Standing in the House of the Lord – Lent Sermon Series 4 – The Third Sunday of Lent

If you've visited, or seen pictures of, the catacombs in and around Rome, you may that they include the earliest work of Christian artists. Among the images is that of a woman standing with arms outstretched. She represents the Christian soul at prayer.[1]

That may seem odd in light of our consideration of kneeling, which I described as the most basic posture of prayer, and an expression of Julian of Norwich's phrase, 'the ground of our beseeching'. But just as, with St Paul's image in mind, the body has many members, yet all have a necessary part to play in the body's health and activity (1 Corinthians 12), so too the body assumes numerous postures in prayer and worship, each of which 'says' something about the Christian's relationship to God. So it's fair to say, I think, that '[S]tanding is the other side of reverence toward God.'[2]

To express reverence to God, we kneel or we stand.

Not that they're the same. Indeed, reverence itself has various faces. There's the reverence, for instance, borne of the sense of dependence and littleness--we spoke of that in regard to kneeling. There's also a reverence which expresses privilege, dutifulness, vigilance, and joy. That's the reverence of standing.

Christians didn't invent the posture of standing to pray, of course. Pagans did it. But more important for our Christian forebears was the fact that Jews often prayed standing, and prayer in the Temple was generally performed standing. One of the psalms said at our night service of Compline describes that custom.

                  Come, bless the Lord, all you servants of the Lord,

                         you that by night stand in the house of the Lord.

                  Lift up your hands in the holy place and bless the Lord.

                  The Lord who made heaven and earth

give you blessing out of Zion.[3]

Psalm 134 seems to have been part of a short night-time liturgy for the Temple clergy.[4] It begins with a call addressed to the priests or Levites to stand up; then it bids them, with arms raised, to bless the Lord. Then follows in the final verse of blessing upon them.

There we see in standing the reverence of dutifulness and vigilance.

St Paul was familiar with the custom of standing for prayer. He wrote to Timothy about his desire 'that in every place the men should pray, lifting up holy hands....' (1 Timothy 2.8): the very posture the catacomb images depict.

But such standing, for St Paul, carries more a sense of privilege and joy than of duty and vigilance. Why? Well, St Paul has in mind the privilege of followers of Jesus. And as much as he encouraged fellow Christians to bow the knee at the name of Jesus, his most important proclamation to them was this: that while they had gone down to the ground in a burial like Christ's in baptism, by that same baptism they'd been raised by grace to walk in newness of life (Romans 6.1-4). For centuries

Christians expressed their new life in Christ by standing to pray. For if death doubles us over and lays us flat, life, and God's life in us through Christ above all surely, lifts us up. St Paul himself once described it as 'the full stature of Christ'. So one of the privileges of living resurrection is that we may pray at full stature.

In fact, through most of Christian history Christians have stood to pray, both in public and in private prayer. In church, they only went 'to the wall' if they needed respite by sitting on the ledge. That's because Christians are people who have been raised with Christ to stand and walk in newness of life. The posture of standing reminds ourselves and others of that.

So, when the spirit of praise is foremost, we stand to sing, as we do at the start of our worship when we gather in obedience to the Lord's command and enact what is 'meet and right'.

We stand for the reading of the Gospel, when the living Word speaks to us in human words.

Most Christian stand to say the Lord's Prayer, a statement of filial joy in the presence of the loving Father who welcomes us.

Most Christians stand to receive Communion, when the living Word receives us into his mystical Body anew.

We stand for blessings, which are meant to strengthen us as we're poised to leave the church and get on with the Lord's work in the world.

Those to be baptized stand as they say their vows, and godparents stand when they do so on behalf of their godchildren.

Those to be confirmed stand before the bishop to make their profession of faith, as we saw a few weeks ago, and to take their faith-filled presence into the world where they live, relate, and work.

Ordinands do likewise, as a sign of their readiness to enter the Lord's service in a special, life-long way.

Bride and bridegroom stand and face one another, and then the altar as they bind themselves to one another in 'the strong name of the Trinity'.

All of those moment are resurrection moments, when the Spirit of the risen Lord is acting in the lives of people now with the energy of the age to come, bringing breath and new life to the dry bones, raising up human lives, leading them toward their perfection in God.

One of the greatest ancient prayers of the Church captures this placing-us-on-our-feet work by God's Spirit. It prays that God will

                  ...let the whole world see and know that things

                  which were cast down are being raised up, and

                  things which had grown old are being made new,

                  and that all things are being brought to their

                  perfection by him through whom all things were

                  made....[5]

All that I've said so far suggests that value of the postures we assume lies in our intentions when we assume them. But consider this other angle on the power of posture. In one of his books Jean Vanier quotes a psychoanalyst colleague who told him, "The body remembers everything".[6]

Our postures engender a physical memory. So, at a deep level the act of standing reminds us that, if we've been buried with Christ in a death like his, then we've been raised with him in a resurrection like his. A time may come when, most senses having been lost, to testify to that truth about ourselves, all we can do is stand, or try to stand, even for a moment, and so let the body say what no other part of us can.

May the words of one of our holy forebears in faith on these shores be with us in our worship today, and become deeply ours through all the length of days to come which God will grant each of us. As he composed this prayer he was inspired by Psalm 134, of which I spoke earlier:

                  Grant, O Lord, that ascending all the steps of

                  perfection, we may praise Thee in the summit

                  of virtues, and standing in Thy house and in Thy

                  courts, we may lift up our hands by night and by

                  day to bless Thee, and receive blessing from Thee

                  the Lord and Saviour of heaven and earth.[7]

Amen.

Preached by the Revd Dr Charles Miller, Team Rector

St Helen's Church, Abingdon-on-Thames

March 19th 2017, The Third Sunday of Lent


[1] The so-called 'Orant', or person at prayer. See Walter Lowrie, Art in the Early Church, rev. ed. (New York: W. W. Norton & Co, 1947),  p. 45, and plate 16.

[2] Romano Guardini, Sacred Signs, p. 22.

[3] Translation from Common Worship: Daily Prayer. The Psalm ends the so-called 'Book of Pilgrim Psalms'.

[4] Or by pilgrims to the Temple clergy on vigil there through each night. See Artur Weiser, The Psalms, trans. Herbert Hartwell (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1962), p. 786.

[5] 'O God of unchangeable power and eternal light...'; text from the American Book of Common Prayer (1979), p. 528.

[6] The Gospel of John, The Gospel of Relationship (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 2015), p. 72.

[7] Alcuin of York; quoted in  J. M. Neale and R. F. Littledale, A Commentary on the Psalms: from Primitive and Mediaeval Writers (London: Joseph Masters, 1874), vol. IV, p. 265.