In the Vatican, and in the pontifical
basilicas of Rome (formerly called “patriarchal basilicas”),
a ruling has recently been made that a standing cross should be
placed at the center of high or freestanding altars. No specification
is given as to the kind and size of the cross. As a rule, the implementation
of this request has been appropriate: a high-standing cross with
corpus has been set in place facing the priest celebrant, such that
he is able to look upon the crucified Jesus. Such a request, which
articulates what should actually be a matter of course, may come
as a surprise. But in Rome, for many years prior to this time, the
bad habit had developed of pushing the cross to the corner of the
altar, so that it would not “disturb,” facilitating
a “television friendly” liturgy, especially for papal
The cross is the focal point of salvation and of
liturgical action. It should, of course, harmonize with the altar
in style and proportion, but it should certainly not be low standing.
The cross is supposed to disturb! The priest is not supposed to
“overlook” it! However, the objection is sometimes made
that a barrier is created by the cross between clergy and people,
something on the line of an iconostasis (a wall of icons in Eastern
rite churches, separating the nave from the sanctuary). But this
is a specious argument as even the enormous altar cross in the Basilica
of St. Peter does not really block the view. There are very few
churches, after all, where the people face the altar straight on;
more commonly, they face the altar from a lateral perspective, looking
past the cross to the priest. Moreover, the higher the cross is
placed, the less likely it will obstruct the people’s view.
It thus becomes for all a spiritual “attention-getter”
(if it is aesthetically high-standing). Finally, it is further objected
that an altar cross creates a doubling of crucifixes, in the case
that a cross already hangs above or behind the altar. However, the
cross on the altar is for the priest, facing him with its corpus,
while the faithful look at their cross above the altar.
There will no doubt be some clashes with liturgical
committees, when pastors, choosing to follow Roman custom, begin
taking their altar crosses out of the closet. In order to forestall
precipitous reactions in these debates, we would like to establish
the larger context in which the discussion belongs. There are a
number of liturgical practices that have disappeared from use over
centuries. Without a reflective look at these rituals, however,
it could easily happen that even the loveliest of liturgical directives
would shrivel into meaningless formalism.
The sacrificial action of the Eucharist takes place
on the altar, within a continuous current of prayer: from the prayer
over the gifts, through the Eucharistic Prayer, to the Our Father.
In this respect, the Eucharistic action is markedly different from
the liturgy of the Word that precedes it. The ambo is, strictly
speaking, not a place of prayer; the Opening Prayer is better placed
at the celebrant’s chair. In the usus antiquior, the priest
is always standing at the altar, and almost always praying! The
silent prayers are neither private prayers nor mere time-fillers
(i.e., horror vacui), but rather to make the altar a place of unceasing
Once this point has been acknowledged, the implication
is that the priest at the altar takes on a different attitude, or
mindset, than he has anywhere else. Here he stands, first and foremost,
as one who prays. Christianity recognizes this distinctive prayer
posture where the priest raises his hands, as well as his eyes.
The raising of hands and eyes belongs, inseparably, to the gesture
of early Christian prayer, just as Jesus himself practiced in the
Jewish tradition. Standing in prayer is also part of this tradition,
seen as a fundamental posture for one in prayer; on one’s
knees praying, likewise, uses elevated hands and eyes, all dating
back to early Christianity. Since the Middle Ages, this prayer posture,
with hands and eyes raised, has faded somewhat from practice. Now,
it is only the priest raising his hands (and eyes for only a few
short moments) because he is reading prayers. He does look up, for
instance, in the Roman canon at the time of the consecration while
speaking the words: “et elevatis oculis in coelum”.
Therefore, Jesus inaugurates the Eucharist “with eyes raised
Even in the ordo novus, the rubric at this point
reads: “He (the priest) raises his eyes.” But where
exactly is the priest supposed to be looking, at the church ceiling?
So when the priest in reciting a prayer is required to look upward,
rather than simply staring into space, the obvious focal point is
a high-standing cross on the main altar.
