The article for today is about the origins of a posture for praying used in ancient Israel and in the Church. In Latin, this posture, called the orans, means the person at prayer. You may be asking yourself what this orans posture is, because you may not know it by this name, but you certainly would know it by seeing it. It is a posture for praying that involves a person extending his hands by raising them to God in prayer. More specifically, the person raises his hands in prayer to God while bending his elbows at his sides with the palms of his hands facing each other or facing outward. From ancient times, the person of faith, hope and love has used this posture in offering prayer to the Living and True God. The question is this: Who may use this posture? Is this posture for the laity or only for the priest? Let me begin by saying that my answer to this question is both “yes” and “no” based on the authority of the received tradition. This means that both the priest and the laity have faithfully used this traditional orans posture, through the centuries, to pray to God, either in personal prayer or in communal prayer. Indeed, they have both raised their hands to God in prayer in the Tradition. On the one hand, the lay people of God have traditionally used the orans posture in offering personal prayer to God, especially during difficult times. On the other hand, the priest, for his part, has traditionally offered communal prayer to God using the orans posture. In fact, in the tradition, he has also used the orans for personal prayer, but he did not receive his consecration as a priest primarily to offer personal prayer to God. On the contrary, he, first and foremost, received his priestly consecration to offer communal prayer to God using this posture. Accordingly, the orans was certainly used by both the laity and the priest from ancient times. Indeed, there is a basis for them using this posture for praying in Scripture and Tradition.
DOMESTIC ORANS POSTURE
First of all, as for the laity in ancient Israel, they used the “domestic orans posture” in their homes for praying to God. This would be the personal prayer they offered to God, whether praying alone or with their family, at home. In doing so, they extended their hands in prayer to God by raising them as they recited the Old Testament aloud from memory to recall God’s divine actions for them throughout their history. This involved blessing, praising and thanking God for His faithfulness in offering them justice and mercy, especially in saving them from sin, from death and from their enemies. Moreover, they also used this posture to offer their pleas and supplications to God. In fact, there are various phrases in the Old Testament that refer to the orans posture that the laity used in praying to God. They include the lifting or raising up of their hands in prayer to God, or the extending or stretching forth of their hands in prayer to Him. For this reason, in Israel, parents certainly taught their children, by their words and actions, to use this orans posture in offering prayer to God at home. After all, God Himself had instructed them to teach their children to be faithful to Him by raising their hands to Him in prayer. In this sense, their formation of their children as a faithful people of prayer began in their home. Indeed, at home, they learned from their parents that faithfully raising their hands to God in prayer meant, above all, raising their hearts to Him by an interior act of faith, hope and love in praying to Him. As such, the orans was, first and foremost, an interior posture of their hearts. The people of God, including their children, could only raise their hands in prayer to God because they had first raised their hearts to Him in prayer. They certainly used this orans posture for praying to God in their homes during normal circumstances, but their leaders also instructed them to raise their hands to God in prayer from their homes during famine, plague and war. As a result, a normal posture for praying in their homes became a manner of praying from their homes during trials and tribulations. For instance, in the First Book of Kings, King Solomon instructs the people of Israel, particularly the laity, or non-priests, who sin against God during famine, plague or war, to raise their hands in prayer to God in the direction of the Temple to receive God’s forgiveness (1 Kgs 8:37-39). This certainly would include praying from their homes, but would also include praying wherever they may be during these trials and tribulations. Furthermore, after the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem, including the Temple, the Prophet Jeremiah instructs the poor people remaining in Jerusalem to cry out to God by pouring out their hearts to Him as they raise their hands in prayer to Him for the lives of their children. In their poverty, their children are suffering from hunger and thirst there (Lm 2: 19). Additionally, Jeremiah also instructs them to raise their hearts and hands to God in prayer as they repent for their sins (Lm 3:41-42). For he says that they have suffered this destruction in Jerusalem, including their poverty and hunger, as a punishment from God for their sinfulness. On this basis, the laity in ancient Israel certainly used the orans posture for personal prayer in their homes, or wherever they happened to be, by raising their hands to God in prayer, especially during trials and tribulations.
