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?


perla said...

this is very intresting. thanks for sharing ...

Jim McDermott, SJ said...

You're welcome, Perla! Glad you like it!