Re: proskunew

Date: Mon Jun 07 1999 - 14:37:14 EDT

Glory to Jesus Christ!


A little anthropology of worship for you:

In LXX, NT, and patristic Greek (and continuing in the modern usage of
the Orthodox church), proskunew is what you do when you kneel down and
put your face to the ground. This is called making a 'prostration'
(proskynesis). This act of submission, respect, gratitude,
supplication, neediness, humility, etc is and was used on all kinds of
occasions-- at supreme moments of worship, before someone you've
greatly offended, whose forgiveness you are entreating; when
venerating the gospel book, icons, or relics of the saints; as an
expression of awe; as a discipline, repeated again and again and again
(say 3, or 12, or 40, or 100, or 1000 times) while saying prayers like
the Jesus Prayer; etc-- in general, one involves the body in, or
rather express with one's body and not just in words, one's prayer,
one's gratitude, respect, veneration, desire for forgiveness,
neediness, worship, obeisance, homage, etc.

Rather obviously from the gesture, I think, the general idea is
'humility'-- keep in mind that 'humility' comes from the Latin
'humus', meaning 'earth, dirt, soil'. In the Middle East, this is a
rather ordinary way of acting in some ways-- just one of the ways
human (that's another word from 'humus') beings express themselves
before another who deserves profound respect. We are all familiar
with pictures of muslims bowing ('proskynountes') toward Mecca... few
people realize that Christians from the earliest days of the Church
have practiced the same kind of bowing during worship ("worth-ship",
as Jonathan Robie points out), both liturgically and privately-- and
far more frequently than the few required 5 times daily of Muslims.

In the fathers (and in modern practice also) the word can also mean
lesser gestures-- a bowing of the head (I have noticed that Orthodox
people often make a slight 'proskynesis' (that's the noun form of this
verb) when greeting each other from a distance like maybe across the
street this way); or a bow from the waist; or bowing from the waist
and touching the ground with one or with both hands. Accordingly,
these are "half prostrations" and a "full prostration" is when you put
your face on the floor.

I'm in basic agreement with Jim West's comment that

> The notion comes from judicial language. The accused was brought before the
> judge and made to lie prostrate on the ground. If they were found guilty,
> the judge would place his foot on their neck- if innocent, the judge would
> stoop over and lift their face with his hand.
> The hebrew concept of "lifting the face" (as in, the Lord lift your
> countenance... etc) equals a declaration of innocence in a judicial proceeding.

Because Christ has 'lifted our faces' from the dust of death, the
normal posture of Christian worship from earliest times was always
standing-- as it still is today in Orthodox churches, and even until
rather late in the West-- which is why the old cathedrals of Europe
never have any permanent seating but are usually just very empty, open
spaces-- you would stand for the services, punctuating your prayer
with bows, prostrations, and kneelings (this is called "standing on
the knees") when appropriate. However, I'm not so sure I would agree
with Jim that the notion of a proskynesis is to be "derived" from
judicial practice-- I think the judicial practice just uses and
formalizes a custom whose origin is lost in deep antiquity. As I say,
it's just one of the ways human beings show their feelings.

I don't know if attachments are possible on this list, but I have a
picture of an old icon that shows Jesus praying in a proskynesis,
which I can easily scan and either send to the list or to anyone that
writes me privately.

Best regards,

John Burnett, MA (OT)

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