THE LITURGICAL ORANS POSTURE
In the second place, the priests of ancient Israel, particularly Aaron and his descendants, used a “liturgical orans posture” in offering prayers and sacrifices to God on the altar of God. This would be communal prayer in liturgy. Here the priests would lead the people in praying liturgically. In doing so, they raised their hearts to God, just as the laity raised their hearts to God in the domestic orans posture. For in the liturgy the raising of their hands to God was also a raising of their hearts to God, as they acted on behalf of the people as mediators in praying to God liturgically. On the one hand, they first used this orans posture by raising their hands to God in offering liturgical prayers and sacrifices to God on the altar of the Tabernacle in the desert before they ever built the Temple in Jerusalem. For this reason, in Leviticus, after Aaron finishes offering sacrifice for sin, the burnt offering and the peace offering on the altar of the Tabernacle, he raises his hands in prayer calling for God’s blessing upon the people (Lv 9:22). On the other hand, after they built the Temple in Jerusalem, the priests used this orans posture as they offered prayers and sacrifices on the altar of God in the Temple liturgy. Thus, in Second Maccabees, after the priests finish offering sacrifice to purify the Temple, they raise their hands to God praying that God may preserve and guard the Temple, including the people, from the threats of defilement and destruction by the pagan general, Nicanor (2 Mc 15:34-36). Accordingly, in offering such prayer and sacrifice to God on behalf of the people, first on the altar of the Tabernacle and later on the altar of the Temple, the priests would receive the offerings from the people to sacrifice them to God liturgically on their behalf. In this sense, the priests alone raised their hands to God in communal prayer as they led the people during liturgy. For as consecrated priests, they alone could act on behalf of the people as mediators to God in offering liturgical prayers and sacrifices to God for them through the orans.
ISRAEL’S USE OF THE ORANS POSTURE INFORMS THE CHURCH’S USE OF THE ORANS
As you can see, this orans posture that both the laity and the priests used in ancient Israel, domestically and liturgically, is the original antecedent and model for the Church, the New Israel, using the orans posture in the same manner. This, of course, does not mean that other people in Palestine, such as the Arabs, or the Gentiles in Greco-Roman society did not use the orans posture in praying. They certainly did, but the first members of the Church, all Israelites, did not first learn the orans from either of these people. On the contrary, these first Israelite members of the Church, including the Head Himself, Jesus Christ, Blessed Mary, St. Joseph and the Apostles, first learned the orans posture from their Israelite people, especially from their parents. As such, the orans posture was originally introduced to them at home, during childhood and adolescence, through their parents, before they ever became members of the Church. In this sense, Jesus, Mary, St. Joseph and the Apostles first learned to use the domestic orans posture from their Israelite parents in offering prayer to God as they recited or recalled the Old Testament Scriptures at home, especially during trials and tribulations. For this reason, in the providence of God, they first received this domestic posture for praying to God from the Tradition of Israel. As a result, this received Tradition certainly formed and prepared the laity in the Church to pray to God in the same manner at home, beginning in the first century. Accordingly, the laity in the early Church, including men, woman, children and adolescents, learned that they could use this domestic orans posture in their homes by raising their hands to God in prayer. At the same time, they also learned by Tradition that the orans posture in liturgy could only be used by the priests of the Church, including the High Priest Himself, Jesus Christ, and His Apostles, as they acted as mediators on behalf of the lay people in offering prayer and sacrifice to God liturgically. This was, first and foremost, the raising of their hands in prayer to God in the Liturgy of the Eucharist, the Sacrifice of the Body and Blood of Christ, in Holy Mass instituted by Christ during the Last Supper. On this basis, in the received Tradition of the Church, priests alone could raise their hands in offering prayer to God in Liturgy.
Thus, through the centuries, the Church has traditionally reserved this liturgical orans posture for the priest alone in the rubrics of the Roman Missal for offering Holy Mass. The word, rubrics, means the rules or laws in the Missal that refer to the instructions in red that regulate the recitation of the prayer formulae in black. In this sense, they guide or instruct the priest to recite the prayers in the Rite of Holy Mass, using the assigned postures that he alone may use, as intended by the Church. For this reason, the priest does the red and says the black in offering Mass according to the rubrics. These rubrics proceed from the highest authority in the Church, from the sovereign pontiff himself, for maintaining good or proper order in the Liturgy of Holy Mass. As indicated by the rubrics, this means that the priest alone may use the orans posture in reciting the prayers in the Eucharist as he intercedes to God on behalf of the people. As such, he alone may extend his hands in Holy Mass by raising them to God in prayer. In fact, he is instructed, by the rubrics, to use this posture about fourteen times from the Introductory Rites of the Mass to the Concluding Rites. This would include the prayer he says after the Universal Prayer. Accordingly, the rubrics assign the orans posture to the priest alone because he alone acts in the person of Christ, the Head, in offering Holy Mass as mediator to God on behalf of the Body of Christ, the Church.
