Sunday, July 18, 2010's All For Now, Folks!

Well, 8 months after we started on this journey through Catholic liturgy -- and about 7 months after I thought initially it would be finished, here we are, having gone through probably more on the topic than you ever wondered about (or wanted to wonder about!). Thanks for taking the trip with me. I hope you've found it interesting and helpful.

If you're ever interested in some other reading on liturgy, might I recommend John Baldovin's great little book Bread of Life, Cup of Salvation. It's short, small, very easy to read, and filled with interesting observations from a priest who has dedicated his life to thinking about and teaching about liturgy. It's been a great resource to me and I offer it to you most highly.

(John's also got a new book out, Reforming the Liturgy, that's also gotten some very good press. I think it's a bit more academic in style, but everything I hear suggests it has some fantastic insights.)

Andreas Andreopoulous' The Sign of the Cross, which I've been referring to recently, is another nice resource, for those interested in the history and theology behind the sign of the cross.

And, America Magazine has a nice group blog, The Good Word, which offers reflections on the upcoming week's scriptures and lots of other liturgy things.

I may post something here or there over the next month, but for the most part I'm going to take a break to retool and think about where we might go from here.

And you might do the same. I'd be very interested to hear any suggestions as to what you liked or didn't (either in terms of style or content), and things you'd like to read about, questions you'd like someone to consider -- or things you would like to read less of. Having wandered back to my blog upon occasion, I will tell you I have discovered just how incredibly long some of my posts have gotten! I hope to aim for much shorter pieces in the future.

So, I'm interested in any feedback you might want to give.

In the meantime, thanks again for joining me on this. It's been a great pleasure to write.

Friday, July 16, 2010

What are We Doing When We Make the Sign of the Cross?

One way of thinking about the sign of the cross is as a sort of public identification. When I make the sign of the cross, I am stating to all around me that I am a follower of Jesus Christ, who gave his life for all of us. It's a statement of identity, analogous to wearing the gear of the athletic teams for which you cheer. At some periods in the Church's history, this was clearly the fundamental sense of the action.

But when we make the sign of the cross we are not saying "this is who I am" in some static sense, like giving our name or address. Identity entails personal commitments. To make the sign of the cross is always to be saying "This is the path of salvation to which I give myself". This is the way I want to live my life.

It's not a coincidence that most of the occasions on which we make the sign of the cross are at the start of things, when we're trying to be open to what God might have in store for us -- at the beginning of Mass; at the beginning of the Gospel; upon the child's forehead at the very beginning of a baptism (before even the readings). The sign of the cross bespeaks a desire to be open.

And open in a very particular way -- open to becoming like Jesus by walking the path he walked, so that we, too, little by little might be made into a leaven for our world.

I wonder if we really know that's what we're committing ourselves to when we make the sign of the cross. Because that path -- it's not an easy one. Self-sacrifice is almost never easy (or it wouldn't be a sacrifice). And the end of the road -- the seeming end -- is suffering, abandonment, death. That's a huge part of what we sign up for. In fact, that's the part that really transforms us, that breaks us of old patterns and allows us to be more like Jesus.

To make the sign of the cross is to say, Lord, let my heart be broken open. Let it even be crucified, and regularly, that I might be free of that which keeps me from loving generously and stand with those most in need.

Which sounds great in theory. And on the other side of the pain, it is great. We must always remember both the joy of the resurrection and the clarity of mission that it brought the disciples. But the middle of that journey can get pretty rough.

In fact, if it doesn't get rough, if we don't regularly feel the pinch that comes with this desire to be like Jesus, then we're probably not paying attention. (Or, as a friend likes to tell me, Denial, it ain't just a river in Egypt.)

And on that happy note (which actually is happy, in a funny sort of way), have a great weekend.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

A Little Night Music...

Out last night with these two lovely ladies at their Broadway show, A Little Night Music. While the show did not discuss the sign of the cross, I am happy to report that it was definitely a religious experience. "Send in the Crowds" -- lots of sniffles.

Back to work tomorrow.

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.

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.

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.

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...

Three's...A Little Ridiculous

So, two fingers, two natures, and a desire for a bigger gesture to show it all off. Maybe. That's the 4th or 5th century, if it happened like that at all.

400 years later, move over two fingers. I got a little something for you -- three!

And why the change? Conflicts over the Trinity. Actually, it came down to a word -- "filioque". That is, "And the son".

In the Creed, the Western Church represented the Holy Spirit as proceeding from the Father and the Son. The Eastern Church didn't like that. It seemed to make the Holy Spirit lesser. Shouldn't it proceed from the Father, just like Jesus?

