Prostrations on Sunday

When I was newly baptised or perhaps still a catechumen, I picked up a great deal of what I know about Orthodoxy from discussions on the internet. Of course, one can question the wisdom of this as it has many pitfalls as well as advantages. Among these snippets of information was the rule that prostrations are forbidden on Sundays, in honour of the Resurrection. I had no reason to doubt this so I simply accepted it, and it was further reinforced by the fact that we did not make prostrations on Sundays at my parish, or at my local Greek or Antiochian parishes which I visit from time to time.

So, one Sunday a couple of years ago, when I paid a visit to my local Russian parish and saw some of the faithful prostrate themselves at the epiklesis, my first thought was that perhaps they simply did not know any better. My second thought, having seldom been to a weekday Liturgy, was just how much these people held their Lord in awe and reverence. Really, from that point, I have restrained myself from making prostrations on Sundays, contrary to what my heart calls me to do, and only out of obedience to this "no Sunday prostrations" rule.

Then, just over a fortnight ago, I was at the conference of the Diocese of Sourozh. On the Sunday morning, Archbishop Elisey served the Episcopal Divine Liturgy with his clergy, and I was confused to find that, with the exception of one priest who had trouble with his back, I was the only person in the altar who did not prostrate at the epiklesis.

Not being one to leave any liturgical question unanswered, I did some digging and found statements
that prostrations are forbidden on Sundays and during the Paschal season, citing the following canons:
Forasmuch as there are certain persons who kneel on the Lord’s Day and in the days of Pentecost, therefore, to the intent that all things may be uniformly observed everywhere (in every parish), it seems good to the holy Synod that prayer be made to God standing.
- Canon 20 of the First Ecumenical Synod

We have received from our divine Fathers the canon law that in honour of Christ’s Resurrection, we are not to kneel on Sundays. Lest therefore we should ignore the fullness of this observance we make it plain to the faithful that after the priests have gone to the Altar for Vespers on Saturdays (according to the prevailing custom) no one shall kneel in prayer until the evening of Sunday, at which time after the entrance for compline, again with bended knees we offer our prayers to the Lord. For taking the night after the Sabbath, which was the forerunner of our Lord’s Resurrection, we begin from it to sing in the spirit hymns to God, leading our feast out of darkness into light, and thus during an entire day and night, we celebrate the Resurrection.
- Canon 90 of the Sixth Ecumenical Synod (Trullo)
These canons may be read, with notes, here and here.

Now, I do not have Greek, so I cannot read the original text and must rely on a translation but it seems to my reading that these canons are not discussing prostrations at all but rather the practice of kneeling down to pray, (as opposed to standing), which is not done on Sundays, but is quite a different action from a momentary gesture of awe and reverence such as the prostrations made at the epiklesis, when the Holy Things are presented to the people, and so forth.

Here are some more quotations:
On the Lord's Day we consider it improper to fast or to kneel; and we also enjoy this freedom from Pascha until Pentecost.
- Tertullian "On the Crown"
There are many other observances in the Church which, though due to tradition, have acquired the authority of the written law, as, for instance, the practice of not praying on bended knees on Sunday.
- St Jerome
This, too, we ought to know, that from the evening of Saturday which precedes the Sunday, up to the following evening, among the Egyptians they never kneel, nor from Easter to Whitsuntide; nor do they at these times observe a rule of fasting.
- St John Cassian, Institutes
Wednesday is to be fasted, because then the Jews conspired to betray Jesus; Friday, because he then suffered for us. We keep the Lord’s Day as a day of joy, because then our Lord rose. Our tradition is to refrain from kneeling on that day.
- Pope St Peter of Alexandria
To my reading, it appears that there is no contention surrounding the custom of kneeling down to pray. It seems universally accepted from earliest times that this is not done on Sundays and during Pentecost, when standing is preferred. The question, then, seems to lie only in whether the fathers who expressed in writing this tradition which they had received intended their words to be read as also precluding the making of prostrations on Sundays. No definite conclusion can be drawn either way from these patristic quotations alone. However, the extension of the meaning of the word kneeling to include prostrations does not seem to be the sense of St Basil's words below, where prostrations seem to be almost positively encouraged:

On the day of the Resurrection we remind ourselves of the grace given to us by standing at prayer, not only because we rose with Christ, and are bound to "seek those things which are above," but because the day seems to us to be in some sense an image of the age which we expect... On this day the rules of the church have educated us to prefer the upright attitude of prayer, for by their plain reminder they, as it were, make our mind to dwell no longer in the present but in the future.

Moreover, every time we fall upon our knees and rise from off them
(ed. that is, make a prostration) we show by the very deed that by our sin we fell down to earth, and by the loving-kindness of our Creator were called back to heaven.
- St Basil the Great "On the Holy Spirit"
Relying on translations, it is not easy to decipher the subtleties of particular types of reverence that possibly exist in the original texts. I understand that English is quite limited in this respect. Is the expression rendered as "on bended knees" directly synonymous with what we today call kneeling, meaning nothing more than that? This seems to be the most obvious reading. Or does it refer to any posture, gesture, or action in which the knees depart from the straight and upright position? If the latter, then prostrations would certainly be ruled out. However, the reductio ad absurdum of that line of reasoning is that processions during prayers or antiphons on Sundays would also be forbidden unless we could work out a way of walking without bending our knees. Yet this is patently not the intention of those words in context, and it is easy to see how quickly things become silly once we start down that road.

