Monday, 9 March 2015

Christ's Rood token...



Initially published on 31st May 2010, indeed one of the earliest posts on Liturgiae Causa.

My apologies for not posting something on this yestermorn, but when I got in from Mass I was very tired. Incidentally, due to the shortage of servers, Mass yesterday was a sung Mass with the ceremonies of low Mass (albeit I refused to kneel for the collects) with incense; most extraordinary, but competently done. Now, why can't all low Masses be like this? Incense is integral to liturgy...Since yesterday was Trinity Sunday, a word on the noble, antient and apostolic tradition of signing oneself with the Sign of the Cross seems apposite, since this Sign (the terror of demons, the cause of all graces and all blessings - Sts Cyril and Leo respectively) calls to mind not only the Cross of the LORD, the instrument of Salvation, but also the Blessed Trinity.

It is the Tradition of the Church that Our Lord, before He ascended above the Heaven of heavens into the glory of the Father, blessed the Apostles with the Sign of the Cross. This is why we, in mirroring the divine praxis, also make the Sign of the Cross in the Liturgy and in private devotions. How then do we, traditionally, make the Sign of the Cross?



As mentioned heretofore, the Sign of the Cross goes back to apostolic times. In the most antient days, it appears to only to have been the tracing, by the thumb, of the Rood token of the LORD upon the forehead, as we do before the Gospel at Mass. However by about the time of the Council of Chalcedon (A.D 451), this had developed into the more common "broad" Sign of the Cross, making use of two fingers; expressive, perhaps, of assent to the Two Natures in Christ and a refutation of the Monophysite heresy. When Sts Cyril and Methodius brought the apostolic faith to the Slavic tribes beyond the confines of the Roman Empire, it was this way of making the Sign of the Cross that they brought with them and was still in use in the Russian Orthodox Church until the 17th century.



Until the early Middle Ages, Christians of the Latin Rite made the Sign of the Cross as it was done (and is still done) by the Greeks; that is, adjoining the thumb and forefingers (in deference to the Blessed Trinity) and touching the forehead, the breast, and thence from the right to the left shoulder. In the Ancrene Riwle, a 13th century monastic rule translated by J.R.R Tolkien, the author directs his nuns at Deus in adiutorium to make a little cross from above the forehead down to the breast with three fingers, from right to left. However this practice gradually fell into abeyance, and by the time of pope Innocent III, he of the Lateran Synod, there seems to have been a twofold praxis of tradition and innovation side-by-side in the West. The pope then gave new instruction as to how to make the Sign of the Cross, and gradually the newer method of passing from left to right replaced the older form. Eventually (by about the 14th century) this newer method was modified to an even newer form, and the old custom of adjoining the thumb to the forefinger and middle finger was replaced with the modern practice of making no such distinctions at all, but by simply signing oneself with the open palm. Later apologists for this novel formula created a scaffold around it by claiming that the open palm represented the Five Wounds, but devotion to the Five Wounds is itself a Mediaeval innovation. Seen side-by-side with the gradual loss of liturgical sense in the Latin West (due to a complexity of matters that I will not elaborate here), this gradual waning of Tradition in the Sign of the Cross creates interesting food for thought. I wonder what state the present Roman Church would be but for it?

In Russia the situation was markedly different. Until the liturgical reforms of Patriarch Nikon (1605-1681), the Russian Church kept to the most antient praxis received from Sts Cyril and Methodius. Nikon, in his zeal for everything ''Greek'' (he, in fact, said that he was a Russian in all things but his Faith, which he said was Greek), changed this. He demanded that all Russian liturgical practices conform to the liturgical practices of the contemporary Greek Church, even if these were at variance with the apostolic Faith brought to the pagan Slavs by Cyril and Methodius. And so he commissioned a general liturgical reform, hitherto unknown in the Orthodox world, and brought the Russian liturgical books and ritual practices into line with those of the Greek Church. Now the Russians would make fewer prostrations in the Liturgy, they would sing the Alleluia thrice instead of twice, they would make the Sign of the Cross with three fingers instead of two, and a host of other, seemingly trivial things, such as the direction of liturgical processions, &c. All seemingly trivial to us of the Latin West, long accustomed to arbitrary innovation.

