In the Nativity scenes we set up in churches and homes we are familiar with the three figures that make their appearance today, joining the figures of Jesus, Mary, Joseph, shepherds and various creatures. In many such scenes these visitors from the east, bearing their gifts, stand in awe, though perhaps one or more of them may bend a knee. But rarely, gazing at these figures, do we feel the power of the scripture that today proclaims, “They prostrated themselves and did him homage.”
To be prostrate is to be flat on the floor, face down, disarmed, immobile, and vulnerable. Much more than a nod of the head, or a quick genuflection, this gesture expresses the heart’s conviction of being in the Presence of “One mightier than I.” These “foreigners” express through their bodies, the inner stance of deep humility, the only true response to the presence of God in the flesh in Jesus.
There is another story from the Gospels in which a man prostrates himself before Jesus, the story of the ten lepers who are healed by Jesus. One of them, a Samaritan, returns to thank Jesus. St. Luke tells us that he prostrated himself before Jesus.
Even more memorable is the scene in the Garden of Gethsemane when the Temple cohort come out to arrest Jesus. Jesus asks them, “Whom do you seek?” When they answer that they seek Jesus of Nazareth, he answers “I AM,” using the name God uttered to Moses from the burning bush. The entire cohort falls on their face before the presence of Jesus.
St. Matthew’s Gospel also includes the story of the two women who come to the tomb. When they see Jesus before them, they embrace his feet.
Prostration is included in the liturgy of ordination of deacons, priests, and bishops. It is also included as an option at the beginning of the Liturgy of the Passion of Jesus on Good Friday. In both of these liturgies, the gesture seems to be a gesture of humility in the face of what will transpire through the laying on of hands and at the thought of what Jesus did for us by dying on a cross...
The Greek word that is used in the Biblical accounts appears several times in the Gospels. Many times it is simply translated using the English word “adore.” One does not have to prostrate themselves literally in order to adore God; however, adoration does imply that we make ourselves small before that which is much greater. Perhaps this is best illustrated by St. Augustine, reflecting back on his long, tortuous journey to faith. He acknowledged that the ultimate block to his final conversion came in the form of pride. It was that which he learned through grasping the truth of the Incarnation that provided the way forward. He wrote of Jesus: “In this lower world, he built for himself a lowly habitation of our clay . . . so that [people] might go on no further in self-confidence but rather consent to become weak, seeing the Deity before their feet, made weak by taking on our mortality; and wearied, might cast themselves down on him, so that rising again, he might lift them up.” St. Augustine learned through the infant Jesus to surrender to the power of God and to let himself be lifted up.
Perhaps today, as we gaze at these visitors who come to the stable, we might be moved to imitate them, at least in our hearts. And gazing at them, we might ask ourselves where we need to surrender to the power of God today so that he might lift us up? At the end of today’s Gospel, we also read evidence that the experience of the Magi did in fact change them, for the Gospel tells us that they were warned in a dream of Herod’s treachery and returned home by a different route. Having prostrated themselves before Jesus, they allowed themselves to be led by God.
Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M., Administrator