In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
We are in the midst of a series of sermons on the mass – its ceremonies and prayers, and their meaning. Last week we discussed the little rituals that follow the Gloria in Excelsis, and precede the Collect. In particular, we discussed how it is that the celebrant kisses the altar, turns to face the congregation, and says to them “The Lord be with you,” and they respond, “And also with you.”
At this point, the celebrant walks to the epistle side of the altar, where the book containing the prayers of the mass (called the missal [from the Latin word for “mass,” “missa”]) is standing. He then says, “Let us pray” – “Oremus” in Latin. While saying this, the ancient books instruct the priest to bow slightly toward the tabernacle, where we believe the Lord is really present. This slight bow of the head is also prescribed whenever the name of Jesus is mentioned during prayer, as well as at the mention of the names of Mary, the pope, the local bishop, or the saint whose feast day it happens to be. At any of these times, the slight bow of the head is appropriate not just for the celebrating priest, but for everyone present. This goes, too, by the way, for most of the ritual gestures of the mass – bowing, making the sign of the cross, etc. Usually when it is done by the celebrant, it is also appropriate for the congregation. And note that most of the relevant places are indicated in the mass booklets.
After saying “let us pray,” and bowing toward the tabernacle, the priest then assumes a very ancient posture of prayer, usually called the “orans” or “praying” position, with arms slightly extended and hands open. It is this very ancient posture of prayer that I will talk about this morning.
The orans position is prescribed not just during the collect, but also while the celebrant sings the preface (the prayer that varies according to day and season, and comes right after the “Lift up your hearts”), as well as during the canon of the mass (the long, main prayer of the mass that contains the words of institution and the consecration of the bread and wine), and also during the Lord’s Prayer.
But what are the origins and the meaning of the orans position? As for its origins, it seems to have been a common attitude of prayer among many peoples – both pagans and Jews – before the time of Christ. We know this from ancient writings as well as from ancient art, which depicts supplicants in this position. It is indeed a natural position of supplication. One can easily envision a person begging another person for help, with arms outstretched, saying “Please help me!” One commentator notes, “This seems to be a natural human gesture coming from deep within us – like kneeling to adore or to express sorrow. Now, turn that reach heavenwards and you have the Orans position,” (from an article on the EWTN website). And in this connection, we might recall that most prayer is, in essence, supplicatory in nature. Indeed the word “prayer” itself comes from the Latin word “precare,” which means to beg or to entreat, as for mercy or help in desperate circumstances. Thus the orans position is a natural attitude that goes with begging for and expecting to receive something from someone.
In Scripture, something like this gesture appears very early, in the book of Exodus (17), where Israel goes into battle against the Amalekites, and Moses ascends a hill with the staff of God in his hand, and he assumes the orans position. Exodus says that whenever Moses grew weary and began to lower his arms, the battle went against Israel.
“[S]o they took a stone and put it under him, and he sat upon it, and Aaron and Hur held up his hands, one on one side, and the other on the other side; so his hands were steady until the going down of the sun. And Joshua mowed down Am’alek and his people with the edge of the sword.” (Exodus 17.12f)
The earliest evidence for Christians using the orans position comes from the Roman catacombs, which are replete with depictions of it. The catacombs in Rome and elsewhere, as you probably know, were used by Christians both to bury their dead, beginning in the 100’s AD, and subsequently as places of worship. The practice of placing relics in the altars of churches can be traced to this habit of Christians, during these earliest years of Christianity, of celebrating the mass at the tombs of the martyrs. There are many instances in the catacombs of depictions of people supplicating God in the orans position. There are depictions of figures from the Old Testament praying in this attitude – Noah, Abraham, Isaac, the Three Children in the Fiery Furnace, and Daniel in the Lions’ Den. The pictures, juxtaposed with the tombs over which we find them, seem to express the idea that these saints of the Old Testament are beseeching God to deliver the soul of the person on whose tombs they are depicted, even as God once delivered the person in the image.
There are also in the catacombs stylized depictions of the souls of the dead themselves, praying in the orans position. Early in the 20th century, 153 such depictions were tallied by art historians. Interestingly, the figures are universally female, even when they are depicted over the tombs of men. As such, according to the archaeologist Joseph Wilpert, they “are to be regarded as symbols of the deceased’s soul in heaven, praying for its friends on earth,” (Catholic Encyclopedia).
So the orans position is a very ancient attitude of prayer, dating to the very earliest years of Christianity, and beyond. But what does it mean within the context of the mass?
First of all, the mass is certainly supplicatory. We ask God for all kinds of things in the mass, and we expect to receive those things from God for which we are asking. Just before the climax of the mass, I always invite everyone to form their own intentions – that is to say, to name in your hearts the circumstances and people you are most concerned about, and for which (or whom) you wish God to apply the grace that comes from this particular offering of the mass. And perhaps most fundamentally, in the words of the old Anglican liturgy, we supplicate God, through Jesus in the mass, for the “remission of our sins, and all other benefits of his passion.” In short, we can understand the whole dynamic of the mass to be our asking God the Father to take us into account in his solicitude for his beloved Son. The mass, in other words, is our associating ourselves as closely as we can to the cross.
And this is the crux, so to speak, of the matter. Joseph Jungmann, notes that ancient Christian “apologists perceive in this posture [the orans position] an image of the Crucified in whose name the Christian appears before God, a thought which recurs again in the commentators of the Middle Ages, who make much of [the orans position] particularly as regards the posture during the canon of the Mass.”
Here we are drawn back into the dynamic that I talked about last week. The priest’s outstretched hands, during the collect, and especially during the canon of the mass, associate him to the crucified Lord – in whose Name the celebrating priest is regarded as “alter Christus,” “another Christ,” albeit with no “Christ-ness” of his own, but only that which belongs essentially and by right to Jesus himself. And the priest’s praying in this posture, at these points during the mass, on behalf of the people, is thus an icon of and a participation in the dynamic by which we are all saved: the action of Jesus on the cross, again with outstretched arms, on behalf of all of us. It is in Jesus’ Name that we are all praying, priest and people united together, as one assembly, together with all our intentions, our life circumstances, and the people to whom we are united by love, together with Christ himself – “by him, and with him, and in him,” joining ourselves to the celestial liturgy, “with angels and archangels, and with all the company of heaven,” before God’s throne, throwing ourselves into the river of the Divine Mercy.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.