Apart from how we interpret historical writings, this is also not what we find in the liturgical tradition of the Church. I asked a priest from my diocese about this and he corroborated my reading, saying that the talk about no prostrations on Sundays is quite incorrect. While I perhaps would not think of it in terms of correctness, I sympathise with his view. He pointed out that when the Holy Chrism is brought out and when the pre-Sanctified Gifts are removed from the tabernacle, a prostration is made, even if it is a Sunday. Also, we prostrate at Matins when we venerate the Cross on the third Sunday of Lent and on the Feast of the Elevation of the Cross, even if it falls on a Sunday. So the “no prostrations on Sundays” rule actually runs contrary to what the rubrics direct us to do in the services.

Add to the landscape the practice of our brothers and sisters of the Old Rite, who do make prostrations on Sundays, and we begin to get a clearer picture of things. The Old Rite has been discussed on this blog in the past but to briefly recapitulate, the reforms of Patriarch Nikon were made in the 17th century as part of an effort to bring Russian practice more in line with Greek practice of his day, the scholarship of the time suggesting that the Russian church had altered its services over the years, leading to differences between them and those of the Greek church. Those who refused to adopt these reforms were anathematised, and over the centuries were persecuted with varying degrees of fierceness for their apparent disobedience. Then, in the 20th century, with improved liturgical scholarship and the discovery of old Greek manuscripts, it was learnt that the old Russian customs in fact represent an authentic ancient tradition within Orthodox praxis, largely untouched by the revisions of Greek liturgical practice over the centuries. The anathemas were lifted and the mainstream Church asked forgiveness of the Old Ritualists, in some places consecrating bishops to look after those who chose to return.

This preservation of the old ways gives us some insight into how the "no Sunday kneeling" rule was traditionally interpreted, and it seems that it was by no means understood to prohibit prostrations. This is from the website of the Old Rite Parish of the Nativity:
Prostrations are made at times and at prayers that are often different than for other Orthodox accustomed to the diminution of prostrations made by and after the Patriarch Nikon. A study needs to be made to determine exactly what the canons of the Church meant when they prohibited prayer “on bended knees” at certain times. For example, the service books used in the Old Rite, and used by all Russian Orthodox prior to the reforms of Patriarch Nikon, specifically direct prostrations at the Kissing of the Gospel at Sunday Matins, or at It is truly Meet… at the end of Liturgy, and even at the end of Shine, Shine, New Jerusalem… all during the Paschal season. While one might argue the propriety of making these prostrations, it must be understood the service books directing these prostrations are hundreds of years old and pre-date the schism in the Russian Church by many decades, if not centuries. Thus, these prostrations are not “Old Believer oddities” but the semi-ancient if not ancient practice of the Russian Orthodox Church.
I am no liturgical scholar and would welcome correction from those more knowledgeable of the history of these things, but based on the evidence to hand, it seems that the "rule" that prostrations are prohibited on Sundays is an innovation, and a fairly recent one at that.  Saying to a faithful Russian Orthodox Christian 350 years ago that it is wrong to make prostrations on a Sunday would have been greeted with confusion because this would have contradicted common knowledge and parish experience, as well as all of the service books of the time.  Yet today, many Orthodox say precisely this.

I asked my parish priest about this, who directed me to ask my bishop, and his response was that, while in the Church Abroad, we generally follow the practice of Holy Trinity Monastery in Jordanville, (which does not make the prostrations on Sundays but which, while we love it, we must never forget is only one monastery), the Sunday prostrations are indeed made in many parts of Russia and the Russian diaspora, including Christ the Saviour Cathedral in Moscow, and that there is room for such variety in the Church. (Update 11/08/2010: Since having written this, I have received private correspondence telling me of Sunday prostrations in an Antiochian parish and I myself have witnessed the practice in a Serbian parish.)

Therefore, this "rule" seems to be a development which, while having crept into popular consciousness in many parts of the Orthodox Church, has never been universally accepted.  The continued practice of Sunday prostrations in parts of the Russian and possibly other churches attests to the fact that inherited tradition often lives on in spite of changing interpretations of the Church's canons.

For my part, I agree with my bishop's sentiment.  These two traditions appear to have developed side by side within Orthodox practice - even Russian Orthodox practice - and if people prefer not to make prostrations on Sundays and during Pentecost out of honour for the Resurrection of the Saviour, I have no problem with this, especially as kneeling is now uncommon in our churches. However, it seems that those of us who do make the prostrations are similarly doing nothing wrong or which indicates disobedience, nor are we acting in an uncanonical manner. I just feel so relieved that what has felt like such a restriction for so long on my expression of my love for the Saviour and the awe of what happens at the Divine Liturgy has finally been relaxed. So yesterday, for the first time on a Sunday, I was able to freely prostrate myself before the Body and Blood of Christ at the appointed times, in keeping with my natural inclination, and was comforted to see our visiting priest do the same.

For the benefit of any who wish to adopt the prostrations but do not know when, they are done at the Liturgy:
  • at the Anaphora, at the beginning of "It is meet and right to worship the Father, and the Son..."
  • at the invocation of the Holy Spirit on the Gifts, immediately after the deacon's threefold "Amen"
  • at the end of the hymn to the Mother of God, at the words "we magnify thee" or the festal/seasonal variation
  • at the beginning of the Our Father
  • When the Holy Things are brought to the people for communion, at "With the fear of God, with faith draw near."
  • after "We have seen the True Light...", at the final elevation of the chalice, while the priest says "always, now and ever...", a prostration is made. Those who have received divine communion never prostrate but instead make a low bow from the waist.

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