Anglican Moment: The Orans Position

Anglican Moment: The Orans Position


The Orans posture refers to “standing in prayer with hands extended.” Orans means “one who prays” and comes from the Latin “oro” meaning “to pray, beg, supplicate, beseech.” It is one of the most ancient Christian prayer positions, represented 153 times by pictures in the Roman catacombs.

The Orans position or some variation of it, was common to almost all ancient religions as an outward sign of supplicating God (or if a pagan religion, the gods). 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 from deep within us – like kneeling to adore or to express sorrow. Now, turn that reach heavenwards and you have the Orans's1-6-15-46-Edit

In the liturgy when the priest assumes this posture, it indicates that he is praying on behalf of all us, acting as alter Christus as pastor of the flock and head of the body. Although the celebrant is the one who primarily uses this gesture, we all extend our hands at the Sursum Corda (“Lift up your hearts”  “We lift them up unto the Lord”).

Now, we all know that gestures express thoughts and that our bodies express our feelings. So what does the Orans position express about our inner prayer? Let’s study this posture in parts:

Standing: In ancient times, servants and soldiers stood. Ready to serve at a second’s notice, they were attentive to their superiors. To pray standing indicates one’s readiness to serve God and each other.

Hands open: This classical prayer gesture offers thanks and praise, but also shows one stands ready to receive divine gifts. We should also remember that, in a world ruled by the military might of Rome, the open hands gesture showed that one came unarmed and vulnerable. Even today, holding your empty hands up, palms out, is a placating gesture.

Arms outstretched and body unprotected: This is also a peace gesture. Holding open hands away from the body leaves one vulnerable to attack. It is non-defensive, non-threatening.

What does putting this all together say about standing with hands outstretched in prayer? Origen (d. 254), one of the Fathers of our faith, wrote about the Orans posture: “Even more than stretching out the hands to heaven, one must lift up the soul heavenward. More than raising up the eyes, one must lift up the spirit to God. For there can be no doubt that, among a thousand possible positions of the body, outstretched hands and uplifted eyes are to be preferred above all others, so imaging forth in the body those directions of the soul which are fitting in prayer.”

So our prayer posture shows where our mind and thoughts are. Also, when Christians adopted this prayer position, we added two new meanings to the already ancient posture of praise and petition. First, the Orans position imitates Christ upon the cross — hands outstretched and open, offered in complete and willing sacrifice.

But it doesn’t stop there. Just as Christ on the cross doesn’t end at the tomb, so the Orans posture does not symbolize only the sacrifice of the crucifixion. It was also symbolizes resurrection. Representations of the risen Christ often show him standing with hands outstretched in triumph and blessing, sharing salvation with all. We are called to imitate Christ, to let the glory of his death and resurrection shine through our lives — and our bodies.

What better way to remind ourselves of this calling than to place our bodies in the Orans position — standing with arms wide and hands open — praising God, giving thanks, ready to receive new graces and announcing Christ’s Paschal Mystery in word and deed to the world. It is a gesture more triumphant and hope-filled than any double thumbs up. (Excerpt taken from the article “Just What are You Saying, Without any Words” by Patricia Kasten).

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