Making the Sign of the Cross in the 12th Century

Many Orthodox are curious to know when and how our making the sign of the cross appeared and why we do it differently than Roman Catholics.  While I know that references to making the sign of the cross appear in the early centuries of Christianity, I’m not aware of the earliest sources telling us exactly how the cross was to be made.  Tertullian who dies in 225AD describes Christians tracing the sign of the cross on their foreheads but gives no further details.  St Cyril of Jerusalem in the 4th Century describes making the cross over the brow of one’s head as well as over food and drink but again without giving specific directions as to the how.  St Ephrem the Syrian in the 4th Century proscribes making the sign of the cross as our first task before any endeavor but doesn’t tell us exactly how to do it.   None of these early references to the practice describe the mechanics of what exactly the person is doing to make the sign of the cross so we can’t know exactly what they were doing.  When I first came to Dayton as the priest, the local newspaper at that time had a religion column and the editor of that column heard I was going to be doing a house blessing in January.   She came out with camera in hand and told me she was trying to imagine what it meant to do a house blessing.  She envisioned me standing outside the home in winter with hands raised praying over a house – or she hoped more dramatically climbing up on the roof to to bless the house with hands upraised.  She was disappointed to see it consisting of sprinkling holy water in a house.  Without knowing the mechanics we can only imagine what they were doing in making the sign of the cross in the early centuries of Christianity, but we know it was a commonly accepted practice.

St. Peter Damaskos  actually describes making the sign of the cross as he knew the practice in the 12th Century.  He writes:

“Then we should also marvel how demons and various diseases are dispelled by the sign of the precious and life- giving Cross, which all can make without cost or effort. Who can number the panegyrics composed in its honor? The holy fathers have handed down to us the inner significance of this sign, so that we can refute heretics and unbelievers. The two fingers and single hand with which it is made represent the Lord Jesus Christ crucified, and He is thereby acknowledged to exist in two-natures and one hypostasis or person. The use of the right hand betokens His infinite power and the fact that He sits at the right hand of the Father. That the sign begins with a downward movement from above signifies His descent to us from heaven. Again, the movement of the hand from the right side to the left drives away our enemies and declares that by His invincible power the Lord overcame the devil, who is on the left side, dark and lacking strength.    ( THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle Loc. 30200-30214)

While one can certainly recognize the movement of the right hand, starting at the top and moving down and then from right to left is how we Orthodox currently sign ourselves with the cross (though he does not reference touching any body parts).  So we know that at least from the 12th Century we were doing it this way.  What might be surprising to some is that for St. Peter the sign of the cross is made with two fingers not three.  Using two fingers is the older known form of making the sign of the cross.  He has a symbolic explanation for the two fingers (two natures of Christ) versus the three finger symbolism of the Trinity.  The adherents of the three fingers might be disappointed to discover that their method is not the more ancient one nor the one used by earlier generations of Orthodox.  I do not know the history of when or why Orthodox changed from two to three fingers, but it was part of the Old Believers dispute with the Russian Orthodox Church beginning in the 17th Century when Patriarch Nikon and the Russian Church insisted on changing to the practice of using 3 fingers in making the sign of the cross.  [I did hear at one point that they mistakenly thought they were reverting to the more ancient practice by going to three fingers instead of two.]

Of course, some saints pointed out that it is not the mechanics that matter – whether one uses one, two, or three fingers, spiritual power is in the cross itself not in how we make it.  Other believers dispute this and think the mechanics are essential and not making the perfect cross is itself satanic.

