by Michael Fassbender
PLEASE RISE: The Postures of the Community During Mass. Churchgoers know when we’re expected to stand, sit or kneel during Mass. We recognize the sanctity of the Consecration, but in other cases the reason is not so clear. Each posture carries its own significance.
Sitting has only been included for roughly five hundred years. It fosters listening and contemplation. Standing served as the normal posture for prayer since Jesus’ time, making it the natural choice for communal prayers. At the same time, standing demonstrates respect and readiness, and it even evokes the Resurrection, in rising to a standing position. Finally, kneeling here is about adoration more than penitence. As Pope Emeritus Benedict explained in “The Spirit of the Liturgy,” we kneel in emulation of the angels, who are described in Revelation as kneeling before God.
Two other factors play a crucial role. One is that the priest is acting in Jesus’ place; the community stands when it is interacting with him as a gesture of respect. The other is the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, which requires a heightened demonstration of reverence. The Eucharist is shown to us three times before we receive Communion: during the Consecration, at the end of the Eucharistic Prayer, and then after the Lamb of God. We kneel for all three occasions.
Seen this way, the cycle makes sense. We sit before Mass, preparing ourselves. We stand for the Procession, showing respect but also participating, and we remain standing through the opening prayers. We sit for the readings, when we listen and contemplate their meaning. We stand for the Gospel because it brings us Christ’s teachings, and then we sit again as we listen to the homily and consider its meaning. We stand for the Creed and the Petitions, when we speak as a community, and then sit for the Offertory as the Gifts are prepared. We stand as we provide our responses at the beginning of the Liturgy of the Eucharist but then we kneel through the entire Eucharistic Prayer, when Christ comes into our midst. We rise for the Our Father and the Sign of Peace, but then we kneel again after the Lamb of God, when the Eucharist is again displayed. After Communion, we kneel until we stand for the final prayers, although we may sit briefly during the announcements.
Eagle-eyed readers may have noticed that another position exists: that of lying prostrate. It connotes total dedication to God. This is never done by the laity; it is done by the clergy and other religious in specific contexts, such as the Rite of Ordination.