Of course, the practice of having a cross on the
altar facing the priest is not only needed for a few isolated moments.
It has a more general purpose. When the priest stands at the altar
in unceasing prayer to God, he will be gazing at God’s Son,
through whom his every petition, his every word of praise, is, in
Since God is creator, the world is not chaotic,
but a universe divinely fashioned and providentially ordered. There
is an “above” and a “below,” or in scriptural
terms, upon the heavens his throne is set, earth is his footstool.
Already, the early Church Fathers observed that Christians stand
erect to pray: as free creatures of God, who hold their heads high,
and look up with their eyes to the One who looks down on them from
his heavenly throne. To pray is to converse with God. It would be
impolite not to be looking at someone with whom we are conversing.
The act of looking up when we pray is, therefore, an expression
of the whole creation theology of the Old and New Testaments.
Sinful man attempts to hide from God, like Adam
and Eve hid in the bushes. Redeemed man, on the other hand, does
not need to hang his head in shame; happy and free, he may look
God in the face and “dare” to say: “Our Father,
who art in heaven.” He may dare to do this because Jesus Christ
is truly Son by nature, and he alone can pray “Father;”
while we, through grace, enjoy the same relationship, being so invited
into this act of filial boldness. We are only creatures, but the
baptized are privileged creatures, because, whether man or woman,
we are in Christ as beloved sons and daughters of the same heavenly
This was precisely what the early Church wished
to bring to expression in the prayer posture it adopted. In prayer,
when we speak with God, we embrace our filial identity. But since
in the physical space of the church, one’s view to the heavenly
throne of God was blocked by walls, the effort was made to clear
a virtual path of vision to heaven. The apse was often painted,
or studded, with mosaics, with a section of the painting portraying
the starry sky. This broke open the church’s ceiling to heaven.
The priests and the faithful could look up to the
apse when they prayed, seeing into heaven, so to speak. The gaze
of the faithful was not focused on the altar and the celebrant,
but rather overhead. The church building itself always had to be
“oriented” to the east at this graphically depicted
heavenly art. The actual geographical orientation toward the east
was of secondary importance.
Now, it was clear from the beginning that Christian
prayer was not simply directed to God alone, but through Jesus Christ
to the heavenly Father. This is precisely where the cross comes
into play as a focal point. Thus, in the early church, not only
heaven, but the cross, as well, was depicted in the apse, or at
least placed at a high location in the apse. Everyone was supposed
to be looking at the cross when they prayed. The best example of
this arrangement is in the apse of the church of Sant’Apollinare
in Classe near Ravenna, Italy, which dates back to the sixth century.
The Church’s practice of placing an elevated
cross on the altar—which up to a few decades ago was taken
to be a matter of course—was well-grounded, both liturgically
and theologically. Even after the Second Vatican Council, there
was no good reason why crucifixes should be placed like props only
on the rarely used side altars. On the contrary, the altar is the
place of prayer: the cross belongs there, and, indeed, even more
so, on the main altar. It is the place of raising one’s hands,
mind and eyes to “look upon the one whom they have pierced.”
Here, heaven opened up at the moment when darkness covered the earth:
the Sun of Righteousness on the cross was raised up at the center
of the earth, making our darkness light.
In the myriad publications about the posture of
prayer, one rarely finds so much as a reference to the raising of
the hands. Authors always assume, as their starting point, the prayer
posture of “normal” believers, who fold their hands
in prayer. After all, hand folding dates back many hundred years.
Nevertheless, the point is regularly concealed that the “real”
prayer posture (still today) is what the priest does at Mass. Whenever
the priest says, “Let us pray,” he lifts up his hands
as he begins praying. In the early and medieval Church, as the priest
announced, “Let us pray,” the congregation would stand
up, raising their hands. In modern times, however, the prayer postures
of priest and faithful have parted ways. The faithful kneel or stand
when they pray, and fold their hands. The early Christian prayer
posture, the raising of hands and eyes to heaven, has been so thoroughly
forgotten, that it is no longer felt to be a gesture of prayer at
all; rather it is taken to be some specifically priestly ritual
of obscure origin.
