Monday, January 14, 2008

The Sign

Dear Parish Faithful,

I am beginning a new semester at Xavier University today later in the afternoon. I enjoy teaching very much, especially the interaction with the students as I learn what their concerns are, how they view the Christian Faith, and what types of questions they have about God and life in general. It also keeps my mind "sharp," or so I like to believe, by reading new books or rereading old ones; or further refining and fine-tuning my presentation of Orthodoxy to an almost exclusively non-Orthodox group of young people. That is the exciting challenge. Unfortunately, the Orthodox Church continues to remain a well-kept secret, so I am always beginning from scratch, so to speak! (Today's average student, alas, is terribly ignorant of some of the basic truths of Christianity, regardless of his/her respective church - a downward spiral that I have noticed over the years as this condition continues to worsen). A fair share of my students admit to me that they have grown up with hardly a trace of religious belief in their lives. This tells me that we are dealing more and more with an unchurched society. We need to present the Gospel from its most basic perspective as "Good News" about an abundance of life that bursts through the secular constraints of a godless universe.

Be that as it may, I have chosen a new book for this semester entitled: The Sign of the Cross - the Gesture, the Mystery, the History by Andreas Andreopolous (we can safely assume that he is Greek Orthodox). Over the years, I am asked about the history of the sign of the Cross: just where did it come from and how old is this practice. And this is a question that I have never been able to get a handle on. In reading the first chapters of Andreopoulos' book, I realize why this is so - it is a complicated but fascinating history that one must piece together somewhat painstakingly. On an upcoming Sunday I will try and relate some of that history during a post-Liturgy discussion. One thing we can be assured of, however, is the antiquity of the gesture of the sign of the Cross - in many early sources referred to simply as the "sign." For the present, though, here is a good summary paragraph that is developed in great detail in the relevant chapter about the history of the sign of the Cross:

No conclusive evidence points to a date or place for adopting the cross as a symbol, although possibly the cross was already in use during apostolic times. We see traces of the symbol appearing in the second century, in the writings of Justin Martyr, Tertullian, and Irenaeus of Lyons. Eventually adopted as a symbol of historic, spiritual, and liturgical significance, the cross came into use as Christianity grew and matured. Theologians explored the mystery of the death of Jesus Christ, remembering the actual cross on which he died. Then suddenly, in the fourth century, the cross became an established symbol. (p. 7)

Historical questions about the origin of beliefs and practices are endlessly fascinating. However, my primary purpose this morning is to share a wonderful and beautiful passage with you from St. Cyril of Jerusalem (4th c.) about the meaning of the Sign of the Cross and why it is so essential for us to practice with love and care:

Let us then not be ashamed to confess the Crucified. Let the cross as our seal, be boldly made with our fingers upon our brow and on all occasions; over the bread we eat, over the cups we drink; in our comings and in our goings; before sleep; on lying down and rising up; when we are on our way; and when we are still. It is a powerful safeguard; it is without price for the sake of the poor; without toil, because of the sick; for it is a grace from God, a badge of the faithful, and a terror to the devils; for "he displayed them openly, leading them away in triumph by force of it." For when they see the Cross, they are reminded of the Crucified; they fear him who has "smashed the heads of the dragons." Despise not the seal as a free gift, but rather for this reason honor your benefactor all the more. (Catechetical Lecture, 13, 36)

The Sign of the Cross is a gift from God that allows us to outwardly express our faith in the Crucified Lord of Glory - our Savior Jesus Christ. It does not work as a talisman or magical charm. Only with faith in Christ is it a meaningful gesture. It is one of the unwritten traditions handed down through the centuries and now kept alive in our generation by the same Orthodox Faith as that of our fathers and mothers who have gone before us into everlasting rest. We now "pass it down" (the meaning of the word Tradition) to our children as we explain to them that Christ died for us on the Cross. In fact, this simple gesture may be the first thing that we teach our children to do as they begin to grow and develop. It thus becomes a natural part of their lives. We should not be ashamed of making the Sign of the Cross in any particular setting (though never as to draw attention to ourselves), but always with the greatest of care as we witness to the Crucified One.

Fr. Steven

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