Sunday, July 11, 2010

Two's Company


Alright, so we're back to the history of the development of the sign of the cross. And here's where things get weird.

Think for a moment about how you do the sign of the cross. Think precisely: how do you hold your fingers? How large a cross do you make? As Laura Ecklund asked, which way do you move your hand?

Each of those little decisions we make has its own history. So, for instance, "the Great Cross", as it's called today-- the bigger cross we make over our upper torsos: as I mentioned, that was not the practice in the early centuries of the church. Little crosses traced with a thumb on foreheads or food, great. But not much more.

And that was a choice born of the communities' context. When living in a world where they don't want you to worship any God but Nero, and he's got this crazy idea that he might just burn down your village for lunch -- well, you try not to stand out. (If ever there was a public figure who needed a Batman to match his Joker, it had to be Nero.)

Anybody seen my fiddle?

After Constantine made Christianity not only acceptable but hot, public religious displays developed organically, although how exactly is hard to say. Andreopoulos talks about monks who wore crosses on their collars and publicly made the sign of the cross as a sign of their faith and self-understanding.

They actually argued that the sign of the cross was Christians' version of circumcision -- the means God had given them for standing out and being separate. (There's a low hanging joke in there somewhere. I'm going to let you take it.)

So maybe that practice of signing ourselves caught on from the monks and then grew.

Others say, what brought about the Great Cross was the Monophysite conflict.

The name for which for some reason always makes me think of this Sesame Street moment:


The Monophysite conflict in 30 words or less: Some people thought Jesus was just pretending to be human. They said he had one divine nature (hence the "mono") and wasn't really human. The church rejected that belief.

Now, a bigger sign of the cross alone wouldn't seem to respond to this conflict. No, for them it was the way you held your fingers that was the key. Those opposing the Monos perhaps began to trace the sign of the cross with two fingers extended.

But the point was sort of hard to get, especially from a distance. People were like, does Carl have a splint on his finger? Something happen on the hand ball court? According to some scholars, that lack of clarity brought these presiders to the idea of making the gesture bigger and more obvious.

We're talking about people making a major theological statement/issuing a condemnation by the way they hold two fingers. Like I said, this is where things get weird. Definitely verging on Monty Python Silly Walk territory.

And it's not for sure, of course. I've seen it a lot in articles (and on the internet, where basically one person writes something sounding right and then everyone else repeats it, usually word for word, but without attestation); but Andreopolous is a bit skeptical of it.

But, one thing going for this interpretation is that it fits with a heightened focus on fingers that came a few centuries later. As we shall see...

Tomorrow: We see!

1 comment:

KenAnselment said...

I think there's also a low-hanging joke in your low-hanging comment.