Conversely, there is not a single rubric in the Roman Missal that instructs the deacon or the laity to use the orans posture in the Liturgy of Holy Mass. On the contrary, none of the rubrics there instruct the laity or deacon to extend their hands in prayer to God by raising them during Mass. Nevertheless, people claim that because the rubrics are silent on this question, this would suggest an implicit permission or tolerance, by the Church, for the laity and deacon to use the orans posture. However, arguing for the use of the orans by lay people and the deacon on the basis of such rubrical silence is contrary to the Liturgical Tradition of the Church, and harmful to the uniformity of the Liturgy of Holy Mass. Indeed, using this argument from silence has already introduced other harmful practices into Holy Mass that the rubrics are silent about, such as holding hands during the Our Father.
Furthermore, in addressing the assigned postures of the priest, the deacon and the laity in Holy Mass, the Church’s General Instruction of the Roman Missal says that they are all required to be faithful to the received liturgical Tradition as determined by the General Instruction and by the Traditional practice of the Roman Rite. In doing so, they act, not according to their private inclination or subjective choice, but in the service of the common spiritual good of the people of God (GIRM 42). For this reason, the Church calls the priest, deacon and the laity to follow the instructions in the rubrics of the Missal that they may be uniform in the postures assigned to them during Holy Mass (GIRM 43).
Consequently, in Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Council Fathers of Vatican II teach that no person, not even a priest, nor a layperson, may add, remove, or change the objective norms of the Liturgy on his authority. This prohibition would certainly apply to the layperson who uses a posture in Mass not assigned to him in the rubrics of the Rite, particularly the orans posture. In doing so, he would be acting contrary to the received Liturgical Tradition (SC 22.3). On this basis, here the Council Fathers remind the priest, deacon and laity that they are called to do nothing else, but only those actions or postures in Holy Mass assigned to them by the nature of the Roman Rite and the principles of Liturgy (SC 28).
Moreover, in the Church’s Instruction on Certain Questions Regarding the Collaboration of the Non-Ordained Faithful in the Ministry of the Priest, the Church reminds the people of God that Canon 907 says that neither deacons nor lay persons may use actions or postures in Holy Mass that are proper to the priest celebrant alone, such as the orans posture. As a consequence, in this Instruction, She warns that any deacon or layperson intending to quasi-preside at Mass would be guilty of a grave liturgical abuse (Instruction, Article 6).
Finally, in Redemptionis Sacramentum, the Church’s Sacred Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, instructs the laity to avoid clericalizing their actions in Holy Mass by imitating the clerical actions that are reserved to the priest alone, particularly the orans posture (RS Chapter 2, Paragraph 45). This means that the laity may only do those actions in Mass that are assigned to them. As a result, here again, the Church forbids the use of the orans posture by the deacon and laity in Holy Mass.
