The Catholic liturgy includes many different gestures, postures, and symbols. As a Catholic, you are likely familiar with these practices, which include sitting, standing, and kneeling during Mass. But these gestures all have specific meanings and are designed to help us pray with all of our being: not only mind and soul, but body as well. To better understand the meaning behind these physical movements, we need to keep in mind two important aspects of the Catholic Mass — that the priest acts in the person of Christ, and that Jesus is present in the Eucharist.
Standing and speaking in the place of Jesus, the celebrating priest leads us with the gestures, traditions, and rituals that are part of the Order of the Mass, and we respond to these with our own actions and words. In this way, the Mass is much like a conversation and shared meal with Christ Himself. Secondly, Jesus is fully present in the consecrated Eucharist, in His Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity. This is the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation, which states that the bread and wine literally become Jesus during the Eucharistic Prayer of the Mass.
So, why do we assume each specific posture and make different gestures during the Mass, and what do they signify?
Why We Sit During the Mass
After the Introductory Rite, we sit for the Liturgy of the Word. As we listen to the readings from the lectionary, sitting indicates our willingness to be students at the feet of Jesus. We also sit down for the Homily, as we pay close attention and take in what is being preached. We are seated again while the Eucharistic elements are being prepared: a gesture of anticipation, as we prepare ourselves for and eagerly await the climax of the Mass in the Eucharistic Prayer.
Why We Stand During the Mass
At the very beginning of the Mass, we stand for the Introductory Rite, which includes the Penitential Act. Here we acclaim the Kyrie Eleison, meaning “Lord, have mercy” in Greek. The Kyrie is an ancient Christian prayer in which we confess our sins to both our Almighty Father and our fellow Christians. Standing during the Penitential Act shows that we are owning up to our sinfulness and openly asking for the Lord’s mercy.
Standing is also a simple but profound way of honoring and respecting Jesus during the Mass, both in the person of the priest and in the scriptures, especially the Gospel. While we sit for the first and second readings, we stand for the Gospel reading. The Gospel is the pinnacle of the Word of God and to hear it proclaimed aloud is a great honor, which is why we rise from our seats and proclaim “Alleluia” as it is opened. Just before the reading of the Gospel, we make a small sign of the cross with our thumb over our foreheads, lips, and hearts. This simple act is a symbolic request for God to impress His Word upon our minds, lips, and hearts. When the priest or deacon has finished reading the Gospel, he shows respect to the Word of God by kissing the Gospel. After the homily, we stand back up to pray the Nicene Creed as a Profession of Faith, once again standing firm in our ownership of our faith.
Why We Kneel During the Mass
Kneeling is the most humble posture of worship during the Mass. When we kneel, we completely surrender ourselves to our Heavenly Father. We kneel during several parts of the Mass. After the Holy, Holy, Holy, we spend almost the rest of the Mass on our knees — an incredible act of faith and devotion by which we acknowledge that Jesus is personally present among us.
As we kneel during the Eucharistic Prayer, the priest’s many gestures are also precise and meaningful. He makes the Sign of the Cross over the bread and wine and proclaims Christ’s own words: “This is my Body,” and “This is my Blood”. As the bread and wine are consecrated, the priest kneels several times in front of the Blessed Sacrament to express reverence. Before or while receiving the Eucharist, it is traditional to kneel, bow, or genuflect to express your humility before God.
The Mass is rich with meaning — every element and gesture represents something profound and beautiful. When we understand them and take them to heart, each moment we spend at Mass will become more transformative and nourishing to our souls.