These reforms, comparatively trivial, met with huge opposition in Russia, from parish clergy, the monks and the lay people and a schism ensued. The Old Believers (or, more accurately, the Old Ritualists) retain the traditional liturgical praxis of early 17th century Russia to this day (the Sign of the Cross included - indeed it has become a great Shibboleth for them), although they were persecuted harshly, and many splinter sects went into heresy. Adrian Fortescue treats very disparagingly of them in The Orthodox Eastern Church, saying that the only good thing about their existence is that they afford unequalled opportunities for the scientific study of lunacy! What I find most interesting is the parallel between the near-autocratic authority of Patriarch Nikon to instigate such a huge-scale liturgical reform and to impose liturgical uniformity upon Russia at whatever cost and Papal authority to do just the same.



So to return to the question I asked at the beginning of this post - how do we traditionally make the Sign of the Cross - a sacramental so simple yet intrinsic to our Faith - the answer is obvious. It is not ''do as the pope says because he is the Vicar of Christ, supreme master of all doctrine and the dispenser of grace," but rather do as the Tradition would have us do. Only thus do we mirror the divine praxis and truly bless ourselves with that selfsame Sign of the Cross with which Christ blessed the Apostles.

21 comments:

  1. Some very amusing remarks. Looks like no one is spared your critical regard! Keep writing.

    Joseph

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  2. Joseph, many thanks for your comment, and for linking to me on your own blog. May I ask how you discovered me?

    I would like Fr Hunwicke to read my blog too, but I fear that I am too obscure and rustic for him to take much notice of me...

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  3. I always make the sign of the cross with my thumb, forefinger and index finger together - symbolising the Trinity and my closed fingers symbolise the two divine natures of Christ.

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  4. Thank you for a very interesting and informative post. I had not given a great deal of thought to the development of this particular sacramental.

    Keep up the research - it would be good to see some more posts of this sort, considering the development and symbolism of other sacramentals and liturgical actions and gestures.

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  5. Thank you both for your comments.

    Matthaeus, it's small things like this that I think are the subtle death-blows to Western Liturgy. Most Westerners make the Sign of the Cross flippantly and without any thought whatsoever. And since every minute action, gesture, word and nuance within Liturgy is not without symbolic meaning, what does this say about Western attitude to things liturgical?

    As for me, I have reached a ''compromise'' - currently I make the Sign of the Cross Old Believer fashion, but from left to right. This is something that I may change soon though...

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  6. Patrick... have you explored Western Rite Orthodoxy at all?

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  7. Patricius,

    I thought Innocent III described making the Cross from right to left?

    The Orthodox blamed Pius V for the change but by his time Latin Christians had changed to the left to right praxis for some time. Alas we don't know precisely when the new form was introduced

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  8. How do you account for the fact that the Copts make the sign of the cross just like the Romans do it? Did the Copts invent the inovation and pass it along to the Romans, or did the Romans invent it and pass it along (after the Chalcedonian divide) to the Copts? Or does the fact that both Alexandria and Rome do one thing, and Constantinople does another imply that perhaps the Romans are holding to the old way and it is Constantinople that is the innovator?

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  9. Myddelton, not thoroughly. I have only read of Western Rite Orthodoxy in Ware's book The Orthodox Church, which goes into no detail about it of course. I tend to think that the Orthodox have more liturgical sense than the Catholics, where the Tradition is buried deep under centuries of Scholasticism and ''development.'' I am open to the concept, but attempts at it have been ham-fisted in my opinion - the insertion of an Epiklesis into the Roman Canon for instance. I would beware of such ''tampering'' in my approach, but I would naturally bring back much that was lost. An attempt to ''repair'' Western Liturgy might take centuries...

