3rd Sunday of Ordinary time ( C ) 2013
“Then they bowed down and prostrated themselves before the LORD, their faces to the ground.” Neh. 8:6
One of the religious customs of Muslims that I have always found impressive is the way their faithful bow and prostrate themselves during times of prayer. We see that same custom in today’s first reading where the Israelites prostrate themselves as the Law is read out by Ezra, and in both cases the bowing and prostrating symbolizes the submission of the believer to God and his law. A left-over of this ancient religious custom can be seen in Christianity in the ordination rite where the candidate prostrates himself during the Litany of the Saints, just as he prepares to submit himself to the service of the Lord. There are also remnants of this religious gesture in the Good Friday Service and the rite of religious profession, with much the same meaning of profound reverence and submission to a rule or promise.
It is a quite beautiful religious gesture, and one might wonder why it is limited today to the ordination rite rather than having a broader application in the Christian liturgical ceremonies. After Vatican II, many Catholics seemed to emulate George Fox, the founder of the Quaker religion, who heartily denounced all bowing and scraping in religious ceremonies since all Christians are equal. Of course, like Fox, they missed the point of the gesture in the religious sense, unlike a political gesture, for surely neither Jew nor Muslim nor Christian was ever directing this gesture at any religious leader, but purely towards God and God’s law and authority. If there is anyone we should, must, bow to, it surely is God, and the outward gesture is merely meant to symbolize the much more profound and necessary bowing of the heart to God by a true believer.
I personally never liked the bowing and scraping that took place before earthly kings and emperors. I also cringe a bit when I read about these kinds of gestures toward the popes and bishops of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, even though I know it was supposedly meant as a reverence for Christ whose office they shared, not the men themselves. But the close connection of the “princes of the Church” with the “princes of this world”, and even at times their imitation these “princes of the World, made it likely that often the true meaning of the rite would be lost and the office holder himself would become the object of the bowing and scraping. This was something the Council tried to put to rest, though in some places there are still bishops who love the trappings of royalty and being addressed as “Your Grace.” I personally witnessed a Bishop visiting a seminary who demanded this title, even from the president of the University. He politely and quite rightly refused this anachronism.
However, one can agree with the Muslims that on the natural level there is no more appropriate place for man to be when he senses himself in the presence of God than on his face. Recall how Simon Peter, a deeply religious Jew, spontaneously fell at Jesus’ knees when he sensed his divine power in the miraculous catch of fish, and the Samaritan, the only one of ten whom Jesus cured of leprosy, who came back and likewise prostrated himself before Jesus to thank him, and the man born blind whom Jesus cured in the Temple who confesses Jesus as Lord while prostrating himself. It’s quite a natural religious gesture, and it’s where man should naturally be before God, unless God should choose to raise one up.
And in fact, that is precisely what has happened in the New Covenant, God has done something unheard of, unexpected, almost unimaginable, he has made a servant, indeed a slave, a member of his household, like Moses who was raised up in the household of Pharaoh. Indeed, beyond this he has made a slave who rightly has his face to the ground in His presence, an adopted son whose head is lifted up and who is destined to see His God face to face forever. All of this is obviously a pure gift, and there is no room here for boasting, as St. Paul says, for this is our destiny only because we have been made members of Christ’s body, members of Him who alone can call God Father by natural right. Paul says in today’s second reading from 1st Corinthians, For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body. In truth, this newness of life and tremendous new stature is found only in Christ’s body and is the only reason we do not keep our faces to the ground as natural men must do to be religious and reverent men. But God, says Paul in his Letter to the Ephesians: “has raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.” That is the tremendous new stature of the one reborn in Christ in Baptism, and it us simply fittingness, not pride, that this new creature should no longer pray with his head to the ground.
This is the Good news that Christ proclaimed in today’s Gospel when he read that passage from Isaiah in order to define His mission in this world. This is the glad tidings he was sent to being to the poor, that is, to man in his natural poverty as a creature and his spiritual poverty caused by his sins. The liberty he brings to captives which sets them free is the power of the Spirit, the supernatural grace which liberates us from the captivity of sin. The blindness he cures is the blindness of unbelief and ignorance, again caused by our sins. In short, the good news is the truth that man is called to be raised up to divine sonship in Christ, a dignity as unmerited as it is unexpected. How prophetic are Ezra’s words “for rejoicing in the LORD must be your strength!” Man raised to such heights must rejoice in worshiping the Lord who has raised him up, and this rejoicing in worship is the source of His strength.
All of this good news reaches far beyond any political or worldly meaning of the words liberation, freedom, recovery of sight, strength. Nonetheless, the world itself would be quickly transformed if all or at least many of its citizens were actually raised up by faith to become new creations, true Sons of God in the Only Son. None of this is a political program, yet it would change any politics that is practiced by men and women who have become raised up by the grace of Christ to be new creations in the midst of a world that is passing away because it is old and weakening every day. Bowing to the Lord is certainly a beginning of a renewal of the old world, but only heads lifted to Christ of men made new will bring the old world’s renewal to fulfillment.