by Father Mike Stubbs
When we say that someone fell flat on their face, we usually do not mean it as a compliment.
It implies that they made an awkward mistake, which makes them tumble to the ground. It is an embarrassing moment.
On the other hand, when Sunday’s Gospel reading, Mt 17:1-9, avails itself of that same description, it means something very different: “When the disciples heard this, they fell prostrate and were very much afraid.” Jesus has taken them up on top of the mountain, where he has been transfigured in glory.
The apostles Peter, James and John are filled with tremendous fear at the sight of Jesus’ transfiguration. That fear causes them to lose their equilibrium. That is why they fall on their faces. But Jesus sees their fear and takes pity on them: “Jesus came and touched them, saying, ‘Rise, and do not be afraid.’”
Besides fear, though, there could be another contributing factor to explain why the apostles throw themselves down on the ground.
Prostration is an attitude of worship. After all, the apostles have witnessed a mystery which shakes them to the core of their being. The proper response to this event is awe and wonder. The apostles throw themselves down on their faces in worship of the Christ they have seen transfigured in glory.
There is another time in Matthew’s Gospel which we heard recently where the apostles respond to the sight of Jesus in a similar manner. It was the solemnity of the Ascension.
Shortly before the risen Christ ascends into heaven, the apostles gather on top of the mountain. (Notice that the Ascension takes place on a mountain, just as the Transfiguration had.) “When they saw him, they worshiped, but they doubted” (Mt 28: 17).
The word translated here as “worship,” can also legitimately be translated as “to fall down in worship.”
There is definitely the notion of falling down prostrate. Once again, the sight of Christ revealed in glory causes the apostles to fall flat on their faces.
The Gospels of Mark and Luke also provide an account of the Transfiguration. However, only Matthew’s version supplies the detail of the apostles throwing themselves down on their faces.
Evidently, Matthew’s Gospel wishes to emphasize the attitude of worship as the proper response to the sight of Christ’s glory.
If we follow the example of the apostles, we also will throw ourselves down in worship of the glorified Christ.