“The body must be trained, so to speak, for the resurrection,” writes Pope Benedict (then Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger) in Spirit of the Liturgy. The essential element of our body is not something that can be ignored when it comes to the spiritual life, but rather it can contribute to the art of prayer. The different postures Christians assume during prayer, especially liturgical prayer, have a long history and important significance. This month I will examine the posture of standing for prayer.
The Church retains many things from Jewish customs and standing for prayer is one of these. One of the most fundamental is the posture of standing. In the Old Testament, standing is the normative posture of prayer. Hannah, the mother of Samuel, serves as an example: “Oh, my Lord! As you live, my Lord, I am the woman who was standing here in Your presence, praying to the Lord” (1 Sam 1:26). Standing remains an assumed posture in the New Testament. Christ instructs the Apostles, “And whenever you stand praying, forgive” (Mk 11:25). In the Book of Revelation, St. John describes the “multitude which no man could number [...] standing before the throne and before the lamb.” For these reasons, standing has always been accepted as a posture especially fitting for liturgical prayer.
The significance of standing in the Christian context takes on a particularly Paschal tone. Standing becomes an expression of the triumph and the joy of the Resurrection. Pope Benedict writes, “Standing is the posture of the victor. Jesus stands in God’s presence—he stands, because he has trodden death and the power of the Evil One underfoot.” The freedom won by Christ’s death and resurrection allows us to stand with Him in victory and freedom. This connection between standing and Easter is so important that the Council of Nicea (325) prescribed standing as the only permissible liturgical posture from Easter to Pentecost. Eastern Rite Christians retain this attitude towards standing and most do not kneel or sit on Sundays throughout the year or at all during the Easter season. In both East and West, standing is connected with praise and thanksgiving.
Although in the Roman Rite we embrace a wider variety of postures during liturgy, standing still maintains a primary place. For most of the prayers at Mass that are said collectively, such as the Our Father and the Lamb of God, we stand as is the default for liturgical prayer. Another reason for standing is that it is a posture of readiness and welcome. During the Mass, we stand for the procession and introductory rites. Just as someone might stand to shake your hand, the congregation rises and greets Christ in the person of the priest. For a similar reason, we stand for the concluding rites. We express our readiness to, “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord” by standing in prayer. Another time during Mass in which we stand if during the Alleluia and proclamation of the Gospel. Hearing the Gospel compels us to stand in reverence and joy at the good news of Christ.
Standing is a sacred posture for prayer, but it is not the only one in our tradition. Another important posture for Christian prayer is kneeling. Look for an explanation of this paradigmatic Christian posture in next month’s issue.