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A History Of The Mass And Its Ceremonies In The Eastern And Western Church -Rev John O'Brien A.M.

The priest recites all the prayers with outstretched and extended hands. This practice is not new, for we find that it was observed also in the old law. Moses thus prayed in the wilderness, and the Holy Scripture tells us that as long as he kept his hands thus uplifted on high while his kinsmen fought against the Amalekites in the valley of Raphidim, the former were always victorious, but that when he let them down a little, victory fell to the latter (Exod. 17) Many touching allusions are made to this extending of hands in prayer throughout the Old Testament; and we see it also strongly recommended in the New, for St. Paul says, “I will that men pray lifting up pure hands” (1 Tim. 2:8). And that this holy and venerable attitude was observed by the ancient Christians in their devotions, innumerable testimonies prove. The Catacombs bear witness of the fact in the pictures they furnish us of men and women praying in this way. But it is only the priest at Mass who observes this practice now. The people pray that way no longer, but rather with hands united. Dr. Rock tells us in his Hierurgia (p. 61) that while travelling in Europe he noticed the people in many of the churches of Munich praying after the ancient manner. In the mystic interpretation of this posture there is reference, first, to Adam’s uplifting of his hand in reaching for the forbidden fruit; and, secondly, to the lifting up and outstretching of our Divine Lord’s hands on the cross, by which Adam’s transgression was atoned for (Bona, p. 322). Praying with the hands fully extended in the form of a cross is yet observed at certain parts of the Mass by the Carthusians, Carmelites, and Dominicans, as we see from their ceremonials.

The reader, no doubt, will be curious to know something more about the manner in which the ancient Christians assisted at Mass than what we have given. As a general rule the ancient churches had no seats for the people to sit on, as that position was deemed ill in keeping with the gravity becoming the house of God. As the services, however, in the very early days were much longer than at present, those who, through feebleness of health or other causes, could not stand, were allowed the use of staves to lean upon, and in some rare cases even of cushions to sit upon, a practice which is yet quite common in the churches of Spain, and in many of those of the rest of Europe. It was the rule to stand always on Sunday, in memory of our Lord’s glorious resurrection, and to kneel the rest of the week (Selvaggio, b. 10). As kneeling is a sign of humiliation, it was the rule to observe it during the penitential seasons and on all occasions of mourning. According to St. Jerome, St. Basil the Great, Tertullian, and others, these rules were derived from the Apostles themselves; but because some would sit when they ought to stand, and some stand when they ought to kneel, the Sacrosanct Council of Nicæa, in order to establish uniformity, thus decreed in its twentieth canon: “In order that all things may be done alike in every parish, it has seemed good to this Holy Synod [to decree] that the people pour out their prayers standing” (Summa Conciliorum, p. 35; Selvaggio, 8). Of course this rule did not affect the Public Penitents, who were obliged to remain kneeling during the entire time that they were permitted to be present in the house of God. The fourth Council of Carthage strictly forbade them ever to change this posture.

Whenever any important prayer or lesson was to be read, and the people had been kneeling beforehand, the deacon invited them now to stand by the words, “Erecti stemus honeste”—that is, “Let us become erect and stand in a becoming manner.” During the penitential season the congregation were invited to kneel by saying, “Flectamus genua,” and to stand up afterwards by “Levate.” The same custom may yet be observed in Lent and on some other occasions. The Catholic reader need not, of course, be told that during the actual celebration of Mass the priest is always standing. At Solemn High Mass he and his ministers are allowed to sit down while the choir are chanting the “Kyrie eleison,” “Gloria in excelsis,” and “Credo,” but never at any other part of the service. Two singular instances of saying Holy Mass in a sitting posture are upon record. Pope Benedict XIV. did so in his declining years, when through great feebleness of health he could neither stand nor kneel, and the same is recorded of the saintly and ever-memorable pontiff, Pope Pius VII.

Praying towards the East.—The custom prevailed very generally with the Christians of early days of turning to the east in prayer, whether at Mass or out of Mass, and the majority of ancient churches were built with a view to favor this custom. The reasons given for this practice are the following: First, because the east is symbolic of our Lord, who is styled in Scripture the “Orient from on high,” the “Light,” and the “Sun of Justice.” Secondly, the Garden of Eden was situated in that region, and thence did the Magi come to lay their gifts at the crib of our Lord on Christmas morning. Thirdly, according to St. John Damascene, when our Lord hung on the cross his back was turned to the east and his face to the west; we therefore pray to the east that we may, as it were, be looking in his face. Fourthly, the ancients prayed in this direction, in order not to resemble the pagans, who moved in every direction—now praying towards the sun at mid-day, now towards the moon, and again towards the stars; the Saracens prayed towards the south, the Jews towards Jerusalem, and the Mahometans towards Mecca. Fifthly, it has always been looked upon as an established thing that at the last day our Lord, with his effulgent cross sparkling in the heavens, will come to judge mankind from the eastern quarter (see Bona, Divina Psalmodia, p. 441; Riddle’s Christian Antiquities, p. 795).








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