Personally, I think it is the cross which makes demons shutter – doesn’t matter how large it is or how it is made.  There is also the fact that very early on the Christians didn’t think of themselves as signing with the cross but with the last letter of the Jewish alphabet the tau or X  which in Judaism represented the Name of God.  This conveniently was similar  to the X the first Greek letter in ‘Christ’ – Χριστός (see Jean Danielou, THE THEOLOGY OF JEWISH CHRISTIANITY, pp 154, 330).  As Danielou points out probably at baptism the earliest Christians saw themselves as being anointed in the Name of the Lord, not with the Cross of Christ but with His Name – the X not the + .   So both how Christians made the sign and what exactly they saw themselves doing (+ or X) has changed through the centuries.  This makes me think the mechanics are not as significant as what we are invoking – God’s Name, Christ or the Cross – in our spiritual struggle against evil.

That conformity in practice helps with community identity and with the unity of community is true which may also point to the mechanics of making the sign of the cross as being practical not theological.

Living the Creed

“And doctrine, if it is to be prayed, must also be lived: theology without action, as St. Maximus puts it, is the theology of demons. The Creed belongs only to those who live it. Faith and love, theology and life, are inseparable. In the Byzantine Liturgy, the Creed is introduced with the words, ‘Let us love one another, that with one mind we may confess Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Trinity one in essence and undivided.’

This exactly expresses the Orthodox attitude to Tradition. If we do not love one another, we cannot love God; and if we do not love God, we cannot make a true confession of faith and cannot enter into the inner spirit of Tradition, for there is no other way of knowing God than to love him.”

(Timothy Ware, The Orthodox Church, p. 201)

Tradition = Scripture, Rightly Understood

“So, for Irenaeus, both the true apostolic tradition maintained by the churches, and the apostolic writings themselves, derive from the same apostles, and have one and the same content, the Gospel, which is itself, as we have seen, ‘according to the Scripture.’  ‘Tradition‘ for the early Church is, as Florovsky puts it, ‘Scripture, rightly understood.’ Irenaeus’ appeal to tradition is thus fundamentally different to that of his opponents. While they appealed to tradition precisely for that which was not in Scripture, or for principals which would legitimize their interpretation of Scripture, Irenaeus, in his appeal to tradition, was not appealing to anything else that was not also in Scripture. Thus Irenaeus can appeal to tradition, to establish his case, and at the same time maintain that Scripture itself, using its own hypothesis and canon.”  (John Behr, Formation of Christian Theology: The Way to Nicea, p. 45)

Antiquity Alone Does Not Confirm Truth or Tradition

The Orthodox Church prides itself on faithfulness to Tradition.  We often boast about how old some of our liturgical practices are.  Yet, even in the ancient Church they recognized that the age of a practice does not guarantee its correctness.  St. Vincent of Lerins (d. 445AD)  famously defined Tradition as “that faith which has been believed everywhere, always, by all.”  But he already in the  5th Century said that just because practices come down to us from antiquity doesn’t prove they were right in the first place.  There are ancient sins which continue to be commonly practiced and there are ancient heresies which people tenaciously hang on to.  Georges Florovsky writes:
However, “antiquity” by itself is not yet an adequate proof of the true faith. Archaic formulas can be utterly misleading. Vincent himself was well aware of that. Old customs as such do not guarantee the truth…
12th Century Byzantine Icon
12th Century Byzantine Icon
Thus, “tradition” in the Church is not merely the continuity of human memory, or the permanence  of rites and habits. Ultimately, “tradition” is the continuity of divine assistance, the abiding presence of the Holy Spirit. The Church is not bound by “the letter.” She is constantly moved forth by “the spirit.” The same Spirit, the Spirit of Truth, which “spake through the Prophets,” which guided the Apostles, which illumined the Evangelists, is still abiding in the Church, and guides her into the fuller understanding of the divine truth, from glory to glory.  (Aspects of Church History, pp. 15-16
12th Century French Icon
12th Century French Icon

St. Basil’s Parable of the Bee

“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age.”  (Matthew 28:19-20)

Great Commission

Our Lord Jesus sent us into the world to proclaim the Gospel.  He didn’t appoint us to hide behind walls and closed doors where we could keep our faith untainted by the world.  The disciples tried to hide behind closed doors but Jesus appeared in their midst and sent them out into that fearful, corrupt and dirty world which they were so trying to avoid.

Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I send you.” (John 20:21)

Fr. Nicholas Graff writes about our – the Church’s – relationship to the world which God so loves (John 3:16):

“To foster a relational heart, there must be established a context in which shared standards, goals and language exists.  Mutuality is the fundamental environment in which any relationship can grow and develop.  The Church must constantly seek mutual ground in which to make herself available to the culture in which she finds herself.  There are those who feel strongly that the chasm between Orthodox Christians and the modern world is so wide that any suggestion of such a meeting would somehow lessen the Triumphant Church.  Others appear to ‘speak for the mind of the Fathers,’ as the self-proclaimed protectors of Orthodoxy, feeling that it is our obligation to protect Orthodoxy from a defiling contact with the world.  …”

But such attitudes of trying to protect the Church from the defiling world, fly in the face of the incarnation in which God entered into the world and become human in order to heal and save the sinners, the lost, and the sick.  Such attitudes of “protecting the Church from the world” smack of the attitude of the servant who received the one talent and being so fearful of the master’s judgement (and of the world!) that he hid the gift given to him by the master in order to protect and preserve it.

But he who had received the one talent went and dug in the ground and hid his master’s money. … But his master answered him, ‘You wicked and slothful servant! You knew that I reap where I have not sowed, and gather where I have not winnowed? … And cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness; there men will weep and gnash their teeth.'”    (Matthew 25:18, 26-30)

Christ appoints us to be the salt of the earth.

You are the salt of the earth… You are the light of the world…”  (Matthew 5:13, 14)

Christ didn’t appoint us to keep the salt in pristine condition by avoiding the world, sealed off in an antiseptic container.  We are not the world, but are to go into the world to have a transforming and transfiguring effect on the world.  Christ has given us manifold tools to do this including all of the teachings of the Fathers of the Church.

Fr. Graff continues:

“May I suggest that we Orthodox must begin to avoid the arrogant folly of any attempt to speak the collective mind of the Fathers as if we had some unilateral privilege to hear a single voice which no one else can hear (there is a clinical diagnoses for this).  Or, even worse, that Orthodox Christians theology is something meant to set us above and beyond – out of reach by the other.  Instead, may we once again appreciate the eclectic and vastly diverse minds and teachings of the Fathers, most beautifully expressed in the Cappadocians.  I refer you to one of the most magnificent expressions of this patristic ideal, Saint Basil’s parable of the bumblebee.

Let our use of books and learning in every case mirror the ‘icon’ of the honeybee.  For such does not visit every flower in the same manner, neither does the honeybee attempt to fly off bearing the burden of the entire flower.  Rather, once it derives that which is needful from the flower, it leaves the rest behind and takes flight.

So, too, if we are wise, once we derive from learning what resonates with truth, we too shall leave the rest behind and take flight.  For is it not so that when we take a rose we avoid the thorns?  So, too, let us approach diverse writings, harvesting the fruits that they offer for our objectives, while protecting ourselves from the damaging elements that may lie within them.  In all our studies, let us take with us and take within us only what builds us up, and what leads us in the fulfillment of our mission…”   (in RAISING LAZARUS edited by Stephen Muse, p 232-233)

We sometimes try to force upon the Fathers a monolithic thinking because we feel greater certainty when we imagine they were always of one mind on all issues.  But when we impose on them a conformity and uniformity, we miss the degree to which the Fathers were creatively engaging their cultures and attempting to bring the Gospel to all peoples.  They were the salt of the earth and a light to the world – we are to be the same to the peoples of the 21st Century.  We are to be in the world which is God’s field in which He is implanting us to bear fruit for Him.