And so, intuting that this called for protest in the form of another incredibly subtle hand gesture, and that Monty Python would someday exist and need things like this as source material for bringing the funny, Western presiders began to do the sign of the cross with three digits -- thumb and two fingers.

And, if that weren't bold enough for you, they also had the thumb behind the two fingers. In fact, if you were looking straight on, you wouldn't even know that thumb was there. Which was to say, yeah, the Spirit's there, but it's not an equal partner.

I know, I know, thumb behind the fingers... that's some bold words, yo. Consider yourself served, Eastern Church!

In the East, the practice developed instead to use the thumb and two fingers, all pressed together. Hence the lead photo from yesterday:

And that's still the proper hand position for the sign of the Cross in the Eastern church today. (And also the gesture guys in my dorm used before punching me in the shoulder.)

Tomorrow: Left and Right (Finally!)

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!

Friday, July 9, 2010

Congrats to My Dad!

A special Friday shout-out to my dad. He's been doing some great gardening the last few years, and recently our hometown gave him the North Side Green Thumb Award for his work. Here's a photo of the front of the house, with his work in bloom.

Doesn't it look great?

Nice going, Dad!

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Another Day

This next little piece of sign of the cross history is taking me a little longer than I thought it would. So in place of it today, a little Friday fun. Pomplamoose is a two-person cover band on Youtube that does some really cool arrangements of contemporary music. And anything you hear -- a drum beat, a guitar, six levels of voice -- you also see on screen. It's different. You'll see what I mean.

If you like this one, check out their "Beat It" or "All the Single Ladies." Much fun.

Have a good weekend. History on Monday, I promise!

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Things to Do with Your Forehead

So, what do you think about your forehead? Like it? Pleased with the feature? Find it fetching?

Ask me about a person's face, and I'm going to talk about things like their eyes, their nose, their lips. Their hair. Their cheeks. A dimple. Maybe the ears.

When it comes to foreheads, the only one I notice is my own, and that's because its territory seems to keep getting... larger of late. (Thank you, Grandpa Jim.)

But the thing about foreheads is, they are great billboard real estate. All that skin just sitting there -- sure it's not the upper torso, but they weren't exactly making "Hard Rock Cafe" T-shirts in ancient Rome, were they?

Actually, in one form or another probably they were. But there's no place on the body more conspicuous than the forehead -- as many a hung over freshman has learned the next day. Write something up there, and people gonna notice.

Katie's very permanent case in point.

In the ancient world, the forehead was used as a signpost for social and religious position. Usually this was not a good thing -- you're a social outcast? Mark on the forehead. You've got leprosy? Mark on the forehead. Scabs on your forehead? Same difference -- all social forms of saying "Do not enter." "Do not approach." "This guy is super lame." (Or, the Glee version: "Somebody Slushie me.")

The key to the forehead, as Andreas Andreapolous writes in his good book The Sign of the Cross (which is my guide on the topic), is this: the outside gives a glimpse of the inside. What you see on my forehead tells you something about who I am and how I am spiritually within -- dirty, clean, etc..

So, pox on my forehead -- sick at heart.

Sign of the cross on my forehead -- a Christian!

Tomorrow: What happened then?

Monday, July 5, 2010

The Super-Secret Secret History of the Sign of the Cross!!! (Tell No One!)

Ok, so first things first. "Secret history" of the sign of the cross might be a bit of semi-almost-not quite true advertising. No one's actually hiding the history of the sign of the cross. It's just a secret because most of us don't know it.

At the same time, I don't know if it seems this way to you, but to me it does sort of seem odd to talk about the sign of the cross having a "history". It's not exactly a complicated gesture, nor without some really obvious connections to our faith (ya think?). What is there to talk about having "evolved" or "developed"?

Well, surprise, surprise, change in the practice has occurred over time. In the early decades of the church, in fact, Christians did not even regularly make the sign of the cross, at least not anywhere that anyone might see them. They were a part of the Roman Empire. And for Romans, the Emperor was God. Yahweh, Jesus, your uncle Albert -- not gonna cut it.

(You know the old line, when in Rome, do what the Romans do? Well, if you ever wondered why, here's the next line: Or else.)

No lie: I googled "Uncle Albert" and about a hundred versions of this image came up. Your uncle might not be a God, but he did have his own British sitcom. Good on ya, Al!

In the 4th century the Roman Emperor, Constantine, converted the whole empire to Christianity, after he claimed before a battle to see a vision of -- wait for it -- a cross in the sky. That made public displays of Christian faith not only Ok, but fashionable. Gaudy jewelry in the shape of an ancient torture device, female musicians claiming the name of the mother of God -- it all began here.

