The Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)
Dear brothers and sisters,
We might be tempted this morning to focus our attention on the timing of the first reading from the Book of Genesis. We are told it occurred “while the day was growing hot” and we certainly know something of that in these recent days (Genesis 18:1). If we were, however, to focus our attention on this aspect of the reading, we would miss something much more important and something much more curious.
It was at this time of day that the Patriarch Abraham saw “three men standing nearby” the entrance to his tent (Genesis 18:2). We are next told how Abraham interacted with these three unnamed men: “When he saw them, he ran from the entrance to the tent to greet them; and bowing to the ground, he said: ‘Sir, if I may ask this favor, please do not go on past your servant’” (Genesis 18:2-3). Now, if you were listening closely you will have noticed something strange, something you might attribute either to an error on my part or on the part of the translator; in both guesses, though, you would be incorrect.
Abraham sees three men, in the plural. He goes to greet “them,” again in the plural. Yet when he addresses the three men he greets them, saying, “Sir,” in the singular. Why? Surely a man such as Abraham knows the proper rules governing the use of grammar. What is going on here?
Saint Ambrose of Milan, the great teacher and spiritual father of Saint Augustine, rightly says that
Abraham, who was glad to receive strangers, faithful to God and tireless in his service and prompt in fulfilling his duty, saw the Trinity typified. He added religious devotion to hospitality, for although he beheld three, he adored one, and, while keeping a distinction of the persons, yet he called one Lord, thus giving honor to the three but signifying one power. For not knowledge but grace spoke in him.
In those three men standing nearby, Abraham beheld the Most Holy Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; God had visited the Patriarch and Abraham asked the Lord to stay with him. When the Lord draws near to us, what is our response? Do we stop whatever we are doing and ask him to stay with us, offering to him whatever hospitality we may, or do we ask him to come again another time because his visit is perhaps inconvenient?
Because Abraham was a man of justice, he bowed himself to the ground in the presence of God; he gave to God the honor that is due to him (cf. Genesis 18:19; 18:2). We can be sure that when Abraham bowed down before God, his exterior act reflected his interior devotion. Is it the same with us? Does our outward composure reflect the composure of our hearts, or do we simply go through the motions of piety? When we bend the knee before God, are we conscious of what we do? When we bow from the waist at the mention of the Incarnation during the Creed, are we conscious of the One before whom we bow?
Writing in 1939, Romano Guardini lamented what he perceived as a lack of genuine piety. He said,
Many churchgoers simply don’t seem to know where they are or what it is all about. A man’s presence in church does not mean merely that his body is there rather than elsewhere. His body is the equivalent of himself, and being present is a vital act. There are people who can walk into a room, sit down, and little more seems to have happened than that a chair has been occupied. Someone else can come in, and though he neither says nor does anything further, his presence is like a power. There are works of art in which this quiet power of presence is very strong; we have only to think of those medieval paintings which portray numbers of saints seated next to each other. They do nothing; hardly a gesture or word is exchanged, yet everything is vitally alive with their presence. To be present, then, is more than to sit or kneel in place. It is an act of the spirit and expresses itself in one’s whole being.
These eighty years later, can we say that much has changed?
The act of bowing down before another, whether of bending the knee or of bowing the head – is an act of humble submission to another. It is an outward sign of the inner reality that I am not in charge of my own life and that I am not the center of the world, contrary to what our culture repeatedly tells us. We do not like to bow before others, to place ourselves at the service of others. “But to bow low before God can never be unmodern, because it corresponds to the truth of our being,” that we are only creatures. “And if modern man has forgotten this truth, then it is all the more incumbent on Christians in the modern world to rediscover it and teach it to our fellowmen.” Indeed, we must remind ourselves and others that “the man who wants to come close to God must be able to look upon him – that is essential. But he must likewise learn to bend, for God has bent himself down.”
When Abraham saw the Lord, he did not run up to him to embrace him; he bowed low before him. So must it be with us. We see this in the example of Mary, who “sat beside the Lord at his feet listening to him speak” (Luke 10:39). She knew the importance of bowing before God; she showed the disposition of her heart with the expression of her body. While Martha was busy with the important details of hospitality, Mary chose that which will not pass away.
When he reflected on this passage, Saint Augustine pondered what Mary was doing at the Lord’s feet. “What was Mary enjoying while she was listening? What was she eating? What was she drinking? Do you know,” he asks. He says:
Let’s ask the Lord, who keeps such a splendid table for his own people, let’s ask him. ‘Blessed,’ he says, ‘are those who are hungry and thirsty for justice, because they shall be satisfied’ (Matthew 5:6). It was from this wellspring, from this storehouse of justice, that Mary, seated at the Lord’s feet, was in her hunger receiving some crumbs. You see, the Lord was giving her then as much as she was able to take… What was Mary enjoying? What was she eating? I’m persistent on this point, because I’m enjoying it too. I will venture to say that she was eating the one she was listening to. I mean, if she was eating truth, didn’t he say himself, ‘I am the truth” (John 14:6)? What more can I say? He was being eaten, because he was Bread. ‘I,’ he said, ‘am the bread who came down from heaven’ (John 6:41). This is the bread which nourishes and never diminishes.
Having bowed down before him and having placed herself at the Lord’s feet, Mary learned that “without love, even the most important activities lose their value and give no joy. Without a profound meaning, all our activities are reduced to sterile and unorganized activism. And who, if not Jesus Christ, gives us Love and Truth?”
In these remaining days of summer, let us ask the Lord Jesus to open our hearts to him, to teach us to bow low before him, and to stay at his feet. May he perfect us in himself so that we will think the truth in our hearts and not slander with our tongues (cf. Psalm 15:3). May he make us, like Abraham, men and women of justice, who give him the honor and the worship that is his due, with our gestures and hearts united. Bowing low before him in this life, may he raise our eyes to see his Face in the life to come. Amen.
 Saint Ambrose of Milan, On His Brother, Satyrus, 2.96.
 Romano Guardini Meditations Before Mass, (Manchester, New Hampshire: Sophia Institute Press, 1993), 28.
 Joseph Ratzinger, The Spirit of the Liturgy (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2000), 206.
 Pope Benedict XVI, Angelus Address, 18 July 2010.