The Faith and Gospel of St. Paul

A number of modern scholars have attempted to discredit Traditional Church teachings about Jesus Christ, especially those proclaimed in the Nicene Creed.  Their motivations and methods vary but these scholars often rely on documents that were marginalized by the early Church and by the Church through history.  These scholars  attempt to form an alternative history based on minority opinions or opinions which were rejected by the Church as being false or distortions.  Sometimes they distort the evidence by giving it greater priority or authority then those texts deserve or ever received in their own day.   NEW YORK TIMES columnist Ross Douthat points out that what puts a huge crimp in the speculation of modern scholars is the historical fact that St. Paul’s version of Christianity is in fact the oldest and most reliable witness we have from the early church.  And the theories of many modern scholars who reject Christian Tradition relies on discrediting the ideas of St. Paul.  Douthat writes:

“The inconvenient truth is that nearly all scholars identify the letters of Saint Paul as the oldest extant Christian documents, the earliest dating from the 50s A.D., two decades after the crucifixion. It’s possible to draw different conclusions from Paul’s Christology than later Church fathers did. But what would become basic premises of orthodoxy are clearly affirmed, while the basic premises of, say, the Gnostics or the Marcionites or the Ebionites or the hypothetical ‘Q Community’ are implicitly or explicitly ruled out. For Paul, Christian faith means worshipping Jesus Christ rather than just emulating him. It means regarding the crucifixion as an atonement for human sins. It means believing in a physical resurrection rather than some sort of ‘spiritual’ or psychological event. It means seeing Jesus’ life and death as the fulfillment of Jewish prophecy as well as a witness to the Gentiles. It means celebrating the Eucharist as a memorial of Christ’s passion. It means…well, let Paul himself tell it:

Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you – unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.” (Bad Religion, p 164)

Origen’s Interpertation of the Good Samaritan Parable

Luke 10:25-37 – The Parable of the Good Samaritan

At that time, a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”  

Jesus replied to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?”

He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”

And Jesus said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.” 

But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?”

He said, “The one who showed him mercy.”

Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

The Christian Martyr Origen (d. 254AD) is considered by many to be the greatest Christian biblical commentator of the 3rd Century.  Modern scholars credit him with being the Father of Christian biblical interpretation and commentary.   Roman Catholic scholar, Jean Danielou writes that in Origen’s commentary on the parable of the Good Samaritan, he follows what was even in the 3rd Century already an established tradition in the early church.

“Here Origen is only echoing tradition. His interpretation of the Good Samaritan, as he tells us elsewhere, comes only from the elders: ‘One of the elders (presbyteri), in his interpretation, said that the man who set forth is Adam, Jerusalem is Paradise, Jericho the world, the thieves the invisible powers, the priest the Law, the Levites the Prophets, the Samaritan Christ, the wounds disobedience, the beast of burden the Body of Christ, the inn, which takes in every one, the Church, the Samaritan’s promise the second Coming of Christ’ (Hom. Luc. XXXIV). We shall find the same interpretation in St. Iranaeus (Adv. Haer. III, 17, 3), We may even wonder whether it is not of Apostolic origin and indeed an echo of the very teaching of Christ himself. It should not be forgotten that there is one Parable in the Gospel, that of the Tares (Mt. 13:37-39),which is explained in a similar way to this. Origen has himself remarked elsewhere: ‘the evangelists have not written down the explanation which Jesus gave of most of the parables’ (Com. Math.XIV,12) . ” (From Shadows to Reality: Studies in the Biblical Typology of the Fathers, pp.276-277)

St. Paul’s Received Tradition

In 1 Corinthians 15:1-4, St. Paul speaks about “tradition” – in his words “I delivered” that which “I received.”  The sense of tradition in Orthodoxy is that we receive from the previous generation the revelation which God has given in Jesus Christ, and then we hand on this exact same tradition to the next generation.  This is how Orthodox can claim an unbroken tradition of receiving the Gospel and passing it along to the next generation.  Tradition is preserved in the Scriptures, in the apostolic succession of bishops, in the Liturgy of the Church, as well as in our doctrines and dogmas.  In St. Paul’s words:

