I was recently asked by a fellow Christian why we Catholics do some of the things we do. They wanted to know what was the reason for all of the standing, sitting, standing, kneeling, standing etc. that goes on during Holy Mass. I knew the basic reasons for our postures in and their relation to the parts of the Mass, but digging deeper has proved to be most interesting.
“A sacramental celebration is a meeting of God’s children with their Father, in Christ and the Holy Spirit; this meeting takes the form of a dialogue, through actions and words” (CCC 1153)
When we are in Mass we are in the house of God and in His presence. When we stand in the presence of God we are expressing reverence and respect. In the same sort of way that we used to have to stand in school when the teacher entered and when we ‘all rise’ in a courtroom. Standing also expresses attentiveness and preparedness which is appropriate in the reading of the Gospel and when we say the Creed.
When we are standing and praying with our hands held out in front of us, we are in what is called the Orante position. This comes from the Latin word ‘orans’, which means ‘praying’. This is the original gesture of praise. The Orante position is seen used by the Priest in the Mass and also by the Laity in times of praise and worship.
When we genuflect in Church before we take our seats and as we leave we are bowing to Jesus present in the Tabernacle. By bending the knee in the direction of the Tabernacle we are acknowledging God and showing adoration for him. Back in time, in throne rooms everywhere it was expected that you would bow to the King or Queen before speaking to them as a sign of respect and humility. It is the same kind of gesture we use in the Church when we genuflect, except God is the King of all Kings and his Kingdom has no end
“A reverence made by bending the knee, especially to express adoration of the Blessed Sacrament” (CCC 1378).
When we sit in the presence of God and during the Mass, we are relaxed, but not to the point of snoozing. We are in a position that best facilitates listening to the readings and also to listen interiorly in prayer and reflection. In this position we should take the example of Mary and ponder the Word of God in our hearts and meditate on it.
Holy Mass is filled with beautiful parts of silence for reflection and prayer as we journey to the source and summit of the Mass and our faith, the Eucharist.
During the Eucharistic prayers we kneel at times to make ourselves small in the presence of God’s greatness. The gesture of being on ones knees is a sign of humility, respect and reverence. When we kneel we recognise our dependence on the Grace of God.
When we pray with our hands together we do so for two main reasons. The first is to combat distraction and fidgeting. This posture helps us collect our thoughts and turn our attention towards God. The second is that hands folded together is the original gesture of petition and is a visual signifier of prayer. Prayer in art is often depicted this way. It is a symbolic as well as a practical gesture.
I went to Mass this last Sunday with a deeper understanding of why we do what we do, and I really loved it. Knowing and understanding what it meant when I genuflected and when I stood brought a richness to the mass similar to the new way I experienced the Mass when I made my First Communion. It helped me to pray.
Simply, when you understand what you are doing and why your gestures become so much more meaningful.
I really encourage you all to take a deeper understanding of why we stand and kneel as we do with you to Mass next time. See where it takes you and share it with others.
To conclude I would like to share with you an excerpt from the Catechism that really sums it up;
”The symbolic actions are already a language, but the Word of God and the response of faith have to accompany them and give life to them, so that the seed of the Kingdom can bear its fruit in good soil. The liturgical actions signify what the Word of God expresses: both his free initiative and his people’s response of faith.” (CCC 1153)
In short, our participation in Holy Mass is a response of faith and part of the sacramental conversation between God and His people. And our postures and gestures within Mass are an important and beautiful part of this dialogue.
City on a Hill