By Arturo Ortiz
Most people who attend a Novus Ordo parish or who simply attend Mass in what is known as the Ordinary Form (which most people attend) encounter two specific types of hand gestures that many of the laity engage in. The first type is that known as the "Orans Position" (praying with elevated hands). This gesture can be seen in several parts of the Mass, like when one of the laity elevates his hands in response to "The Lord be with you." This is also often seen during the recitation of the "Our Father."
A Short History of the Orans Position
The orans position has been used as a gesture of pleading and supplication since ancient times. This is true in many pagan religions, including Greco-Roman paganism. The orans position was later present in Judaism as well, and finally many early Christians came to dentify the orans position with the outstretched arms of Christ crucified. This can be seen, for example, in the Brescia Casket.
The orans posture has been seen as a means of pleading and supplication. Colin B. Donovan states, "Consider what we do when we plead with someone; we might put our arms out in front of us as if reaching for the person and say, 'I beg you, help me. 'This seems to be a natural human gesture coming deep within us."
With this in mind we can see that the orans position is not anything new, but rather a particular prayer position that has existed since the Early Church and even before it. Based on this reality, Catholics can freely pray in this position during private prayer outside of Mass. But for good reason lay Catholics should not use this gesture during the celebration of Mass.
Disunity Within the Mass
Many Catholics might not know that the use of the orans posture at Mass is solely to be used by the priest, as it is exclusively a priestly gesture. The rubrics for the Mass give the priest sole authority of praying with elevated hands — not the deacon nor the laity.
Donovan goes on to say that the main symbolism behind this posture as a solely priestly gesture is based on the fact that the priest is "praying on behalf of us, acting as 'alter Christus' as pastor of the flock, head of the body." This is shown by the fact that his uplifted hands represent his lifting up of our prayers to God in Heaven.
Because the deacon and laity are not given the liturgical role of praying in this manner, and furthermore because it is solely a priestly gesture in the context of the Mass, liturgical disunity results when the laity engage in the orans posture:
While lay people are doing this, the deacon, whose postures are governed by the rubrics, may not do it. So, we have the awkward disunity created by the priest making an appropriate liturgical gesture in accordance with the rubrics, the deacon not making the same gesture in accordance with the rubrics, some laity making the same gesture as the priest not in accordance with the rubrics, and other laity not making the gesture (for various reasons, including knowing it is not part of their liturgical role). In the end, the desire of the Church for liturgical unity is defeated.
Many laity use this gesture during Mass because they see the priest doing it and assume they are supposed to do it as well. Some more progressive and creative priests with a desire to abolish the distinction between the clerical and lay state have at times encouraged laity to take part in the orans gesture. And poorly catechized laity don't know any better.
The sooner priests and laymen return to a proper implementation of the rubrics through good catechesis and an authentic explanation of the Sacred Liturgy, the sooner the Church will experience greater unity at Mass.
Originally published at Walking in the Desert.
To learn more about authentic lay participation at Mass, watch ChurchMilitant.com's program "Case Files."