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Monday, January 31, 2011


If you are bothering to read a Blog with “liturgist” in the title, you most likely know what the “orans position” means, but good writing form requires that I define my terms.

Orans is the ancient posture for prayer, standing erect, with hands and arms outstretched and palms turned upward. This is the posture in which Aaron and Hur supported Moses in prayer while Joshua battled Amalek [Exodus 17: 10-13]. This is also the posture of Christian prayer found in some of the earliest Christian art.

The implications of this posture are very interesting. It is, perhaps intentionally, ambivalent. Is one opening oneself to God? Or is the person lifting something in offering to God? Could it be that one is standing with wide-spread arms to receive something from God into open hands?

Christians are called to stand in the presence of God. In the Latin Mass, those present are described as the “circumstantes”, those standing around the altar. It is to this posture we are called when the invitation is, “Let us pray,” especially when called to pray as Jesus taught us in the Lord's Prayer.

When the invitation calls for us to bow our heads, that is meant to be for a brief time of reflection concerning the intentions of our prayer. All should then join the presider in the Christian attitude of prayer, the orans posture. It is the task of the presider to summarize the intentions of the assembly in the presidential prayers, the collects, the collecting together of the minds of the faithful. Some of the more poorly written collects do not reflect this, seeming to be more about preaching to people than offering their prayers, but they are usually of later composition, when clerics said rather than led the Mass.

Similarly, the entire Eucharistic Prayer is the presider proclaiming the collective prayer of thanksgiving and praise coming from the assembly. All are calling to mind in the institution narrative of what happened on the night before Jesus died.

The entire Eucharistic Prayer is addressed to the First Person of the Trinity by the entire congregation, as voiced by the presider. All should be in the attitude of prayer, standing about the altar with arms, hands, minds, hearts, and eyes lifted up to God as we pray. This is not a time for adoration or submission, this is a time for doing, as Jesus told us, in memory of him. This is neither a time for secret mysteries nor a time for close observation. It is a time of communal prayer.

Kneeling and hand folding are not the postures of sons and daughters of God, of brothers and sisters of Jesus. Those postures do not come from the earliest days of Christianity as do orans and prostration, laying face down on the floor.

Kneeling and hand folding come from the Germanic peoples who invaded Europe and formed feudal societies. When one swore fealty, the person knelt before the superior lord and bowed one's head, as is still done today for knighting.

The ruler was seated with hands in the lap and the subordinate put their joined palms between those of the one receiving fealty, who closed their hands around the others' while the lesser person pledged life and service. The posture showed total vulnerability, putting oneself entirely in the power of the ruler. If the fealty was not accepted or judged to be false, one was already a prisoner if held tight for binding.

Kneeling and sitting are late additions to congregational postures in church. Until after the Middle Ages, churches had no furniture for the assembly. The great cathedrals of Europe had no seating or kneeling benches for the laity. People came in crowds and stood, even wandered about, for the services.

Processions did not require great choreography for pews and aisles. It was more of a simple matter of follow-the-leader, the processional cross. Aisles, by the way, were not the spaces between seating areas but the divisions of a building formed by colonnades. The center aisle was the entire nave between the rows of supporting pillars to the left and right, not just a narrow path through the furniture.

Members of the congregation using the orans position is one strong way of changing nothing in the text or ministries or architecture, yet making a great change in how the liturgy is perceived. It is the people of God who are at prayer in the liturgy, not just the clergy. Catechizing our members about their proper status, heirs of the kingdom addressing their Father, can make a huge difference in perception as to the nature of liturgical prayer.

1 comment:

  1. With the encouragement of their pastor, members of a parish bordering mine began holding hands during the Lord's Prayer. The practice crept across our border. My pastor preemptively suggested we adopt the orans posture for the Lord's Prayer, and characterized it as a gesture of supplication by needy children before their omnipotent Father. I didn't buy it, of course, but I didn't have Tom's excellent rationale for orans. (That pastor told the choir his favorite hymn was "Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence." That captures how he felt about parish pastoral councils and liturgy committees, of which he had neither.)
    But orans without the rest of what Tom suggests, especially the circumstantes part, seems crippled. Maybe half a loaf is better than none.