Monday, June 09, 2008

In Nomine Patris ...

... et Filii, et Spiritu Sancti. Amen.

Δόξα Πατρί και Υιώ και Αγίω Πνεύματι, και νυν, και αεί, και εις τους αιώνας των αιώνων. Αμήν.

I have long been meaning to research this question and have finally got round to doing it. And just as I suspected, there is no agreement even on where to disagree.

If you didn't pick up on it straightaway, I am talking about crossing ourselves, and how we do it; about that famous divide between Western and Eastern Christians, of left to right versus right to left. Of two fingers, of three, of five, of kissing, of not kissing.

Spoiled for choice, we are. My initial research would seem to indicate that there is no genuinely orthodox way to do it, though naturally our Orthodox brethren would disagree and tell us there is only one way to do it, and to do it otherwise will lead us down the slippery path to Hell. (Sorry, φιλοι, I just couldn't miss the chance to get in a good-natured dig).

So, as a discussion starter, I share with you this tidbit from Wikipedia.

The motion

The sign of the Cross is made by touching the hand sequentially to the forehead, sternum, and both shoulders, accompanied by the Trinitarian formula: at the forehead: In the name of the Father (or In nomine Patris in Latin); at the stomach or heart: and of the Son (et Filii); across the shoulders from left to right: and of the Holy Spirit/Ghost (et Spiritus Sancti); and finally: Amen.

There are several interpretations, according to Church Fathers: the forehead symbolizes Heaven; the stomach, the earth; the shoulders, the place and sign of power. Also, the hand to the forehead may be seen as a prayer to the Father for wisdom; the hand to the stomach as a prayer to the Son who became incarnate; and the hand to the shoulders as a prayer to the Holy Spirit.

There are some variations: for example a person may first place the right hand in holy water. After moving the hand from one shoulder to the other, it may be returned to the stomach. It may also be accompanied by the recitation of a prayer e.g the Jesus Prayer, or simply "Lord have mercy". In some cultures it is customary to kiss one's hand or fingers at the conclusion of the gesture.


Pope Innocent III (1198-1216) gave the following instruction:

The sign of the cross is made with three fingers, because the signing is done together with the invocation of the Trinity. ... This is how it is done: from above to below, and from the right to the left, because Christ descended from the heavens to the earth, and from the Jews (right) He passed to the Gentiles (left).

"Others, however, make the sign of the cross from the left to the right, because from misery (left) we must cross over to glory (right), just as Christ crossed over from death to life, and from Hades to Paradise. [Some priests] do it this way so that they and the people will be signing themselves in the same way. You can easily verify this — picture the priest facing the people for the blessing — when we make the sign of the cross over the people, it is from left to right..."

Writers such as Herbert Thurston, author of the article Sign of the Cross in the Catholic Encyclopedia interpret this as indicating that at that time both Eastern and Western Christians moved the hand from the right shoulder to the left. However, Thurston confesses that the point is not entirely clear. He quotes another liturgist who inclined to the opinion that in this passage of Innocent III, and in those of Belethus, Sicardus and Durandus, which are usually appealed to in proof of this, these authors had in mind the small cross made upon the forehead or external objects, in which the hand moves naturally from right to left, and not the big cross made from shoulder to shoulder.

Today, Western Christians and the Oriental Orthodox touch the left shoulder before the right. Orthodox Christians use the right-to-left movement. A Greek catechetical textbook attempted to explain the difference between the Latin and the Greek customs by saying that the right side is associated with holiness, and the heart (on the left) with the spirit, so that those who, in mentioning the Holy Spirit, used the Latin phrase "Spiritus Sancti" (noun before adjective) touched left before right, while those who said, in Greek, "τοῦ Ἁγίου Πνεύματος" (adjective before noun) did the opposite.


Anonymous said...

From left to right is the right way to do it.

From right to left is the left way to do it.

Anonymous said...

Seriously though, left to right is a much more natural motion for the muscles, bones and joints of the right arm.

Fr. Robert Hart said...

This is one of those small differences that we may find interesting, as Anglicans, for its historical and cultural meaning, and with appreciation for the theological significance that has grown up in both east and west. But, among the crowd of zealots who keep alive the spirit of 1054, come hell or high water, this is yet another reason why they cannot have fellowship, something to fight for, an excuse for not changing their underwear in over a thousand years.

I like our approach better.

Carter said...

My habit in making the sign of the cross is to use the western motion of right to left. I do hold my fingers in the Orthodox way which is with the thumb and index and middle fingers bent into a circle and the ring and little fingers straight. Of course the Old Believers hold the hand with the index and middle fingers straight and form a circle with the thumb and ring and little fingers. At least those who still have hands do so. Many Old Believers had their hands chopped off by the Tsar in order to prevent them from making the sign of the cross in an unorthodox manner, but that was a long time ago. Perhaps fortunately for Old Believers Russia became an officially atheistic country and the maintenance of the true faith by hand chopping ceased.

On the web site of The Orthodox Church in America, , when asked “Is there an explanation for why Eastern Christians make the sign of the cross from the right should(er) to the left, while Western Christians make the sign of the cross from the left shoulder to the right?” Fr. John Matusiak gave this interesting reply:

While it is generally known that Western Christians, until the 11th, 12th, or 13th centuries, originally made the sign of the cross in the same manner that Orthodox Christians do to this day, the exact reason as to why the Western Christians reversed this is not widely known.

When an Orthodox priests (sic) faces the people and blesses them, they literally trace his blessing on themselves as they make the sign of the Cross. Hence, the priest moves his hand from left to right, while the faithful touch their shoulders from right to left, thereby moving in the same direction at the same time.

For years I have been trying to find out the exact reason as to why the West reversed this on the part of the people, even though the priest blesses in the same direction as an Orthodox priest would. It seems to be one of those things that just happened, although I am no Church historian.

Keep your ears open and, if you hear of any explanations, please share them!

St. Cyril of Jerusalem in his "Catecheses" (xiii, 36) remarks: "let us then not be ashamed to confess the Crucified. Be the cross our seal, made with boldness by our fingers on our brow and in every thing; over the bread we eat and the cups we drink, in our comings and in goings; before our sleep, when we lie down and when we awake; when we are travelling, and when we are at rest". Thus, when a priest was asked, “When should we cross ourselves?” He answered, “At all times.”

In Christ,

Carter said...

The opening of my previous comment shoul read "My habit in making the sign of the cross is to use the western motion of left to right."

Please forgive my error.

In Christ,

poetreader said...

As to the making of the sign of the cross - what a marvelous expression of our faith that is!

As to the direction in which it is done. There's another possibility to explain the difference. Since at least many of the "Oriental Orthodox" make it from left to right as we do, could this not be a difference without meaning that stems from the earliest days - merely a happenstance of which habit was established where?

It appears that Rome intially did just as Constantinople still does, but we do know that the Roman Liturgy, over time, was heavily influenced by Gallican usage, and rightly so, since, at one time the Gallican/Celtic churches appear to have been the most numerous part of the Western Church. Since the Gallican church seems to have had considerable ties with Alexandria, could they have not learned the "backwards" sign from them in early days and then gradually transmitted it to Rome?

Just a thought but it seems as reasonable as any other explanation, and a lot more reasonable than the polemics one still hears.