But according to historians, the actual use of a sign of the cross probably began a lot earlier, maybe even near the very beginning. And it was a small sign of the cross, not the full upper body we make today, but a little cross done on the forehead, maybe also on the lips and on the heart. And a lot of other places, too -- on their food, on their bed pillows, over each other. Anything they wanted blessed or dedicated to God.

A Shocking Twist
Interestingly, originally there wasn't just one sign used on the forehead. Different parts of the Empire in fact developed different signs. AND, those who used the cross sign weren't always referring to the crucifixion.

What? I know, strange, right? It turns out, early on some people probably made a cross sign on their foreheads. And others instead made an X. As in X marks the spot? Yes, but not for that reason. No, they did an X because they believed Jesus was the Christ. But the "ch" sound in ancient Greek was represented with the "chi" character -- which just so happens to look like this:
That's right, Chi looks like an X that's had a little work done.

As for those who did a cross, "T" (or tau) is a Greek letter which Jews used to represent none other than God. Signing yourself with a cross was a way of saying pretty much the same thing the X-ers were doing -- that is, I believe Jesus is God! Amen!

But Wait! There's More!
And if all that weren't weird and different (and, ok, confusing) enough -- Revelations calls Jesus "the alpha and the omega", the beginning and the end. "Alpha", as we know, is the first Greek letter, and "omega" the last letter.

Well, the parallel first and last letters in Hebrew are aleph and tau. In fact, the Jews represented God via Tau precisely because it's the last letter. He is the fullness, the end. The completion.

The Hebrew character for aleph? "X". And tau, we already know -- "T".

So, to sign themselves with an X or a T was also a way for an early Christian, coming out of the Jewish tradition, to echo Revelations. Jesus is the alpha and the omega, the beginning and the end.

Isn't that cool?

And is it a coincidence that I end this entry with "cool" after it was 102 degrees in New York today, and supposedly tomorrow as well?

(Sigh.) Probably not.


Tomorrow, a question worthy of Laura Ecklund: Why did they do it on the forehead?

And also, what happened after all that?

The Sign of the Cross

Shortly after I was ordained, my friend Joe came to me to resolve a family dispute. His daughter Laura, age 4 at the time (that's not her above), had begun doing the sign of the cross from right to left; when he explained to her, that’s not right, we do it from left to right, she asked that most obvious and daunting of child questions: Why?

Laura's the girl with the great smile standing on the left; and with her is her dad, my friend Joe, her mom Liz, and her fabulous sisters Kellie and Jennifer, more than a couple years ago...

Having no answer, Joe came to his friend the new priest. Why do we sign ourselves left to right, not right to left? And also – if my daughter does this regularly, will she turn out like this:

In truth, I didn’t have too many answers (other than no, signing yourself right to left is not likely to result in possession). In fact before Joe mentioned it, I’m not sure I ever really thought about the sign of the cross, and certainly not about why we sign ourselves left to right or right to left. Perhaps it was because we do it so often; if not contempt, familiarity at least breeds complacency.

In a normal liturgy, the sign of the cross is made by parishioners somewhere between 5 and 7 times: at the beginning of Mass; by some, at the end of the penitential rite; three times directly before the Gospel (on the forehead, on the mouth and on the heart); for some, upon reception of the eucharist; and at the end of the liturgy.

The presider will also make a sign of the cross over the Gospel reading; over the bread and wine during the epiclesis; potentially in blessing over children or non-Catholics during the communion rite; and, in place of signing himself at the conclusion of liturgy, over the congregation.

And if that’s not enough, there’s the crucifix or crucifixes that hang in almost every church, the stations of the cross. Oh, and many churches are themselves shaped in the form of a cross. Which is to say, in moving through them at communion or at other times (such as when doing the stations of the cross), we are in effect enacting the sign of the cross with our whole bodies.

And don't even get me started on the extra signs of the cross at special liturgies, like a baptism or an anointing of the sick!

So, familiar? Absolutely. But well understood? Maybe not so much. At least, not by me.

I’ve come back to this topic off and on the last seven years. And I thought, as a way to wrap our many-moons-long conversation about liturgy, I’d end by offering over the next week or so some of what I’ve learned. As with everything I’ve written, I can’t guarantee it’s the final word. But I do hope it will help take the familiar and make it a little bit new, at least.

Tomorrow: The Secret History of the Sign of the Cross

PS Laura, it's taken me so long enough, but these posts are for you!