A Protestant friend of mine who is sympathetic to Orthodoxy and likes icons recently felt he had to draw the line. On a weekday service in church he saw an Orthodox friend bowing down in prostration before an icon of a saint, and he thought this was a bit over the top. Kissing icons of Christ, sure; and of His saints—um, okay. And prostrating before an icon of Christ—he could handle that. After all, if Christ were present, he would certainly throw himself at His feet and prostrate himself before Him, and there was this talk about the honour given to the image passing to its prototype. So, okay. Prostrations before Christ’s icon were acceptable. But prostrating before the icon of a saint (or presumably prostrating before that saint himself should they ever meet)—this was too much. One has to draw the line somewhere, and this is where he felt it had to be drawn. After all, Cornelius had prostrated himself before Peter once (read about it in Acts 10:25-26) and Peter told him to cut it out. And in Revelation 22:8-9 St. John prostrated himself before the angel of Christ who was showing him the visions, and the angel forbade him to do so. Even sola scriptura apart, it looks as if prostrations to anyone other than God is problematic.
The question arises then: what does our culture tell us is the correct way to show respect for a glorified saint or an angel? Modern North American culture, which seems to have inherited much of the British stiff upper lip approach to life, is not very demonstrative, and in this we differ from other cultures. In the far east, for example, bowing is a part of customary greeting, with the depth of the bow being indicated by the dignity of the person being greeted. Thus if a janitor and the CEO of the company where he works in Japan greet each other, the janitor would make a profound bow and the CEO a slight forward tilt of the head. Both would bow, but one would bow more deeply. In the practice of eastern martial arts, the two combatants bow to each other before beginning their contest, and in martial arts schools, students bow down to their teachers. No worship or adoration is implied in any of this. This is simply how respect works in the Far East.
This is not much different than how things used to work in the ancient west also. In pagan Rome, the form of greetings was dictated by the relative status of the people greeting each other, for clients would greet their patrons differently and with greater respect than two co-equal patrons would greet one another. Co-equal patrons would kiss each other. Clients would bow and offer more profound respect. Slaves would prostrate. This is all very different now in the west, where kissing, embracing, and other fulsome forms of greeting are generally not done. When one meets the President of the United States, one is expected to simply exchange a firm handshake. When one greets the Queen of England, one is expected to bow a bit, or curtsey. Hugging is “right out”. And prostration before dignitaries would be considered mortifyingly embarrassing for all concerned, and might cause someone to phone 911. Here in the modern west, our backs remain firmly erect. If one were to ever meet St. Paul now, our culture instructs us to simply shake his apostolic hand, and say, “How do you do, St. Paul? Nice to meet you. I’ve read all your letters.”
Putting it like this, it does seem as if we moderns are the odd ones. St. Paul was concerned that the semi-pagan Cornelius might mistake him for some kind of a demi-god, for that is how pagans thought. For pagans, the lines between the divine, the semi-divine, the heroic, and the merely human were all pretty blurry, and St. Paul as a good Jew thought these lines could stand a little firming up. The Gospel could not be preached apart from a context of good Jewish monotheism, and he wanted to get that clear right at the beginning. But now we are in no danger of deifying St. Paul or forgetting that he is no more divine than we are. Our heart instructs us to do something more than simply shake his hand, treating him as if he were no more glorious than some politician. Speaking personally, my own heart would compel me to fall at his feet—not in worship obviously, but in gratitude for all he has done, both for the Church and for me personally.
This compulsion of gratitude and respect accords with the way profound respect was shown in Biblical times. When Jacob wanted to show profound respect for his brother Esau, he didn’t simply greet him with the customary kiss. He prostrated himself at his feet—seven times, in fact (Genesis 33:3). His wife and children prostrated themselves too (v. 6-7). When a woman of Tekoa wanted help from King David, she prostrated herself before him (2 Samuel 14:4); when Nathan wanted merciful help from David, he also prostrated himself before him (1 Kings 1:23). Co-equal friends might kiss one another in greeting, but one greeted a king with a prostration. That was how respect worked then in the Middle East.
In Orthodox liturgical practice, it still works that way: candidates for ordination prostrate before the ordaining bishop at the time of ordination, and ordinary Christians prostrate before one another at Forgiveness Vespers. When we encounter the glorified saints, whether personally in a vision or (more likely) in their icons, we prostrate ourselves before them too. Prostration, like kissing, is the ancient tradition of humanity, and should need little justification. It is the firm backs and handshakes of our strait-laced and uptight culture that need justifying. It’s okay to be a little odd and out of step when one greets the President. But in the Kingdom and in church, normalcy should prevail.