Sunday, July 11, 2010

In Which the Author Finally, Maybe, Perhaps Answers Laura's question, 7 years Later


Left to Right Theory I: Good vs. Evil

So, as I was reading through Andreopolous' history of the sign of the cross, I came upon this quote from Peter of Damascus (circa 8th c):
The Holy Fathers have handed down to us the meaning of this holy sign, in order to refute heretics and unbelievers. The two fingers and the one hand then, represent the crucified Lord Jesus Christ,whom we profess as having two natures in one person.
I know, blah blah blah. But check out what he says next:
The right hand recalls his unlimited might and his sitting at the right hand of the Father. And one begins to trace it from above because of his descent from the heavens to us on earth.
So, according to him, we use our right hands as a reference to Jesus, who sits at God's right hand. And we start at the top and work our way down because Jesus started up in Heaven and descended to earth.

(Did you ever even ask yourself, why do we go from top to bottom? I know I didn't.)

He goes on:
Furthermore, the movement of the hand from the right side to the left drives away the enemies and indicates that the Lord through his invincible might has conquered the devil who is on the left, a powerless and gloomy being.
Wait, what's that? Right to left? And oh no, as Laura's dad Joe feared, the devil himself is involved.

But he's cowering on the left... What the heck? Could it be that it's not Laura Ecklund that's got it wrong, but us?

In fact, it most certainly could. It appears that for many centuries, Christians actually crossed themselves right to left. And one interpretation (perhaps because Jesus sat on the right side; perhaps because certain sanitary functions might have been done using the left hand?) was that the right side was good and the left was bad.

Me spinning this out: if up/down was Jesus descending from heaven, maybe right to left was sort of like Jesus' ministry from after his baptism all the way to the Harrowing of Hell -- moving from his position of power and goodness into the territory of sin all the way finally to Hell itself, and cleaning it all out.

There he is, rescuing pre-Christian holy people from out of the mouth of Satan.

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Theory II: East vs. West

That's one interpretation. But as with everything surrounding the sign of the cross, the rationales are not crystal clear. Yes, Peter of Damascus had his take, but that's not to say the whole of Christianity had the same rationale, or even the whole of Damascus.

(Why is it, by the way, that when a person from ancient times is designated not by a last name, just a home, they sound important, but when they have a last name, they don't? Peter Abromowitz -- eh, who cares. But Peter of Damascus -- I gotta listen to that guy! Were there no other Peters in Damascus? Come. On.)

(Also, why is it that same naming strategy doesn't work in modern times? James of Chicago just sounds silly. Even Barack of Washington -- lame.)

Another interpretation is that, once the Eastern and Western Churches split, the West switched from right to left to left to right, in yet another of its audaciously over-the-top gestures of theological distinction. (Really, it actually is amazing they didn't think to adopt some anti-Orthodox sort of silly walk, as well.)


To this day, the Eastern Churches sign themselves right to left. So, maybe that's the origin of the practice. What documentation we have for it starts around the 13th century; that's certainly after the split.

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Theory III (and My Personal Favorite): Mirror, Mirror

It could also be that the left to right practice was as simple as an unconscious game of mirror, mirror. In some part of the Western Church, a congregation saw its presider making the sign of the cross, and instead of doing it the same way, that is right to left, they physically followed his movement. His right being their left, when he signed himself right to left, it looked to them like left to right. So that's what they did, left to right.


And eventually it caught on elsewhere (minus the noses and weird mime-y-ness).

I like this interpretation because it highlights something important about the history of the development of practice in our church. Usually, developments happen out of problems. Someone's got a question about God or church that we've never thought about, and it leads to all sorts of new thinking and practice.

But other times an important development was not a matter of a big battle or deep thoughts, but just ordinary folk doing what they think is right. Just like in our everyday life, practice sometimes precedes theory.

Ask yourself, why do you do your laundry the way you do? I'll be 99 out of 100 of us have "our way", but it's not something we've ever really thought about. The explicit thinking comes only after someone asks, why do you do it that way? It may lead to changes in practice, or just explain the practices we have.

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So that's it, Laura. It's not conclusive, I admit, but that's how history is sometimes. When you get to be 40, you'll be hemming and hawing over your own history, too, believe you me...

On the topic of the sign of the cross, there's one more question to be asked, and in some ways it's the most important one. Why do we make the sign of the cross at all? What does it mean when we do it?

My feeling is, if we knew what we're doing when we make the sign of the cross, we definitely wouldn't do it. We might even run away. (What can I say? Python state of mind today.)

But more on that at the end of the week...

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