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  10. GrzeszDeL, in all honesty, I don't know, although you raise an interesting point. I would say, however, that Constantinople observes the more ancient form in this. It is certainly interesting (in the light of Chalcedon) that the Copts are doing as the Romans do, since they were the only ones at Chalcedon who would not approve of St Leo's Tome.

    It would be praiseworthy to see if we could compile a bibliography on this matter though. I'll see what I can find.

    Rubricarius,

    Innocent III describes both customs. Of course by his time a lot of people were observing the newer form, but there were still many observing the older form.

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  11. ... with more or less the ceremonies of Low Mass (although I refused to kneel for the Collects)

    Why did you did feel compelled to break with the rubric for servers that they kneel for the collects and post communion prayers?

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  12. A. Hegarty, kneeling for Collects on a Sunday is just plain wrong. Standing is the correct posture of liturgical prayer.

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  13. Plain wrong for whom? One's whim?

    Where exactly does one's feelings of what is "plain wrong" stop? At this rate, you'll be having a cut n' paste liturgy that you accuse Bugnini and Pius XII off.

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  14. A. Hegarty, if you don't mind, this is not about ''whim'', but the Tradition of the Church.

    Canon XX of the Ecumenical Council of Nicaea forbids kneeling on Sundays and during Paschaltide - in this regard, the Catholic Church has departed from the Apostolic Tradition. In fact, in the Orthodox Church, it is an excommunicatable offence to kneel on Sundays.

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    1. Actually, Patrick, the canons do not forbid kneeling on Sundays, prostrations are forbidden, not the same thing. And, outside of some Russians, most Orthodox do kneel on Sundays. One can easily discern the difference between Orthodox and Greek Catholics by when during the Mass they knee, Greek Catholics kneel during the canon from the Words of Institution whilst the Orthodox kneel after the Words of Institution during the epiclesis.

      Also, all Oriental Orthodox cross from left to right, the same as westerners, since Christ sits at the right hand of the Father, not the left. Pope Leo III, by the way, gives several different ways to make the sign of the Cross, not simply the Byzantine method.

      Also, in the Western and Oriental Orthodox tradition, the sign of the Cross is not a memorial of the Trinity, but of the life of Christ. We begin the sign on our foreheads in memory that Christ left his Father's Throne, then to the chest, in remembrance that Christ came into the world to save sinners. We then move to the left in memory that Christ enter Hades to save the lost, and then to the right in memory that Christ returned t sit at his Father's right. We make the sign with five fingers in remembrance of the five wounds.

      Be careful in believing everything that the Byzantines say. Most of them do not even know that they changed to manner of making the sign of the Cross in the 17th century...what else have they changed?

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  15. Surely this command is allowed to be modify as the church sees fit? The Lateran Council commanded Jews to wear the star of David when in Rome. Should the Catholic church enforce that too?

    And since when did measuring ourselves with the so-called Orthodox (who have departed the Apostolic Tradition on many fronts) come into the equation?

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  16. I don't know very much about the history of the Copts' interaction with the Roman Catholic Church, but I do know that the Armenian, Ethiopian, and Malankara Orthodox suffered from extensive meddling in their internal life and rites by the Crusaders and Roman Catholic 'missionaries.' It's entirely possible that they changed how they made the sign of the cross during/after these times of Roman Catholic influence and that this new practice then spread to the Copts and Syrians.

    It's interesting to note that the faithful of the Assyrian Church of the East still make the sign of the cross from right to left, though with an open hand as in the modern West.

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  17. Patricius, can you elucidate the last picture included in your post? I am intrigued.

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    1. Adrian, that is bl. Feodosia Morozova, a defiant Old Ritualist whose confessor was bl. Avvakum. She was exiled on account of her adherence to the True Faith which, under the liturgical reforms of Patriarch Nikon, came to supplant the Orthodox Church. While the excommunications have been lifted the liturgical disparities exist to this day.

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    2. Thanks. An area I know very little about - fascinating.

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  18. The Syrian/Syriac (orthodox) do the sign of the cross like the second picture.

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