BEGGING ORANS POSTURE, THE POSTURE OF THE POOR
At the same time, I will argue that the hand posture that many lay persons use in Holy Mass is, in fact, not the Traditional orans posture used by the priest, neither materially nor formally. This posture could be called the begging orans posture, the posture of the poor, sometimes used by the laity. As you recall, the orans posture by the priest involves extending his hands by raising them up to God in prayer. More specifically, he raises his hands in prayer to God while bending his elbows at his sides with the palms of his hands facing each other or facing outward. This is the posture he uses materially. In doing so, he formally intends to act in the person of Christ, the Head, liturgically as mediator to God on behalf of the people of God. In this sense, as mediator, he raises his hands in prayer to God that he may receive gifts from God to dispense them to the people. This means, above all, raising his heart to God in faith, hope and love to mediate the gifts of God to them. As such, the terminus or end of him using the orans posture in Liturgy, as mediator, is to act as dispenser of such gifts. Conversely, the hand posture that many lay people use in Holy Mass, the begging orans posture, does not meet this criteria that defines the orans posture materially and formally. They neither use the orans posture materially, as in the same material act that the priest uses in extending their hands, nor do they formally intend the same end of the act as the priest in extending their hands. On the contrary, materially, their hand posture involves extending their hands, not by raising them up, but by lowering them down while bending their elbows at their side with the palms of their hands facing upward as they pray. This is, formally, the hand posture of poor people, beggars, intending or hoping to receive gifts from God Himself through the priest. For this reason, here they are certainly not using the liturgical orans posture as mediators who dispense gifts. They are merely lowering their hands with the palms of their hands facing upward trusting that God in His providence will provide for all their needs. On this basis, this form of the orans that many lay people use in liturgy, the lowing of their hands with their hands facing upward, is not the liturgical orans posture used by the priest, neither materially nor formally, but a begging orans posture. This may be an ancient posture used by the people of God in liturgy. In fact, having their hands in this posture describes accurately the Church’s understanding of the laity’s action in the liturgy as “receivers” of God’s gifts through the ministry of the mediator, the priest. For this reason, I believe there would be a theological and liturgical basis for the Pope approving of this posture for the laity in liturgy. I repeat, this posture in question is not, by any means, the same posture that the priest uses in offering Holy Mass. Still, until the people of God receive official approval from the Pope to use this form of the orans posture, the begging posture, in Holy Mass, they should not use it. They would certainly be guilty of a liturgical abuse, at least materially, if not formally also, if they did use it Holy Mass.
In conclusion, the use of the domestic and liturgical orans postures by the lay people and the priest in ancient Israel for personal and communal forms of prayer is the tradition that informs the traditional practice of the Church. On the one hand, this means that the priest alone may use the liturgical orans posture as he acts in the person of Christ, the Head, in praying to God on behalf of the people in liturgy. On the other hand, the people of God can certainly use the domestic orans posture for praying at home, but not during the liturgy. After all, the Church’s liturgical documents, as already mentioned, teach that nothing may be added to the liturgy. I believe the only form of the orans that the laity could someday use in liturgy, if the Pope ever approved it, would be the begging orans posture, inasmuch as it accurately describes their action in the liturgy, or at least this particular action, as receivers of the gifts of God through the priest. Finally, as Scripture reveals, the people of Israel especially used the domestic orans posture during trials and tribulations. In doing so, they raised their hearts to God in prayer, hoping for His justice and mercy in their sufferings. On this basis, I pray that you, as sons and daughters of God, will do the same in the trials and tribulations that you have suffered in your life. Indeed, raise your hands in prayer to God that He may bless you. May He help you bear your crucibles virtuously.
In Christ with Blessed Mary,
Friar Mariano D. Véliz, O.P.
6 thoughts on “The Orans Posture in the Tradition”
Thank you, Friar.I have usually refrained from using the posture at mass though many do use a variant of the posture.You have made it clear where the laity may use the posture.
Very interesting. I always knew it was a liturgical abuse, but understanding \”why\” also helps to understand and possibly make the liturgy more fruitful on my end. Best regards! -Valerie
Thanks so much for your comment! That's great! I'm happy to hear that my article was helpful to you. God bless!
Thanks so much for your comment, Valerie! I'm glad to hear that you found something here that will benefit your participation in Holy Mass. God bless you!
Appreciate the historical origin. One important factor missing was the origination of the Our Father which is the focal point of the Orans Posture issue.. Who was it intended for and who was to pray it? Was it reserved only for the priest/mediator and a private prayer or is it a communal prayer lifting our hearts and uniting our hearts as the Body of Christ. Why is the laity asked to pray it with the priest?
Thanks for your comment, William. In my article, I explain that the orans posture could be used in private prayer by anyone, either by a priest or a lay person. Secondly, by doing a close reading of the Roman Missal, I number all the times (more than a dozen times) that the priest alone is instructed to use the orans posture in the rubrics of the Mass in leading the people publically in the Liturgy. This includes the rubrics for praying the Our Father. Thirdly, I also indicate in my article that the orans is the posture of the priest in acting in the person of Christ the Head as mediator for the people. This understanding of the posture being reserved for the priest is rooted in Scripture, Tradition and Magisterium. Finally, nowhere are the lay people instructed to use this posture. I appreciate your comment. I hope this is helpful. God bless.