“I declare to you the gospel which I preached to you, which also you received and in which you stand, by which also you are saved, if you hold fast that word which I preached to you; unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures…”

The great 20th Century Russian Orthodox theologian Fr.  Georges Florovsky says:

“That is why loyalty to tradition means not only concord with the past, but, in a certain sense, freedom from the past, as from some outward formal criterion. Tradition is not only a protective, conservative principle; it is, primarily, the principal of growth and regeneration. Tradition is not a principle striving to restore the past, using the past as a criterion for the present. Such a conception of Tradition is rejected by history itself, and by the consciousness of the church. Tradition is authority to teach, potestas magisterii, authority to bear witness to the truth. The church bears witness to the truth not by reminiscence of from the words of others, but from its own living, unceasing experience, from its catholic fullness.” (in The Orthodox Church: An Introduction to its History, Doctrine, and Spiritual Culture, pg. 98)

A Test Case – Applying Neuroscience to Law

This is the 15th blog in the series which began with The Brainless Bible and the Mindless Illusion of Self and is exploring ideas about free will, the mind, the brain and the self. The previous blog is Implications of the Free Will Debate.   This blog series is based on the recent books of two scientists who are considering some claims from neuroscience about consciousness and free will:  Michael S. Gazzaniga’s  WHO’S IN CHARGE?:  FREE WILL AND THE SCIENCE OF THE BRAIN and Raymond Tallis’  APING MANKIND:NEUROMANIA, DARWINITIS AND THE MISREPRESENTATION OF HUMANITY.

Arguments about whether or not humans have free will are not abstract debates with no practical implications.  As Tallis makes perfectly clear those he labels as the ideologues of Darwinitis and neuromania are intent on reshaping all of human culture according to their philosophical presuppositions.  Tallis warns that we all should be paying attention to this debate and not allowing ourselves to be deceived by scientism which pretends to be science.  Gazzaniga is not so confrontational and rather wants us all to recognize that there are different realms of knowledge and that questions about free well, consciousness and self are after all philosophical debates and not scientific ones since they are dealing with immaterial concepts and science by definition is limited to the study of the material world.   We can look at one issue which Gazzaniga spends some time on: the legal implications of the free will debate.  Both Tallis and Gazzaniga see the neuroscientific technology of the fMRI being brought ever more frequently into the courts as evidence and neuroscientists being called upon to offer their expert opinions on behaviors and free will.  Since the modern Western  sense of justice requires that a person must be capable of making a choice before being found guilty of having committed a crime, the neuromaniac’s claims that there is no such thing as free will has absolute implications for justice of any kind.

Leaving aside the ideological claims of the neo-atheist’s faith in scientism, we can see wherein there are problems.  Gazzaniga outlines the judicial problem in the following way:

“Justice is a concept of moral rightness, but there has never been an agreement as to what moral rightness is based on: ethics (should the punishment fit the crime, retribution, or be for the greater good of the population, utilitarian?), reason (will punishment or treatment lead to a better outcome?), law (a system of rules that one agrees to live by in order to maintain a place in society), natural law (actions results in consequences), fairness (based on rights? based on equality or merit? based on the individual or society?), religion (based on which one?), or equity (allowing the court to use some discretion over sentencing)? Nonetheless, the judge tries to come up with a just disposition.”   (Gazzaniga, Kindle Loc. 3270-75)

First, Gazzaniga may overstate the problem – there was a fair amount of broad social agreement on dealing with issues of justice that governed Western civilization for some time.  It is the case that as modern Western society has moved away from a purely modernist view point and relied more on human reason than divine revelation that more diverse viewpoints have come to the forefront.  Multiple perspectives on any issue have become increasingly accepted in our totally individualistic and autonomous based thinking.  The seeds of the Enlightenment’s fight for the absolute rights of the individual have taken root.  Post-modernism and its rejection of any meta-narrative tying together individuals is a fruit of this evolution in thinking.   So under the influence of several very prominent current philosophical trends, agreements about morality and normality and what is acceptable have eroded.  This is the cause of the very partisan and divisive politics in our country.  Some would also say it is simply the nature of modern democracy.

