When and why do we stand at Mass?

By Dr. Judy Bullock

The postures that we take for various parts of the Mass warrant a closer examination since questions frequently arise.
The postures during the Mass are only one facet of our full, conscious and active participation in the liturgy. Posture is important, nonetheless, since the various postures we take not only contribute to the expression of our prayer, but, in some instances, actually form our intentions. Every posture that we take in the Mass, whether standing, kneeling or sitting, has a specific meaning. In addition to this, the fact that we take a common posture has the added benefit of unifying this gathering of diverse individuals.

Why do we stand for much of the Mass?
The purpose of the standing posture at Mass is twofold. The first is to indicate an active role. If we go to a play or a musical, if we attend a lecture or a movie, even a sports event, at least for most of it, we are seated. Our posture is that of a spectator, expecting to be enlightened, educated or entertained. In contrast to this, we stand right up at the very beginning of the Mass.

This standing posture speaks volumes about our role in the liturgy. Instead of attending Mass as a spectator, we are there to do the liturgy, not watch it or be entertained by it. The active role that we are called to take is why standing is the “default” posture of the Mass. The instructions in the Roman Missal tell us to stand for most of the Mass, noting specifically the exceptions to the standing posture.

The second reason for the standing posture at Mass is to honor the presence of Christ in the proclamation of the Gospel and in the distribution of holy Communion.

The Gospel
More than any of the other books of the Bible, the four books that contain the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are held in the highest esteem. In these accounts we hear narratives recounting the saving events in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. In these proclamations, we experience Christ’s presence, speaking to us today as he taught and preached to the people of his day; guiding us on our path of life by the actions he demonstrated in his ministry of love and care.

Distribution of Holy Communion
The second place in the Mass where we stand to express honor and respect is the period of distribution of holy Communion.

We stand immediately after responding in faith to the invitation to Communion, “Lord I am not worthy … but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.”

This period of standing covers the first person to receive Communion, the priest celebrant, and continues until the last person in the assembly receives. This period of distribution is not just about our individual reception of holy Communion but respects the presence of the Body and Blood of Christ as it is distributed to all in the assembly.

The church describes this as the consummation of the communitarian act. St. Augustine expands on this, describing the distribution of holy Communion as the Body of Christ receiving the Body of Christ. The period of communal distribution is the polar opposite of a private or individual action.

After the last person receives, however, we begin a period of private, individual prayer. Our posture changes from standing to either sitting or kneeling. These postures will be addressed in the next column.

Dr. Judy Bullock is the director of the Archdiocese of Louisville’s Office of Worship.

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