Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Liturgy, the Sign of the Cross, and tinkering with tradition

I draw the reader's attention to an excellent piece on a relatively new, but thus far very promising, blog.
...As mentioned heretofore, the Sign of the Cross goes back to apostolic days. In the most ancient days, it appears to have only been the tracing (by the thumb) of the Rood token of the Lord upon the forehead alone, 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; perhaps an indirect result of the Monophysite heresy. It can be seen that the use of the thumb alone in the most common form of the Sign would compromise belief in the Two Natures in Christ. When Cyril and Methodius brought the apostolic faith to the Russians beyond the confines of the Byzantine empire, it was this way of making the Sign of the Cross that they brought with them.

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 (A.D 1198-1216, whom the Orthodox blame for the modern practice) there seems to have been a dual praxis of tradition and novelty 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 Medieval novelty. Seen side-by-side with the gradual loss of liturgical sense in the Latin West (due to a complexity of things, about which I shall not here elaborate), 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 Patriarch Nikon (1605-1681) came on the scene the Russian church kept the old tradition of making the Sign of the Cross with the forefinger and middle finger. Nikon, in his zeal for everything ''Greek'' (he in fact said that he was a Russian in all things but his Faith, in which he was Greek), changed this. He demanded that all Russian liturgical practices should 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, would sing the Alleluia thrice instead of twice, would make the Sign of the Cross with three fingers instead of two, and a host of other, seemingly trivial (to Western minds at least, long accustomed to novelty) things such as the direction of liturgical processions etc. These reforms, by comparison to Western liturgical reform only 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 - the great Shibboleth of the Old Believers), although they were persecuted harshly, and many splinter sects went into open heresy. Adrian Fortescue treats very amusingly 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.
Read the rest here.


Anonymous said...

We suspect part of our family ultimately fled Russia as Old Believers, though that is lost in the mists of time. I still have a sympathy for the old rituals and highly commend the Erie/ROCOR Old Orthodox Prayer Book - it is better and more complete than the 'standard' slavic prayer books. It's particularly nice to have the prayers of the hours handy.

gdelassu said...

I cannot manage to post my questions on the original article, so I will post them here. How does the author 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?

Patrick Sheridan said...

John, many thanks for both the referral and your kind comments.

gdelassu, I have responded to your query (inarticulately, since I don't know the answer to your question) on my blog. I shall investigate further when I have the time.