Have you ever wondered what you would do were the Lord to appear to you, here and now? I have. I imagine I would be terrified, yet I also believe that God would somehow circumvent my fear and replace it with peace. Needless to say, I have no idea what I’d do. And yet, God does visit us in our midst; He is present in every liturgy, “where two or three are gathered in [his] name” (Mt 18:20), and in His Real Presence in the Eucharist. How do we respond? Traditionally, the liturgy involves ritual expressions of reverence before the Lord. In more recent times, some prefer to respond in spontaneous expressions of joy before their Beloved, as anyone would naturally do when meeting a loved one. Conflict now exists between those two camps: do we behave with reverence before the Lord of Hosts, or do we embrace Him with love? Jesus is, after all, our spouse, our beloved, who invites us to intimacy with Him in the New Covenant. Let’s look at a few Scriptural texts on the subject.
First, let’s look at Abraham, when he was visited by the Holy Trinity. Note that God had already spoken with Abraham prior to this; their relationship was one of familiarity.
1 And the LORD appeared to him by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the door of his tent in the heat of the day. 2 He lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, three men stood in front of him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent door to meet them, and bowed himself to the earth. (Gen 18:1-2)
The text clearly says “three men;” traditionally, though, these men are assumed to be angels sent by God to bring Abraham a message. Furthermore, many Christians have seen in these three men an image of the Holy Trinity; noteworthy is that Abraham responded by prostrating himself on the ground before them, then preparing a feast to share. That Abraham prostrated himself is curious, as they came to his house as unannounced guests – it would be most unusual for the master of the house to bow before strangers. Our conclusion here is that Abraham, meeting with God (or at least an image of God), chose to prostrate himself to the ground.
Next, let’s look at Moses, who was also on familiar terms with God. After leading the Israelites out of Egypt, after speaking (and eating & drinking) with God on Mt. Sinai, after visiting Him so often in the Holy of Holies, we have this comment on one of his visits:
6 Then Moses and Aaron went from the presence of the assembly to the door of the tent of meeting, and fell on their faces. And the glory of the LORD appeared to them. (Num 20:6)
Moses, a friend of God, prostrated himself to the ground before the Lord.
Next, let’s note this quick comment from the prophet Ezekiel:
28 Such was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the LORD. And when I saw it, I fell upon my face. (Ez 1:28)
Again, prostration; we see the pattern. Let’s look at one more curious and amusing anecdote:
1 When the Philistines captured the ark of God, they carried it from Ebenezer to Ashdod; 2 then the Philistines took the ark of God and brought it into the house of Dagon and set it up beside Dagon. 3 And when the people of Ashdod rose early the next day, behold, Dagon had fallen face downward on the ground before the ark of the LORD. So they took Dagon and put him back in his place. 4 But when they rose early on the next morning, behold, Dagon had fallen face downward on the ground before the ark of the LORD. (1 Sam 5:1-4)
Even the statue of the idol Dagon falls prostrate before the ark of the Lord.
Let’s turn to the New Testament and compare with these OT images. In the New Covenant, we are on familiar terms with God; we are in a loving relationship with Him, even intimacy. Let’s look at “the beloved disciple,” John, who laid his head on Jesus’ breast at the Last Supper. When he meets the glorified Jesus again during his apocalyptic vision of Revelation, how does he behave upon seeing his beloved Master and friend once again?
12 Then I turned to see the voice that was speaking to me, and on turning I saw seven golden lampstands, 13 and in the midst of the lampstands one like a son of man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden girdle round his breast; 14 his head and his hair were white as white wool, white as snow; his eyes were like a flame of fire, 15 his feet were like burnished bronze, refined as in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of many waters; 16 in his right hand he held seven stars, from his mouth issued a sharp two-edged sword, and his face was like the sun shining in full strength. 17 When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. But he laid his right hand upon me, saying, "Fear not..." (Rev 1:12-17)
Likewise during the Transfiguration, when Peter, James and John saw Jesus in glory:
5 He was still speaking, when lo, a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said, "This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him." 6 When the disciples heard this, they fell on their faces, and were filled with awe. 7 But Jesus came and touched them, saying, "Rise, and have no fear." (Mt 17:5-7)
Again, prostration. It is the natural response when experiencing the glory of God; we are afraid. But note the difference between the OT experiences and the NT episodes; note the response of God to such humility in His beloved. He gently puts His hand on them and invites them to set aside their fear and stand beside Him. This becomes our lesson. Our response to God’s presence is humility, but His response to our humility is peace, the peace that all humanity craves. The divine intimacy is not something that the disciples assume or enter into on their own; they humbly subject themselves. The Lord then invites. This is the pattern for the Church – humility leads to the invitation to join the Lord.
11 And all the angels stood round the throne and round the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, 12 saying, "Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God for ever and ever! Amen." (Rev 7:11-12)