Love and the Humbling Power of the Bended Knee

The power of love is a curious thing
Make a one man weep, make another man sing
Change a hawk to a little white dove
More than a feeling that’s the power of love

Huey Lewis, The Power of Love

In the HBO Series, Game of Thrones, power struggles of biblical proportions are put on full display as various familes vie for control of Westeros amid direct and indirect machinations. A recurring theme in the ongoing struggle to dominate this imaginary world is the notion of “bending a knee,” a sign of one’s loyalty to a particular ruler and his/her “house.” Though varying degrees of faithfulness to these commitments are displayed throughout the series, the “bended knee” remains a central public indication of one’s intentions in a world where intentions mostly remain hidden.

In the movie, Return of the King, the hobbit Pippin pledges loyalty to the Steward of Gondor, Lord Denethor by bending his knee and swearing fealty and service to Gondor. Denethor responds by saying:

“And I shall not forget it. Nor fail to reward that which is given. Fealty with love, valor with honor, disloyalty with vengeance.”

Fealty is defined as intense fidelity or faithfulness and such an intense vow would be highly desirable for a ruler wanting to make sure his or her vassals were “all-in.” Denethor ups the ante by further defining Pippin’s pledge “Fealty with love, valor with honor, disloyalty with vengeance.” Love is a curious addition. He is saying, I don’t just want loyalty, I want something deeper, something more than an intellectual commitment. I want your heart.

For Pippin in Return of the King and the various players of the Game of Thrones, bending the knee is an action of alignment, saying in the most fundamental sense, “I serve something more than just my own interests.” The posture itself is a message of humility and submission.

An interesting paradox of such submission is that it yokes to the purposes of something greater, while simultaneously liberating from what was before. The basic message of the bended knee is the admission that my life is no longer just my own so I am freed to serve something more. Consider the young lover bending his knee to ask for his love’s hand in marriage. He is choosing to give up his former life, and any conflicting pursuits, in honor and service of a new commitment to their shared love. In it’s purest sense, it is submission and freedom.

Today is Easter Sunday, the Holy Day commemorating the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. In the Catholic Church, the end of the Lenten Season is marked in a three day celebration called the Triduum (literally, three days) beginning on the evening of Holy Thursday and ending this evening.

Thursday’s ceremony is the Mass of the Lord’s Supper, celebrating Jesus’ Last Supper with his Apostles. A key part of the evening is the “washing of feet,” a re-enactment of Jesus washing the feet of the twelve Apostles. Sitting in a pew on Thursday, I watched as twelve chairs were placed atop the steps to the altar and twelve men took their place in them, each removing his right shoe.

Our Pastor removed his outer vestment and proceeded to bend his knee at the foot of each man, wash his foot, dry it, and then kiss it. I was struck by the humility and reverence in the ceremony. Whatever your place in life, there are likely few things more humbling than kneeling before another human being, washing his or her feet, drying them, and then kissing them. It is an act of humble love. I have bent my knee to you and I serve something greater than myself. “Thus, the last will be first, and the first will be last.” – MT 20:16

The next day was Good Friday and the celebration of the Lord’s Passion: the arrest, condemnation, and crucifixion of Christ. Back in the pew, I watched as our two priests, deacon, and twelve altar servers processed toward the altar. As they approached, they spread out in a line at the foot of the steps to the altar and proceeded to fully prostrate themselves, face-down. The incredibly beautiful display of submission reminded me that kneeling is not the greatest form of humility and there is incredible power in the liberating force of loving something greater than yourself.

Last night, we celebrated the Easter Vigil in the Mass of the Resurrection of the Lord. The Saturday evening ceremony is started after dark, fireside outside of the sanctuary, with a procession into the dark church where scriptures outlining salvation history are read while the congregation holds candles. As we walk from darkness into light, we re-enact the Jewish Exodus from Egypt, alternating kneeling and standing, as we remember through the readings.

A key part of the evening is the Baptism, Confirmation, and First Communion, for those who have elected to enter the Church after many months of preparation to receive the Sacraments. Kneeling, the Elect pledge fealty to Christ and His Church as they are received into full membership, full communion, with His Body. As we renewed our Baptismal vows, I was reminded of the call to something greater than myself and the liberating power of a commitment to living in such a way.

No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.

John 15:13

In our boldest, most honorable moments, we might imagine giving our life grandly for love of the other. But few of us will be called to such devotion. The bold, glorious flourish of a self-sacrificial moment is unlikely as our end. For most of us, the test comes in the long game. The relationships that endure, demand that we sacrifice self time and again out of love for the other. Time. And time. And time. And time again. Maybe seventy times seven times. If we’re fortunate, even more.

When it comes to love, most of us are pretty good sprinters – very loving over short, smooth, unobstructed distances. Our speed and endurance begin to fade with time and obstruction. The flourish of the moment gives way to the reality of a thousand moments that feel, sometimes literally, like a lifetime. This is the great steeplechase of life. The marathon that demands sustained effort and an abundance of resets to refocus, re-engage, and renew, the originating energy that sparked our start.

To love is to will the good of the other and to love greatly is to will it over time, will it at cost to self, will it with no self-interest, and will it even when it’s undeserved. Most especially, to will it when we don’t feel like it. Early in life, we learn that choices have consequences. Later in life, we begin to understand that all great choices will cost something. To love greatly, will cost greatly.  It has to or it is cheap, low value, meaningless. Love cannot be cheap or it isn’t love.

No greater love? To love greatly is to live as the lion and the lamb. It is to both protect it and submit to it. To respond fiercely at signs of danger, to show up courageously when the other falters, to challenge faithfully when love becomes wayward. Then the lamb, which bleats softly when lost or encouragingly when content. To lay down one’s self in service or deference to the other. To walk softly and humbly, docile to the circumstance and its particular needs.

Each of us has pledged fealty to something. We have all bent a knee in a particular direction, though we may not even recognize it. Is it something greater than ourselves? Is it worth our full devotion? There is great power in that bended knee – it commands our attention, our energy, our resources, and our heart. In our quest to find ourselves, fill the holes within, heal our wounds, or gratify our desires, we often fail to see that we are chasing the wrong things, for the wrong reasons, in all the wrong ways. We don’t see where we bended our knee in what we’ve chosen to serve.

I’d like to close with the words below from one of my favorite twisted mystics, George Michael. May this Easter find you kneeling in the right direction, feeling the liberating consolation of intense fidelity to your own call in this life.

Let me tell you a secret
Put it in your heart and keep it
Something that I want you to know
Do something for me
Listen to my simple story
And maybe we’ll have something to show

How can I help you?
Please let me try to
I can heal the pain
That you’re feeling inside
Whenever you want me
You know that I will be
Waiting for the day
That you say you’ll be mine

George Michael, Heal the Pain
Showing 2 comments
  • Patrick Berry

    Early in life, we learn that choices have consequences. Later in life, we begin to understand that all great choices will cost something. 🔥

    So true. And the pang that reminds us that anything worth having takes effort and a great love to obtain and so much more to keep.

    So good. All of it.

  • Jennifer Gleckman

    Always so insightful, heartfelt, and down right brilliant. Thank you once again for sharing such meaningful nuggets that always seem to land at the perfect time!

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