The Orate, fratres, literally, “Pray, brethren,” concludes the preparatory rites at the beginning of the Liturgy of the Eucharist. The gifs of bread and wine are presented; the priest says the berekah prayers while elevating the gifts slightly above the altar, and, after saying a short private prayer that our offerings and ourselves might be acceptable, washes his hands at the side of the altar. He then returns to the middle of the altar and says, “Pray, brethren (brothers and sisters), that my sacrifice and yours may be acceptable to God, the almighty Father.”
Some readers might recall that prior to the 3rd edition of the Roman Missal the assembly would make its response, “May the Lord accept the sacrifice at your hands” while still seated. But with the current edition, this practice changed.
Even though the Missal itself did not appear in English until 2011, its General Instruction (GIRM) was available in approved translation in 2000, mostly, it is assumed, to help preparations for the Missal itself later (ten years later, as it turned out). At one point, the GIRM says that the people stand “from the invitation Orate, fratres (Pray, brethren), before the Prayer over the Offerings…” (n.43). Without the actual Order of Mass to consult (at least in English), this instruction came to be interpreted by most as having the people stand before the priest says to the assembly “Pray, brethren, that my sacrifice and yours,” much as the people would stand if they were incensed (with incense!) at Mass. This appears to be the practice in most parishes at the moment.
As it turns out, the people are not to stand before the priest says “Pray, brethren” or after they make their response. Instead, the Order of Mass has the assembly stand after the priest says “Pray, brethren” but before they respond “May the Lord accept the sacrifice at your hands.” What was not clear in the GIRM is now clear in the Order of Mass:
Standing at the middle of the altar, facing the people, extending and then joining his hands, he says:
Pray, brethren (brothers and sisters), that my sacrifice and yours may be acceptable to God, the almighty Father.
The people rise and reply:
May the Lord accept the sacrifice at your hands, for the praise and glory of his name, for our good and the good of all his holy Church.
But reading the rubric is one thing: knowing why it says what it does is another. Why does the rubric have the assembly stand before making its response? Let me suggest three reasons.
First, standing is an appropriate response to the priest’s command to prayer. I say “command” since the verb orate is just that, taking the imperative form. Orate is at its root ora, for prayer, and it takes the form of a command. Orate is related to oremus, “Let us pray,” which the priest says before the Collect (or Opening Prayer) at the end of the Introductory Rites and before the Prayer After Communion. But in these cases the oremus is in the subjunctive form and serves more as an invitation than a command. In a certain sense, the command orate is similar to the military command “Attention!” – to which soldiers stand in response.
Second, standing is a posture of respect and, in this case, respectful entreaty. During the other presidential prayers, such as the Collect or Prayer After Communion, the assembly is standing, since it is addressing God (most often God the Father) through the person of the priest. At other times, such as during the Eucharistic Prayer, the assembly kneels, this also being, among other things, a petitionary posture. But never in the Mass does the assembly as a whole pray to God from a sitting posture. And it is no small petition that the members of the assembly make: we pray that our sacrifice may be accepted for God’s glory and our sanctification. Offering an acceptable sacrifice which sanctifies us and glorifies God was (and is) the essence of Jesus’ own work, the ongoing ministry of the Church, and the most fundamental aspect of being a Christian. Standing expresses the importance of this petition in a way that sitting cannot.
Third, and related to number two, the act of standing (in both cult and culture) is a sign of readiness. The Chosen People were told to offer that first Paschal Sacrifice “with your loins girt, sandals on your feet and your staff in hand” because “you will eat it in a hurry” (Exodus 12:11). Like the Israelites, we too stand in readiness as we prepare our own sacrifice: the true Paschal Lamb and, with him, our own hearts. Standing thus also expresses and fosters our readiness to enter into the sacrifice at the altar.
So whether or not your own parish stands as the Missal indicates, we can at least be mindful of what these words and postures at this juncture signify: the command to sacrifice, the heart-felt petition that our sacrifice be acceptable for our holiness, and the readiness to join our own personal sacrifices to that of Jesus on the altar.