Why do people kneel when they come and go from the church?
Within our tradition you may notice a practice that causes you to question the reason if you are not accustomed to it. Often people kneel, or touch their right knee to the floor, upon entry or exit from one’s pew or when entering or exiting the sanctuary (place of worship). The custom, called genuflecting, comes from an ancient practice and is seen in Scripture as well.
It harkens back to days when kings or rulers had control of a region. In those days it was expected that anyone living under such a ruler would pay homage to them upon entering their presence. They would typically touch their knee to the floor and bow to show respect. You likely have seen this in various time appropriate movies and TV shows that capture this practice. When have even come to see it in football games. Some genuflect in the end zone. Tim Tebow would do it so often that many coined it as ‘tebowing.’ Hopefully that brings the visual to mind!
This practice given to ancient rulers before rulers was aptly applied to our King, God Himself. Throughout Scripture we see numerous reference of bowing down before the Lord in worship (i.e. Psalm 95:6 ; Romans 14:11 ; Philippians 2:10). Many today choose to put these words in action and to genuflect upon entering God’s midst to pay Him homage upon entering His presence. It became custom to do so when the sanctuary lamp was lit, signifying the presence of God in the Sacrament reserved in the tabernacle. Some will also genuflect at the Creed, upon the words, was incarnate from the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, and was made man, as a sign of respect for the moment when God quite literally stepped into the world for our sake.
Another time you may see the practice is when the bishop is present. Some will genuflect, using their left knee (reserving the right for homage to God), to acknowledge the office that he holds. Some want to show respect of the office of bishop; the unbroken line of succession from the original twelve tasked with safeguarding and upholding the Faith.
As in all things, this practice is a intended to assist in engaging one’s whole body and mind in worship. It is certainly not required, buy may be helpful in honoring God through reverence and in keeping one fully present in a day and age when so much tends to cause our mind to wander!