3rd Sunday of Ordinary time
“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 prayer custom in today’s first reading where the Israelites prostrate themselves as the Law is being read out by Ezra, and in both cases the bowing and prostrating symbolizes the submission of the believer to God and to his law. Another example 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, as he prepares to submit himself to the service of the Lord. There are also remnants of this religious gesture in our Good Friday Service and the rite of religious profession, with the same meaning of profound reverence and submission to God by means of a rule of life or a promise.
It is a quite beautiful religious gesture, and some might wish it were not limited today to these few religious rites rather than having a broader application in the Christian liturgical ceremonies. On the other hand, following Vatican II there were many Catholics who seemed to emulate George Fox, the founder of the Quaker religion, who heartily denounced all “bowing and scraping” in religious ceremonies because all Christians are equal. Of course, like Fox, they missed the true religious meaning of the gesture. Unlike a similar political gesture, no devout Jew or Muslim or Christian is ever directing this gesture to a religious leader, but purely to God and God’s law and authority. If there is anyone we should, indeed 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 mind and heart of the true believer to God.
I personally never appreciated the bowing and scraping that took place before earthly kings and emperors, and I always cringed a bit when I read about these kinds of gestures made 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 simply in themselves. But the close connection of the “princes of the Church” with the “princes of this world”, and even at times their imitation of these “princes of the World, made it almost inevitable 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 Vatican II tried to put to rest, though in some places there are still bishops who love the trappings of royalty and of being addressed with titles like “Your Grace.” I personally witnessed a Bishop visiting a seminary who requested that this title be used, even by the President of the University. This gentleman politely and quite rightly refused to use this anachronism.
So one can agree with 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; then there was 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 finally there was the man born blind whom Jesus cured in the Temple who confesses Jesus as Lord while prostrating himself. It’s quite a natural and appropriate religious gesture whenever a man senses himself to be in the presence of the divine.
That is why it is so utterly surprising that God has done something unheard of, totally unexpected, indeed, almost unimaginable in establishing the New Covenant. He has raised up servants, indeed slaves, and made them members of his very household, like Moses who was raised up as a member of the household of Pharaoh. But this is the household of God and in Christ he has made us slaves, who rightly should have our faces to the ground in His presence, His adopted sons and daughters. In fact he has raised our heads so high that we are now destined to see His God face to face.
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 of man 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 who is reborn in Christ in Baptism, and it is simply fitting 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. None of this has to do with earthly politics and should not be confused with a secular gospel. The liberty he brings to captives, which sets them truly free, is the power of the Spirit, the supernatural grace which liberates sinners from the captivity of sin. Likewise, the blindness he cures is the blindness of unbelief and ignorance, once again caused by our sins. In short, the good news here, the true Gospel of Christ, is the truth that believing man is now to be raised up to divine sonship in Christ, a dignity as unmerited as it is unexpected. How prophetic, then, 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.
While all of this “good news” reaches far beyond any political or worldly meaning of these 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 one and 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.