or other, where they were in relation to God.
Towards the middle of the 20th century, the Uppity chart had another enormous spike, far outstripping the previous one. God didn’t matter, and if He did, everything was cool, because Jesus is our homeboy. The world looked at religion and said, “Who cares? It’s all good… except when you make me do something I don’t feel like doing.” Catholics looked at the Church and said the same thing. God became radically unimportant. Jesus became a buddy instead of Lord, and buddies don’t ask us to kneel to them. They offer to fist-bump us instead. Religion became unprecedentedly casual. The sense of awe for God, the reverence, the knowledge that He is an omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent deity with all the power of life and death, creation and destruction, miracles and wonders, who made us, taught us, saved us from ourselves and from sin and death, and who gives us the ability to exist and act, had all but disappeared.