“In your name I will lift up my hands”

A few weeks ago, I mentioned that some people react negatively when it is suggested that a lay person might wear an alb when presiding at a liturgical celebration such as a Sunday Celebration of the Word or a funeral liturgy.

It is not uncommon to get the same sort of reaction when I encourage lay leaders to assume the orans (praying) gesture (both arms raised to the side and extended upwards) when addressing prayer to God in the name of the assembly.

The reason for the reaction in both these cases is the same: because people are used to seeing only priests lead liturgy, and therefore only priests wearing albs and using the orans gesture, they assume that both are the exclusive domain of the ordained. But they are not.

The orans posture is the classical position of prayer which conveys an attitude of openness and receptivity. It is described numerous times in Scripture: “Lift up your hands to the holy place, and bless the Lord” (Psalm 134:2). At the dedication of the temple, “Solomon stood before the altar of the Lord in the presence of all the assembly of Israel, and spread out his hands to the heaven. He said, “O Lord, God of Israel…” (1 Kings 8:22, 23).

Tertullian, a second-century father of the Church from North Africa, described the gesture of standing erect and extending arms out in prayer as bearing witness to the cross of Christ.

One of the earliest pictorials of the Church is found in the catacomb of Saint Priscilla in Rome. It portrays the Church as a woman with her arms outstretched as if in prayer.

I have seen a variety of forms of the orans gesture used. Some presiders stand with arms spread completely outstretched to the sides; a few still follow the rubric from the Council of Trent – hands no higher or wider than the shoulders, palms facing each other and the fingers of each hand joined; others choose a mid-position.

Those presiders who stand with arms raised high and palms facing outward look to me as if they are surrendering at gunpoint!

Especially for new presiders, it is important to practise the orans stance in front of a mirror or an honest critic. If the gesture is not done well, it draws attention to itself and detracts from the prayer.

The orans position does not work when done “one-handed” – you cannot fly on one wing! It should only be used when the presider knows the prayer by heart or has a server/assistant to hold the book.

The orans posture is used during prayer addressed to God, therefore the presider does not make eye contact with the assembly but either looks at the written word, looks out past the assembly or has eyes closed.

Whilst saying the traditional ending to the prayer, such as “We make this prayer through Jesus Christ our Lord”, the presider brings his/her hands down and together and looks at the assembly for their “Amen”.

In assuming the orans stance, the presider symbolises the Church at prayer.

Elizabeth Harrington