The act of prostration is a very powerful physical gesture which involves both body and mind -a gesture of making oneself low before something or someone as a sign of respect . Only a century ago, it was not uncommon to bow, to curtsey (for ladies) or else to kneel in church. Such practices were completely integrated in our culture as is still in Asian cultures. All that is left today is an actor bowing at a curtain call.
In the Bible also, bowing is commonplace. One bows before the king, (1 Sam. 24:8, 25:23, 25:41, 2 Sam. 9:6, 16:4) the altar (Jos. 7:6), angels (Gen. 19:1) to others in asking for forgiveness (prov.6:3) and to others in general (Gen.23:7, 23:12).
It is not difficult to understand how a society of individualism, where community is breaking down, where all authority is seen as suspect, where the “rebel” is admired and where children do not respect their parents would have evacuated all forms of “lowering” oneself. Are we not all equal? Do we not all have the same rights? If so, then why should I bow?!
Yes, we bow out of respect and deference. Ultimately though, to bow is to be struck by awe, to see something greater than us at hand, feeling the need to become small, to give all room for that greater power. To bow is to see how the infinite God is at work in the world around us, to suddenly see the divine image in my fellow man, to be overwhelmed by the sacred. And so we can say that we bow both to the all-powerful God in absolute adoration, yet also to the vision of God in the world, to the new temple that is my brother or sister. We also bow before things and places used by God to interact with his people, and so just as the Israelites bowed before the altar or the ark of the covenant, we bow before the cross, the scriptures, the altar and also to icons.
Yet, our own world, the world of self-sufficiency, refuses to bow.
If we refuse to bow because we don’t see why we should lower ourselves like that, why we should acknowledge that another is greater than us, then we are sadly missing out on a powerful tool for bringing love for others into our lives, a tool to experience the awe of the infinite moving in the finite.
If we refuse to bow in a constant fear that we are in danger of idolatry, then we are missing the point entirely. Instead of protecting ourselves from idolatry, we are ejecting the possibility of God working in this world, we are cutting the link between God and the world, a link that God had made eternal in the person of Jesus Christ. That is, how is it possible that the coming of God into the world, the “reconciliation of all things” preached by Paul leads to an absence of the sacred? Should not instead the sacred grow, multiply, appear in the most suprising places as a promise of the Kingdom of God? How could it be that the coming of God in the flesh makes creation even more suspect than before? Should it not be possible instead for the things of the flesh be made to participate in Christ as having already “resurrected with Christ”.
But bowing before images, though? Icons? Well if one agrees that Christ is the visible image of the invisible God, making sight and the image a true vessel for the manifestation of God (as I have explained in a previous post), then the answer is YES. Bowing before an image can be a great tool in spiritual growth.
And so let us bow, those who see the light appear in darkness. Let us bow, so we can be filled with wonder at the Divine present all around us.