Monday, May 11, 2015

The sign of the eternal cross

From a March 11 blog posting by Nashotah seminarian Cameron MacMillan:
Nine services per week in an Anglo-Catholic chapel yields more signings of the cross than Carter had liver pills.

We know that by the second century, Christians were marking themselves and other objects with the sign of the cross. The gesture was a consecratory sign of blessing, and was often made my persons on their foreheads. Perhaps among the early Fathers, Tertullian is best known for his words on the signum crucis:
“With every departure, in the beginning and end of all activities, from getting dressed to putting on shoes, in the bath, at table, in lighting the lamps, when we go to bed, when we sit down, in each of our actions, we mark our foreheads with the sign of the cross.”
Tertullian, writing in the early 200s, speaks of the gesture as if it is something that’s been going on for quite some time. So, whatever we think of the sign, we know its use originated very early on in the life of the Christian Church.

Furthermore, St. Cyprian, bishop of Carthage in the early third century, saw the sign of the cross to be supported by the biblical action of God’s people being marked in special ways as the faithful, those with whom God had covenanted and would be obedient and trusting of the Lord’s protection
In my travels, I have noticed that different Anglo-Catholic parishes make the sign at different times, although we appear broadly similar to each other, and similar to (but less frequent) than Roman Catholic practice. Occasionally I’ll find another Protestant church (usually Lutheran) where the sign is made at least once during the service, usually when invoking the Trinity at the closing benediction.

Meanwhile, my Orthodox friends are quick to point out that we Westerners do our crossing backwards. They also specify that only three (or two) fingers should be used when making the sign.

Still, I am reassured by the (broad) unity of practice among liturgical Christians today — and, more importantly, the continuity of practice back to the earliest days of the Church, linking us to the early Christians.

When thinking about making liturgical choices, I sometimes use a thought experiment. Suppose a Christian from the 200s or 500s or 1000s or 1500s was transported to the 2000s? Would he or she recognize what we are doing today? As MacMillan and others note, clearly our Christian ancestors would recognize the sign of the cross — an enduring acknowledgement of the eternal redemption purchased by our savior on the cross.

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