Sunday, 2 August 2009

The Sign of the Cross

What is it about the sign of the cross that seems to evoke such animosity sometimes? I know people who will run a mile if they saw anyone make the sign of the cross. And if that person were from an evangelical background, the sign of the cross would be tantamount to back-sliding or worse. It may be something to do with some deep seated prejudice that still lingers (in Wales) against Roman Catholics - the result of Protestant propaganda perhaps. Which is a shame because the 'sign' belongs to no one tradition but to Christianity. Take this quote from the 3rd century:

"In all our travels and movements, in all our coming in and going out, in putting on our shoes, at the bath, at the table, in lighting our candles, in lying down, in sitting down, whatever employment occupies us, we mark our foreheads with the sign of the cross."

And later in the fourth century, St. John Chrysostom wrote, "never leave home without making the sign of the cross."

St. Cyril of Jerusalem, who died around A.D. 386, said, "Let us not be ashamed to confess the Crucified. Be the cross our seal, made with boldness by our fingers and on our brow and in everything: over the bread we eat, and the cups we drink; in our goings out and our comings in; before our sleep, when we lie down and when we awake; when we are travelling, and when we are at rest. Make it on your forehead so that the devils, at sight of the standard of the King, may flee away trembling."

Martin Luther prescribed the sign of the cross in his Small Catechism, although most protestants avoid its use. Which is a shame because this small, simple gesture is full of theological meaning. Holding three fingers together — thumb, forefinger, and middle finger — as you make the sign symbolizes the Trinity. Holding the other two fingers against your palm represents the two natures of Christ, human and divine. Dropping the hand from forehead to waist to begin the gesture represents Christ's descent to earth. The upward movement that follows represents his resurrection. And so on.

In two fairly recent publications: The Sign of the Cross: The Gesture, the Mystery, the History, by Andreas Andreopoulos (Paraclete Press, 2006) and The Sign of the Cross: Recovering the Power of the Ancient Prayer, by Bert Ghezzi (Loyola Press, 2006), both authors - one an Orthodox Christian and the other a Roman Catholic - urge their readers to learn from the early church. "The spiritual weight of the sign has always been the same," Andreopoulos writes. "In texts from Tertullian and Origen to Kosmas and Aitolos, it is a blessing, a prayer, a proclamation of the Christian identity, a living mystery, and an acceptance of the role that God has given us."

"Whether I sign myself silently or with the invocation [of 'in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit']," writes Ghezzi, "it helps me to look beyond the mundane things I have to do every day … and focus on God and on the greater part of reality, the part that is spiritual and invisible."

As Nathan Bierma (a Protestant) writes in Christianity Today Magazine: "Whether we practice it or not, the sign of the cross is one manifestation of how physical—how embodied—worship really is. It can be as simple as raising our hands during a praise song, sitting up straight when the first few chords of a hymn are struck, or closing our eyes and folding our hands to pray. All of these motions have become ingrained in our body language of worship. Like the sign of the cross, they contain great potential for physical demonstration and remembrance of a deeper meaning—and also great potential for becoming so routine that eventually we do them out of mere habit—or worse, for show."

Hypocrisy is always wrong and there is nothing worse than empty gestures made just for show. But as Jesus teaches us it is not the thing itself that is wrong it is the motivation behind it. "When you fast, do not be like the hypocrites.." (Matthew 6:16) Notice he condemns the motivation not the practice (as with prayer and almsgiving). To condemn the making of the sign of the cross because of its potential for showing off one's sanctity makes about as much sense as condemning any Christian practice. I like the advice of St. John Chrysostom (always one for common sense). He admonishes us to mean what we do. "You should not just trace the cross with your finger," he wrote, "but you should do it in faith."

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