Friday, August 17, 2012

Musings on the Sign of the Cross

Riding the tram this morning from our apartment here in Bucharest to the National Library (my quiet, clean, smoke-free refuge to get some work done), one can't help but see that people in this majority Orthodox country still make the Sign of the Cross when they see a Church. It's a seemly practice, one which I added to my inventory when I was chrismated Orthodox years back. 

When Should You Do It?

A non-Orthodox observer would have quite a few questions while watching the practice. First off, there is the phenomenon of people crossing themselves when there is no apparent Church in sight. I've come to understand that some people are aware of a Church in the near vicinity, but which is not, in fact, visible from this spot on the street. And this raises the question of whether you should cross yourself when you see other people do it.

And this is a bigger question than just the possible presence of a Church down that dark alley. I see this all the time during Liturgy as well. Almost everyone will cross themselves when the Liturgy contains the words "Father, Son and Holy Spirit." That's a moment where, if you're going to do it, you really ought to cross yourself. But others will cross themselves at any mention of the Virgin Mary. Or even at every Lord, Have Mercy. And if one person crosses themselves, there can be a cascade effect, as other people must wonder, "Oh no, this guy knows we're supposed to cross ourselves! I'd better do so as well." I've at times gone to scratch an itch on my forehead and seen people near me make the sign of the cross.

How Many Times is Enough?

 I cross myself once when I see a Church. Some people cross themselves twice. (I guess because if once is good, twice is better.) Most people I observe do it three times, I'm sure for each person of the Trinity. But yet, while you make the sign of the cross, you invoke the Three Persons of the Trinity. Theoretically, once you've multiplied to three, you wonder why it doesn't then jump to nine, you know, three times for each person of the Trinity. 

It should also be pointed out that, while the Sign of the Cross includes invocation of the Trinity, the movement itself is not Trinitarian. It is, true to advertising, the shape of a Cross. I've seen people assign the forehead to the Father and then give the Son and the Holy Spirit each a shoulder, as if really trying to fit a square inside a triangle.

Back to the matter of invisible Churches. If some person is aware that there's a Church on the other side of the block, but you can't see it from here, that raises the question of just how far away a Church has to be before people agree you don't have to acknowledge it. I mean, there just has to be some sort of statute of limitations on these things. In a city like Bucharest, there really is a Church on every block.

And in the end, why are we crossing ourselves as we pass Churches anyway? I fear that on a popular level some of this comes from a sense that if we don't do this, God will be offended. It's an old sentiment, the very thought that made the Athenians erect an altar to the "Unknown God." 

We should cross ourselves when we see Churches because it is an opportunity to worship God and show proper respect for his Temples. 

And so, I have a simple rule I follow on public transportation or while driving. I cross myself when I see a Church. If I'm packed into a bus and pointed one way and I see other people cross myself, I don't do it just because apparently it's the time we're supposed to cross ourselves. And I don't believe God is mad at me. Nor do I risk hurting myself and others by letting go of the handrail to perform the practice (which I've seen done). 

What Counts as a Church?

Along my route to the area of the Bucharest University, we pass a large Armenian Church. And I've noticed that many fewer people cross themselves there than as we pass a Romanian Church. I guess they are aware we are not in Communion with the Armenians (or other Orientals, owing to their non-acceptance of some matters resolved at the later Ecumenical Councils).

I personally cross myself when I can be reasonably sure that there's at least a cross inside that place of worship. So cross myself at an Armenian or Catholic Church? Of course! And I've visited enough Protestant Churches to know which ones are not Iconoclastic and thus have something inside them that makes them worthy of the title "Temple of God." 

[This is the image of Jesus I saw every Sunday of my formative years at Trinity Lutheran Church in Madison, WI. I'd kiss this icon, except it's twenty feet up the front wall.]

And I'm not going to lie. There are some denominations, in front of whose temples,  I don't cross myself. I guess in the end, my criterion will finally be, I'll cross myself in front of any Trinitarian Christian house of worship that uses the word Church. St. Paul didn't ever write an epistle to the "Praise Center" at Corinth.

Right to Left, Left to Right?

I might as well wade into the final controversies. Catholics and Orthodox famously cross themselves in different directions. A common notion you'll hear among Orthodox is that the Catholics stupidly changed their direction because they were trying to imitate the movement of the priest's blessing from their perspective.

Looking at the matter scientifically, I think it's much more probable that the Orthodox changed their direction.  I changed the direction of how I cross myself when I became Orthodox (and I crossed myself even as a Lutheran). I now cross myself Eastern Style. But here's why I believe the Western Style is more original.

First off, we need to acknowledge that the oldest references to making the Sign of the Cross describe just making a Cross motion on the forehead, presumably with just one of your fingers. (2nd Century, Tertullian, De cor. Mil., iii.) So there isn't even an original practice handed down from the Apostles. This was a practice that developed over time. And if it had developed differently in different places, it wouldn't make anyone right or wrong in how they do it.

In terms of Population Study, we've got data points on how to make the Sign of the Cross in the West, East, and further East and South. Copts down in Egypt, as well as other Orientals not in Communion with the Orthodox, cross themselves Left-Right, just like Western Style. They do so under no influence from the West. Then you've got this massive body of Eastern Christians, with contiguous borders, all crossing themselves Right-Left. The other thing to keep in mind is that in the time these practices were developing, the vast majority of Christians were in that Eastern population group. 

A mutation (a change) is always more likely to emerge inside a larger population group. That's the reason small and isolated populations preserve older forms of language than large and connected population groups. So evidently, after the practice of making the full-body Sign of the Cross had developed, a change in orientation (or occidentation in this case) popped up in the East. In fact, it's not impossible that people started crossing themselves Right-Left in order to imitate the movement of the priest from his perspective. This innovation quite naturally spread only within the large and connected communities making up the Eastern Church. This innovation did not spread into groups which, at the time, were smaller and more isolated, such as the Coptic and Roman Churches. And the fact that groups, separated geographically by the larger group, share a common practice is actually sufficient proof that they preserved an older form.

In the final analysis, it doesn't matter. I will say, however, that the way in which I have heard some Orthodox describe their claimed rectitude on this matter is unkind, unseemly, and, ultimately, unnecessary.  And if it turns out the East were the innovators, such talk is deeply embarrassing. 

We know we preserve the original practice on crucial matters, not least of which are the words of the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed and the age for the reception of the Sacraments. Let's continue talking about that. Even if it weren't possible that the Eastern Church changed the original practice, we should not be teaching children that the "Catholics are doing it wrong" when this is a matter on which Christian practice does not need to be uniform.

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