[St. James] was in the habit of entering alone into the temple, and was frequently found upon his knees begging forgiveness for the people, so that his knees became hard like those of a camel, in consequence of his constantly bending them in his worship of God, and asking forgiveness for the people.
Eusebius, Church History, 2.23.6
The St. James in this story is St. James the Just, the son of Joseph, who was the betrothed of the Virgin Mary. Thus, he was one of Jesus’s (step-)brothers, at least according to tradition. (The Greek word “brother,” as is also the Hebrew, is very general in meaning and can simply mean “kindred.”) In any case, he is important for being the brother of Jesus, as I have said, and the first bishop of Jerusalem. He was a major leader in the early Church and a martyr for the faith. His example, I think, is especially appropriate to recall this time of year.
(As a small disclaimer, I must apologize that the following post is a little “wonky,” to borrow from the common language of political commentary. It is full of words that I have to define that slow down the flow. On the other hand, I would rather expect much of my readership and be confusing to some rather than talk down to them and belittle many.)
After fifty days of Pascha, this past Sunday was Pentecost in the Orthodox Church, which, among other things, means a lot of kneeling. The divine liturgy and vespers both have additional, long prayers during which everyone kneels for a long time. In fact, kneeling is one of three traditional postures of prayer: standing, kneeling, and prostrations. I cannot begin to rival St. James, but it is probably the time of the year I think most about how he knelt in prayer so much that “his knees became hard like those of a camel.”
Why kneel? Why is this a traditional posture of prayer? One reason is that it is not sitting. That is, among the ancient Rabbis, as well as ancient Christians, the teacher of the community would sit and teach while his disciples stood and listened. Again, in the court of a king or emperor in the ancient world, typically only royalty sat on their thrones while those in their presence (usually to petition for a favor) would stand, kneel, and/or prostrate themselves on the ground.
Thus, when Christians come into the presence of Christ, of whom they all are disciples and who they believe to be the “King of Kings,” they traditionally would stand, kneel, or lay prostrate. It is a matter of proper veneration. Indeed, the Greek word meaning “to venerate,” proskyneo, literally comes from the words pros and kynos, that is “to” and “knee.” Thus when people venerate something, they go “to the knee,” i.e. they kneel.
It may perhaps be easily overlooked that St. James, along with his brothers and the Theotokos (“Mother of God”) were all present at the first Christian Pentecost. Yet this is precisely what St. Luke records. After the Ascension, he writes,
Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a Sabbath day’s journey. And when they had entered, they went up into the upper room where they were staying: Peter, James, John, and Andrew; Philip and Thomas; Bartholomew and Matthew; James the son of Alphaeus and Simon the Zealot; and Judas the son of James. These all continued with one accord in prayer and supplication, with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers. (Acts 1:12-14)
Though the particular St. James we are concerned with is not mentioned here by name, it is understood that he would certainly be one of Christ’s “brothers” who were there. So far as we know, all of the people here listed were present ten days later at Pentecost.
Pentecost is the third most important day in the Christian calendar, right after Pascha (Easter) and Christmas/Theophany. (Christmas and Theophany were later separated to be celebrated on different days.) In Jewish tradition it commemorated the giving of the Law of God through Moses to Israel at Mt. Sinai, where the Lord dwelt in a cloud by day and a blazing pillar of fire by night. At the Christian Pentecost, the Holy Spirit, who is God (and who is often represented as a cloud or fire), descended upon the Apostles to write the Law upon their hearts, and through them to all the world through baptism in the name of the Trinity in the Church.
So why all the kneeling? Well, during the divine liturgy (= mass) all the people kneel (except during Pascha when we stand) during the epiklesis, the invocation of the Holy Spirit. If ancient people would kneel in the presence of royalty and their teachers, how much more so ought we to kneel in the presence of God who teaches us from within? Thus on the day we celebrate the descent of the Holy Spirit and mystically participate in that event through the liturgy, we kneel, as is fitting, in the presence of him who came with the appearance of “divided tongues, as of fire” (Acts 2:3) and rested upon the Apostles on the first Christian Pentecost.
At the same time, through the prayers of the clergy, we all like St. James bend our knees, “begging forgiveness for [all] people” and in “worship of God.”
It is a beautiful service and, more importantly, a beautiful reality. And combined with the record of St. James, whose “knees became hard like those of a camel,” it challenges our standards of beauty as well. When was the last time, I wonder, that I admired someone’s camel-like knees? Perhaps such beauty has been before me many times in the past, but I have just lacked eyes to see it.
By the mercy of God, perhaps someday I will be so blessed as to see my own knees become “hard like those of a camel.” After all, such beauty is worth working for. The implication of Eusebius would seem to be that he was always kneeling, i.e. always in the presence of God. And that, indeed, is what makes one truly beautiful.