Thursday, November 15, 2012

Outreached Hands—Orans: Practices of Prayer in the Early Church

“Come, bless the Lord, all you servants of the Lord, who stand by night in the house of the Lord! Lift up your hands to the holy place, and bless the Lord!” (Ps 134:1 RSV).

Lifting Hands Throughout Scripture
Lifting up hands to the Lord is an activity of prayer and worship found throughout the Old and New Testaments. The Psalms offer numerous examples of lifting hands in prayer. “May my prayer be set before you like incense,” cries David in Psalm 140:2, “may the lifting up of my hands be like the evening sacrifice.”

The Scriptures exhort us to raise our hands in prayer, as Psalm 134 above commands. As well as petition, raised hands signify praise: “I will praise you as long as I live,/ and in your name I will lift up my hands” (Psalm 63:4).

The New Testament continues the rhythms of daily prayer and the active participation in prayer found in the Old Testament. Thus when Paul calls us to pray for all those in authority he states, “I want men everywhere to lift up holy hands in prayer, without anger or disputing” (1 Timothy 1:8).

Orans—the Praying Person
Standing before the Lord with outstretched arms was the standard posture of prayer for the early Christians. Reaching out their hands to God in praise and petition was not something that just a few believers did; rather, it was the norm for Christians, as well as Jews and even pagans in the ancient world. Prayer was not some detached cognitive exercise, but instead it engaged the whole body, soul and spirit of the one crying out to God. Extending arms in prayer was the norm in the church of the first centuries.

Artwork of Christians at prayer and gravestones of believers help to give us a picture of what praying for the early followers of Jesus looked like. The Latin word for “praying” or “praying person” is orans. Do a search on Google Images or another search engine for “orans” and you will find dozens, if not hundreds, of pictures of Christians standing with outstretched arms in prayer.

In addition, key Christian leaders wrote about this common practice of prayer. One of the first theologians, Origen, writes about this. “Nor may anyone doubt that of the countless postures of the body, the posture with hands outstretched and eyes uplifted is to be preferred to all (the others), because one then carries in the body too, as it were, the image of that special condition that befits the soul during prayer.” [1]

Trying it Today
Physical postures of prayer invite us to engage our whole being as we come before the Lord. This helps to make prayer meaningful and keeps us focused. Especially if our routine of prayer has grown dull, it would be worthwhile to try standing with outstretched arms. This posture is significant to us because it connects us with believers from nearly 2000 years ago! As I have begun spending some of my prayer time this way, I find that my physical posture is a reflection of my inner attitude in prayer—which will be the theme of the next blog.

[1] Origen, On Prayer, as quoted in Gabriel Bunge, Earthen Vessels: The Practice of Personal Prayer According to the Patristic Tradition, trans. Michael J. Miller (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2002), p. 152.

© 2012 Glenn E. Myers


  1. Hey Glenn,
    I was recently searching content on prayer and your blog came up in my Google search. Believe it or not, my church, Lansdowne Alliance Church in Baltimore, MD is doing a series on prayer at the moment. I desire to implement lifting my hands as a reflection of my heart attitude. Thanks for your insight. I really miss having you as a professor. May your impact at Crown continue to develop young people as it did mine. :)
    - Jake Wattenphul

  2. Jake, great to hear from you! I'm glad you could use some material from the blog!