We learn how to attend Mass as children, perhaps without questioning why we do things this way. One of the first things visitors to a Catholic church notices is the motion. We stand. We sit. We stand again. We kneel. Is there a reason for all this up and down?
It has sometimes been referred to as Catholic calisthenics, but these postures we use in Mass have meaning rooted in Scripture and ancient liturgical practices of the Church.
Standing is the posture of prayer. Notice how Jesus assumes his disciples will stand to pray. “Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone.” Mark 11:25.
The ancients would stand in the temple court to pray. Sometimes with hands uplifted. Other times with hands folded, as catechumens still practice when approaching the Eucharist. Since the entire Mass is a prayer, through most of Church history, the people stood throughout the Mass. The elderly and infirmed often leaned against a pillar or a pole placed there especially for that purpose. When the general congregation was allowed to sit, standing was still observed for the Gospel reading and other specific prayers. In Mass we stand at the Penitential Prayer, the Gloria, the Creed, and the Our Father.
Kneeling is the posture of worship. When a subject came into the presence of his king, he would kneel as a form of submission and recognition of authority. Many Catholics kneel before Mass recognizing that they have entered into the presence of the body of Christ in the tabernacle. We also kneel for the prayer of consecration, as the bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ and at the prayer of humble access since we are about to approach the body of Christ.
In our culture students sit when they attend a lecture while the professor stands. In Jesus’ day, it was the opposite. That is why we always see Jesus sitting when he teaches, and those learning stand around him. In the modern Mass, the congregation sits during the homily. They are like students listening to their teacher who is explaining the Gospel to them.
Sitting is a modern allowance. It makes Mass more comfortable, and in practical terms, keeps those who cannot stand for an hour from embarrassment. But even when you cannot perform the postures physically, it is helpful to be mindful of them and stand or kneel in your heart.