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The Orans Position and holding hands during the Our Father
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 of hand gesture is that which is known as the “Orans Position” (praying with elevated hands). This type of gesture can be seen in several parts of the Mass such as when one of the laity elevates their hands in response to “The Lord Be With You”. This can also be seen by many during the recitation of the Our Father. The second type of hand gesture that most people encounter is namely the act of holding hands during the Our Father.
This article will address these two specific types of hand gestures and whether they belong at Mass. It will first help explain some of the history of the Orans position and why only the priest should pray in this position at Mass. The article will later explain why the act of holding hands during the Our Father does not belong at Mass and why it is actually not a Catholic concept.
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 quickly identified the Orans position with the outstretched arms of Christ crucified. This can be seen for example in the Brescia Casket.
Colin B. Donovan helps explain the significance of the Orans position as a means of pleading and supplication. “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.”1
With this in mind we can see that the Orans position is not anything new, it is rather a particular prayer position that has existed since the Early Church and even before it. Catholics can thus based on this reality freely pray in this position during private prayer outside of Mass. We will now see why Catholic laity should not however use this position within the celebration of Holy Mass.
A course of disunity within the Mass
Many Catholics might not know that the use of the Orans position at Mass is solely to be used by the priest alone. The main reason is that the use of the Orans position during Mass is exclusively a priestly gesture. The Rubrics for the Mass only give the priest the sole authority of praying with elevated hands (Orans Position). Neither the deacon nor the Catholic laity are given this liturgical role since it is once again a priestly gesture.
The Main symbolism behind the orans position being a priestly gesture is based on the indication that the priest “is praying on behalf of us, acting as alter Christus as pastor of the flock, head of the body”2 Similarly it symbolizes the fact that the priest is petitioning God in behalf of the people by uplifting our prayers towards God in Heaven.
Because the deacon and laity are not given the liturgical role of praying in the Orans position, and furthermore because it is solely a priestly gesture in the context of the Mass, Colin B. Donovan goes on to write about the liturgical disunity which occurs when the laity engage in the Orans Position:
While lay people are doing this (Orans position) 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.3
Two of the main reasons why many laity might use the Orans position during Mass without knowing they aren’t supposed to is primarily because they see the priest doing it so they assume that they are supposed to do it as well. Thus they don’t know that only the priest is supposed to elevate his hands since it is a priestly gesture. Poorly catechized laity who have never been taught otherwise would obviously not know this
Holding hands during the Our Father
The second type of hand gesture that many laity engage in as was pointed out in the beginning of this article is in the act of holding hands during the Our Father. As I pointed out the Orans position certainly has historical use by Catholics in the Early Church and throughout the history of the Church, making it an acceptable form of prayer by the laity outside of Mass (Private Prayer). The same however cannot be said about the act of holding hands for prayer; specifically during the Mass. Hand holding came from both the New Age Movement, and Protestantism (Most specifically Pentecostalism) where the horizontal dimension of community is emphasized over the sacrificial element of Mass
This is in contrast to the nature of Mass and even Catholicism at its core in which all our prayers are directed towards God. This is most definitely true at Mass in which we unite our prayers with Christ at Calvary.
1) Orans Posture (EWTN)