“On the first day of the week we stand when we pray. The reason is that on the day of Resurrection, by standing at prayer, we remind ourselves of the grace we have received.” (Basil the Great)
Some of my friends and family members grew up thinking that it was disrespectful to stand on the Lord’s Day. When they began attending a church that stood for prayer, they kneeled, as if in protest. They grew up in a church context that placed a strong emphasis on kneeling—kneeling before the service for prayer, kneeling at an altar, and kneeling in all of life, with heads hung low in abjection before the Lord. In some, this bred insecurity and fear in God’s presence.
In a world that is flippant and casual about spiritual things, there’s much that is good and true about this emphasis. One of my “life verses” is Psalm 51:17: “a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” It is the meek and mourning who are blessed and justified in God’s kingdom (Mt. 5:3–5), like the tax collector who would “not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’” (Lk. 18:13).
Yet, Christ has not left us to hang our heads in the dust. When people fell prostrate before Jesus, he often lifted them up, and he has raised us up also, restoring our joy and dignity by the power of his resurrection. We who ate dust because of the First Adam are raised up by the Second Adam and made to stand with heads held high. As a sign that we have been raised up with Christ from the degradation of sin and death, Christians for most of history have stood up—never kneeled—on the Lord’s Day, the first day of the week, because that is the day when Christ rose from the dead.
“I Have Made You Walk Erect”
Another one of my “life verses” is Leviticus 26:13: “I have broken the bars of your yoke and made you walk erect.” It’s meaningful to me because as a lonely and depressed teenager who did not know the Lord, I sulked around with my head hung low. After I came to Christ and learned that I was made in God’s image, redeemed by the blood of his Son, and called to a purpose, I regained my self-confidence and sense of self-worth. My posture, both inwardly and outwardly, improved. Christians should always be clothed in humility (1 Pet. 5:5), but our posture need not be abject or solemn; because of the resurrection, it can be upright and joyful.
We who ate dust because of the First Adam are raised up by the Second Adam and made to stand with heads held high.
Leviticus 26:13, of course, has typological significance: By his resurrection, Christ has secured a new exodus for his people. He has brought us out from slavery to sin and death by dying as the Passover Lamb, descending to the dead, breaking down the bars of Hades, setting the prisoners free from their spiritual exile, and putting death under his feet in the resurrection. It is especially fitting, then, that we should stand on the Lord’s Day, the first day of the week, since that is when Christ rose from the dead and unleashed his resurrecting power.
It is an ancient Christian tradition to stand up, never kneel down, on the day when Christ was raised up from the dead. Justin Martyr records that the early Christians rose for prayer on the Lord’s Day. As early as the year 210, just over a century after the apostles, Tertullian wrote, “We consider it forbidden to pray on bended knees on the Lord’s Day.” Basil the Great explained, “On the first day of the week we stand when we pray. The reason is that on the day of Resurrection, by standing at prayer, we remind ourselves of the grace we have received.” Canon 20 of the First Council of Nicaea (AD 325) decrees that this be the universal practice, contrary to some churches that were choosing to kneel:
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.
Paul instructed the Thessalonians to “stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter” (2 Thess. 2:15). Jerome thought that it was a spoken apostolic tradition, passed on by the church from generation to generation, not to stand on the Lord’s Day: “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.”
It is an ancient Christian tradition to stand up, never kneel down, on the day when Christ was raised up from the dead.
Occasionally, I worship with my friends at the local Eastern Orthodox church, and they still stand throughout the whole course of their liturgy (usually around two hours) as a matter of apostolic tradition. Once, I had the privilege of attending a service where they did kneel because of a sobering event in their congregation. It was moving to watch how seriously they took it. Many put their faces to the ground.
Remember the Resurrection
If you attend a church that kneels on the Lord’s Day, you should kneel. Don’t stand in protest. Or visa versa. Respect your local customs. Augustine acknowledged that although most churches in his day observed the Lord’s Day as a feast day, a miniature Easter, some observed it as a fast day. Christians should respect their local customs to avoid division or pride. However, when your church does stand, remember the resurrection. Remember that the resurrection of Christ is not just an isolated event in history to which you occasionally look back, but a reality in which you participate even now.
Take the simple direction “please stand for prayer” as an opportunity to make a profound theological point: Christ is risen, and we are risen with him.
Finally, if you are a pastor or prayer leader, consider leading your congregation to stand, not kneel, on Sunday. Explain that Christians for centuries have preferred to stand up, rather than kneel down, on the Lord’s Day, as a sign that the church has been raised up because of Christ’s resurrection on the first day of the week. Take the simple direction “please stand for prayer” as an opportunity to make a profound theological point: Christ is risen, and we are risen with him. The church is the community of the resurrection; therefore, on the first day of the week, the day of resurrection, we stand.