One of the things I hear people either complain about or be confused by during the catholic Mass is the variety of stances we as catholics through during prayer. If you are catholic — or have ever been to a Mass — you know what I’m talking about. Stand, sit, kneel … stand some more, kneel again, repeat.
Like everything in catholicism, the different postures — often somewhat fittingly dubbed “catholic calisthenics” — that we take during Mass are not arbitrary. The fact of the matter is that we humans are physical as well as spiritual creatures. We pray with our bodies and the different postures during Mass are designed to help with this prayer. Knowing the reasons behind each one isn’t just interesting, it can also help enhance our experience of the Mass by making us more mindful of what’s going on around us.
When the Mass starts, we start it standing. According to the United States Council of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), “standing is a sign of respect and honor, so we stand as the celebrant who represents Christ enters and leaves the assembly.”
We also stand when the gospel is read and when we gather together in prayer, such as during the Prayers of the Faithful and the Our Father. Standing reminds us that we are both literally and figuratively standing together before God. It reminds us of our unity as a congregation and that we are lifting our voices in prayer not only separately, but together. During the gospel reading, we stand because we are recognizing that it is not just the priest, but Christ himself who is speaking to us through the words of the gospel.
“From the earliest days of the Church, this posture has been understood as the stance of those who have risen with Christ and seek the things that are above,” according to the USCCB. “When we stand for prayer, we assume our full stature before God, not in pride but in humble gratitude for the marvelous things God has done in creating and redeeming each one of us.”
We sit in Mass during times of listening or meditation. This is why we sit during the homily and the first two readings, during the Preparation of the Gifts, and may choose to either sit or kneel for prayer after Communion.
Traditionally, kneeling is a posture that signifies penance, though more recently it has also been regarded as a position of adoration or homage. “It is for this reason that the bishops of this country have chosen the posture of kneeling for the entire Eucharistic Prayer,” according to the USCCB.