The neuroscience contribution to the fray is that in courts more appeals are being made to fMRI technology to excuse or defend individuals based on the notion that they have “abnormal brains” and thus cannot be held personally accountable for their behavior.  Gazzaniga points out some of the problems with the courts uncritically accepting fMRI scans as scientific proof for excusing behavior:

“There are other problems with the abnormal brain story, but the biggest one is that the law makes a false assumption. It does not follow that a person with an abnormal brain scan has abnormal behavior, nor is a person with an abnormal brain automatically incapable of responsible behavior. Responsibility is not located in the brain. The brain has no area or network for responsibility. As I said before, the way to think about responsibility is that it is an interaction between people, a social contract. Responsibility reflects a rule that emerges out of one or more agents interacting in a social context, and the hope that we share is that each person will follow certain rules. An abnormal brain does not mean that the person cannot follow rules.”   (Gazzaniga, Kindle Loc. 3078-83)

Gazzaniga in the above statement comes closer to the position and concerns that Tallis raises.  Personality responsibility like consciousness and free will do not reside only at the level of individuals but are part of the shared social space in which all humans participate.  Gazzaniga points out:

“Diagnosed with schizophrenia after the fact by a psychiatrist for his defense, John Hinckley was found not guilty by reason of insanity for his attempt to assassinate President Reagan. This attempt, however, was premeditated. He had planned it in advance, showing evidence of good executive functioning. He understood that it was against the law and concealed his weapon.”  (Gazzaniga, Kindle Loc. 3092-94)

Wisdom, Justice, Vice & Crime, Corruption, Slander, Deception, Despotic Power

The push by some neo-atheists to deny the existence of free will in humans carries with it an extensive agenda to reform society  based on the ideology of scientism, which is a system of belief which denies many of the ideals, aspirations and hopes that have traditionally guided society.  It calls into question the purpose of legal consequences by denying that a person has the ability to make the choices they do.  Gazzaniga counters:

“No matter what their condition, however, most humans can follow rules. Criminals can follow the rules. They don’t commit their crimes in front of policemen. They are able to inhibit their intentions when the cop walks by. They have made a choice based on their experience. This is what makes us responsible agents, or not.”   (Gazzaniga, Kindle Loc. 3432-34)

Lady Freedom

Thus the push for changing how human society has dealt with social problems based in the belief system of scientism is an effort to deceive for it claims to be based in pure science while it based in the philosophical beliefs of materialism.  This is why Tallis warns strongly that we should be afraid of those who believe they can scientifically engineer human morality.  Scientism may be a child of the Enlightenment but it intends to gut the very nature of American idealism which is based in human freedom and personal responsibility.

Next: Do We have the Brains to Deal with Ourselves?

Sunday of Orthodoxy (2012)

No one could describe the Word of the Father;

but when He took flesh from you, O Theotokos, He accepted to be described,

and restored the fallen image to its former state by uniting it to divine beauty.

We confess and proclaim our salvation in words and images.

(Hymn for the Sunday of Orthodoxy)

“On the first Sunday of Easter Lent, when the Orthodox celebrate the Triumph of Orthodoxy and the victory over iconoclasm, the clergy and the people read aloud the Synodikon proudly announcing:

‘This is the Faith of the Apostles, this is the Faith of the Fathers, this is the Faith of the Orthodox, this is the Faith which has established the universe. This is our Orthodox Faith…’ and then all present, the clergy and the people, recite the Nicene Creed.”

(Fr. Mateja Matejic, Orthodoxy: Courage to Be Different, Strength the Remain the Same, pg. 9)