It is important to note at first that there is
technically no "right" or "wrong" way to pray. There are only traditional ways,
and these traditions have more to do with what part of the world you come from,
and how the people in that part of the world are used to showing respect, or
carrying on conversations, or showing devotion, contrition, etc. In the Bible
people prayed while kneeling or while standing.
To get an idea of how standing came to be the
norm in the East, let us consider this passage from the writing of an early
Christian layman of north Africa: "We consider it unlawful to fast, or to pray
kneeling, upon the Lord's day [Sunday]; we enjoy the same liberty from Easter
day to that of Pentecost." [Tertullian, De Corona Militis, s. 3,4] This
preference (though he talks about it as though it were law) actually became law
at the Council of Nicea a few years later: "Forasmuch as there are certain
persons who kneel on the Lord's Day and in the days of Pentecost, therefore, to
the intent that all things may be uniformly observed everywhere (in every
parish), it seems good to the holy Synod that prayer be made to God standing."
[Canon 20, Council of the 318 Fathers Assembled in the City of Nicea in
Bithynia.] Here the practice of kneeling at prayer, which was a wide-spread
practice in early Christianity, was outlawed for Sundays and all days during
Pentecost (i.e., the 50 days between Easter and the Feast of Pentecost).
Why would something that was essentially an
indifferent matter become a subject of law? It is because the Fathers (and
Tertullian before them) thought it very important that Christians make a
statement about the meaning of Sunday and Pentecost, and about themselves in the
process. Every Sunday we celebrate our Lord's resurrection--his victory over sin
and death, which is our victory as well, if we remain in him. Our celebration is
one of joy and confidence, as we come before God with "open face" and a clear
conscience, confronting the "Good News" of our
salvation with happy hearts and much hope. Standing also indicates reverence in
the presence of something or someone greater than one's self. Kneeling, which
carries with it a symbolic sense of contrition and sorrow, seemed an
inappropriate statement for Christians to make on days of victory and
celebration (fasting was also forbidden on Sundays and during the "days of
In the Roman West the practice of standing at
Communion did not become a universal practice, but in the Roman East and in
Persian domains it became the normal way of prayer--especially on Sundays.
But why do we stand for the Gospel reading?
We normally sit during the readings of the Old
Testament and the Apostle. We sit because we are listening and learning. We also
sit during the sermon for the same reason. But as soon as the Gospel is brought
out to be read, everyone stands at attention. This is because we rise in the
presence of our Lord, as we would in the presence of a king, an elder--any
person of significance. We stand also because we consider ourselves to be
entering into conversation with Jesus, who speaks to us as brothers and sharers
with him in the Kingdom of his Father. We are drawn into his life through his
words and deeds in the Gospel, even as we are given his life through the
Sacraments when we approach them (also standing).
Standing, then, is the normal and proper posture
during prayer on Sundays, though kneeling or sitting while praying are not
wrong. By standing we bear witness to the victory of Christ, and by standing we
testify to our confidence and sure hope that his victory is ours as well.