Monday, July 5, 2010

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!

1 comment:

revHenri said...

I have one answer in my mind but I´ll wait till next week...