Stand Aright!

Our society is not accustomed to hear a word from God; we are unfamiliar with oracles.  Instead, we are awash with the words of men—usually fairly worthless words—coming at us from all sides, like incoming missiles in a war zone:  texts on our phones, emails on our computers, blogs, advertisements, political propaganda (i.e. newscasts), junk mail.  Such a barrage leaves us stunned and a bit insensitive to the power of the printed word.  When Gutenberg was the new kid on the block, the printed word—any printed word—possessed power.  Now that we are awash in the printed word, we have trained ourselves to ignore most of what we read.  Messages and words are all around us, crowding out the silence, and the quest for sanity and peace dictates that we tune most of them out.

Perhaps that is a part of why the phrase “the Word of God” finds so little resonance in our hearts.  Indeed, the phrase is used mostly by people holding a Bible.  As a society, we are unused to the concept that there is a God up there who speaks to us down here, and when we encounter this concept, we mostly don’t buy into it.  If there is a God up there, He doesn’t speak.

It was otherwise in the ancient world.  The ancients believed in the gods (or if one were a Jew, in God), and everyone believed that the gods routinely spoke to men, either through dreams, omens, divination, or prophets.  And when they did, the proper posture to receive the divine Word was standing:  one stood respectfully at attention to welcome and humbly accept whatever the deity deigned to give you.

We see this ancient reflex in (of all places) the story of Ehud, related in Judges 3.  Ehud had been called by God liberate his people from the dominating oppression of Eglon and the Moabites.  Ehud was left-handed, and so could carry (and grasp) a sword bound on the right side of his body—a place no one expected a sword to be, since most people were right-handed.  Ehud bound a short dagger about 14 inches long on his right thigh, covered it over with his cloak, and went in for an audience with Eglon, king of the Moabites.  No one saw his sword (his left side, where one would expect a sword to be, was empty), and so he was assumed to be unarmed.  There he presented the customary tribute due from his people.

Then he told Eglon that he had a secret message for him, which Eglon probably assumed was a message about a rebellion brewing somewhere in Israel.  When Eglon dismissed his retainers and was alone with Ehud, Ehud said, “I have a message from God for you”—and Eglon stood up to receive it.

Ehud had spoken with a kind of savage irony, for the message from God was a dagger thrust into Eglon’s fat belly with such force that the entirety of the dagger entered his body blade and all, so that the fat closed over the entry wound.  Eglon of course fell over dead.

Note:  in order to the receive a word from God, Eglon stood up, thereby exposing himself (and his belly) to attack.  Like everyone else in his day, Eglon knew that one did not receive a message from God while comfortably sitting down, but humbly arose to receive it.

This notion of arising from a seated posture to honour someone (such as a messenger or his message) persisted in our culture until almost our own day.  In the Jurassic days of my youth, it was understood that one stood up when one’s sovereign (i.e. one’s king) entered a room, or when the dead were being carried out—or when a woman drew near.  Only a boor would remain seated at such times, and the refusal to rise was considered to be a studied insult.  (This can still be observed in old movies:  observe the men rising from the table when a woman approaches them.)

In this culture it was natural to rise to receive a word from God.  That is why since the earliest days of the Church the faithful rose and stood when the Gospel was being read:  the King was liturgically present among them, and they rose to honour Him and to receive His divine Word.  One might perhaps sit to hear the words of St. Paul, but no one would willingly remain seated when the words of Christ sounded.

That is doubtless why in the early Church (such in places like Hippo or Constantinople) people stood in church during the sermon.  In those days, it was the opposite of today.  Today the people sit for the sermon while the preacher stands to preach and deliver a Word from God.  In the days of Augustine and Chrysostom, it was the preacher who routinely sat to preach, while the people stood.  We see this even in the Sermon on the Mount if we read carefully:  “When Jesus saw the crowds He went up on the mountain, and after He sat down, His disciples came to Him.  He opened His mouth and began to teach them, saying, ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of heaven…’”

Note:  “after He sat down, He opened His mouth and began to teach”.  Sitting is comfortable, and that is why kings express their authority by sitting on a chair (i.e. a throne); standing is less comfortable, and that is why people express their humility by standing to receive an oracle or to honour an approaching person.

I am not suggesting that we change our contemporary church praxis and have the congregation stand for the sermon while the clergy sit.  That would involve too large a change for too little return.  But I do suggest that the faithful stand aright in their heart when receiving the Word of God.  That is, the faithful should prepare their hearts to receive the homily as a word from heaven.

I am painfully aware (after living so long in the church) that not all preachers and their sermons are of the quality of Augustine or Chrysostom.  Preaching is, I believe, a gift of the Spirit, and not all clergy possess it in equal abundance.  But the God who spoke through Balaam’s donkey can speak through anyone if the hearer is only hungry enough to hear it.  Even the dullest and most wandering of sermons can still offer a truth and a morsel for the hungry soul, but one must listen with humility and openness.

When the Gospel is chanted and the preacher rises to comment on it (a daring enough endeavor—adding to the Words of the incarnate God!), let us also rise inwardly to receive the oracle.  For our God is alive, and He is not silent.



  1. Father, a small point. You correctly say, “Stand aright,” in contrast to the phrase often used in our liturgical texts, “Stand upright.” I’m frankly not sure how else one would stand. But standing aright, with all attention and piety, is something for the deacon to exhort.

    1. Indeed. The diaconal exhortation to “Stand aright” is the Greek στωμεν καλως/ stomen kalos (said just before anaphora). It is a summons to arise (if one is seated) and to not lean against a pillar if one is so leaning. The uprightness of the posture is to express the attentiveness of the soul.

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