Wide divergence and inconsistency of practice do
not make it easy for the faithful to understand what the raising
of the priest’s hands is supposed to mean, and what it has
to do with prayer, especially since the congregation does not use
such a posture. Priests themselves appear to have no idea why they
do what they do, for each one does it in a different way. At the
moment, there is no common practice with regard to prayer posture.
It seems to me that there is something missing here. After all,
the Christian faith, owing to the Incarnation, has a much closer,
more conscious relationship to the body than do other religions.
Prayer is not mere interiority, but must incarnate itself in particular
The most important thing with regard to prayer
posture was already mentioned in connection with the raising of
the eyes. The early Christians explicitly stressed the point that
man is not like the other animals walking on four paws; rather,
man stands erect, and in a certain sense, approaches heaven through
his bodily disposition. Man can acknowledge God, and speak to him.
This is why he stands erect, raises his hands and eyes to heaven.
Everyone who prays should adopt this posture, not only the priest.
Christians took over the common customary prayer
posture of late antiquity. They even emphasized this very continuity.
For them, too, God was in heaven. Of course, for them there was
only one God, who created heaven and earth. But there was an unqualified
acceptance by Christians for using this Jewish and pagan prayer
posture. The raising of hands and eyes was important to them because
God had his throne in heaven.
More importantly, there is another practice taken
from antiquity which they adopted: the cleansing of the hands. The
hand and face washing that precedes ritual prayer is no invention
of Moslems. Islamic followers adopted it in the seventh century
based on Christian prayer practices. Christians used to wash themselves,
or at least their hands, before praying. A water fountain stood
in the forecourt of churches precisely for this purpose. In the
atrium of St. Peter’s in Rome, there stood the famous stone
pine fountain. A sarcophagus from Ravenna portrays such a washing
bowl: a cantharus (deep bowl) adorned with peacocks.
This washing concerned an attitude of purity and
integrity in prayer. Precisely because one’s hands were raised
to heaven while praying, they had to be clean. The believer wanted
to be seen by God. So, persons who prayed would show washed hands
as a sign that they were not stained with blood. For Christians,
washed hands were supposed to express that one entered into God’s
presence with a pure conscience. “The clean of hand and pure
of heart” may go up to the mountain of the Lord, was a Psalm
sung by those traveling to the temple in Jerusalem (Ps 24:4).
This explains this prayer posture in the early
Church: a person’s hands were held relatively close in front
of one’s face with the palms turned outwards, as is the custom
in the Dominican rite even today. It was a way of saying: “Here,
God, look at my hands! No blood and no injustice cling to them.
And only in this manner do I dare to pray and raise my voice to
you.” St. John Chrysostom addressed his followers by saying
that it was not enough to raise washed hands to God; these hands
must also be made holy through works of charity. So, in the forecourt
of the church, one should not only go to the fountain for hand washing,
but also use the opportunity to give alms to the poor who begged
What remains of this rite of hand washing, previously
practiced by all of the faithful, is the priest’s ritual hand
washing before the Eucharistic prayer. The faithful no longer wash
their hands, because they also no longer raise their hands when
they pray. In its place, people bless themselves with holy water
at the church entrance, reminding themselves of their baptism.
These rituals of the past retain their meaning
even today. Christian prayer presupposes “clean hands.”
A person who has sinned against his neighbor also sins against God.
In refusing to be reconciled with his neighbor, a person should
not approach the altar of God. The act of faith does not simply
erase all past and future sins. Our behavior and actions create
new obstacles on the way to God, weakening the effectiveness of
our prayer. The priest is reminded of his own inadequacy every time
he holds up his hands. This automatic gesture should provoke in
his mind a serious examination of conscience: what makes you worthy
that you alone can raise your hands in prayer? Have you done everything
in your power to enable you, with pure hands and full transparency
of spirit, to bring before God the gifts and prayers of the people?