Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Response to REW on the Sign of the Cross

Wow! I'm so delighted that the Sign of the Cross of has elicited such thoughtful discussion. I am extremely thankful for REW's comments, and I'll respond to them inline with REW's text, which I have reproduced in full (and in blue) below:

I hope it is ok for me to weigh in here...As a Christian (and Protestant), I hold the symbol of the Cross very dear.

Thank you for weighing in! Let us rejoice in the our shared reverence of the Cross, by which all have been redeemed.

However, there are a number of reasons why I do not often make the sign of the Cross.

If I may assume that you do not deny the apostolic origin of the sign of the cross, let's pretend as a thought experiment that the reasons you give be addressed not to me but rather to one of the apostles themselves. After all, if the apostles taught all their followers to make the sign of the cross, I would think that the appropriate response would be to learn why.

G.K. Chesterton illustrates this reasoning by pointing out that if a person was traveling through the woods and suddenly came upon a mysterious structure whose reason-for-being was not immediately apparent, it would be illogical simply to tear it down without first discovering its origin or cause.

This small act of worship casts a long shadow over 2,000 years of Christian history. When I weigh your reasons, I do so as if I had an apostle standing next to me who had just encouraged me to make the sign. Are your reasons written with this same historical consciousness?

First, because to me it seems to place the focus on myself (some say one "crosses ones-self"), rather than on Him. This seems wrong to me, especially when praying.

Here, we get a smidgen of the either/or mentality that reinforces much (uniquely) Protestant theology. The focus is (either) on myself (or) on God. Why can't it be a both/and? Why can't I make a sign that acknowledges that I am a member, along with all the Christians around me, of the family of God--that I have been made a partaker of the divine nature? As Christians, we become intimately unified with Jesus, just like a bride is with the groom. Entering into the paschal mystery of Christ by becoming a member of His body means taking the sign of the cross upon ourselves, and we remind ourselves and renew that committment of self by making the sign. In doing so, we enter ever more deeply into the paschal mystery of Christ. Jesus tells us that we must take up our cross and follow him. The sign of the cross is an act of worship whereby we connect every moment of our day-to-day lives with Jesus's passion and death so that we might rise with Him in the resurrection. Ironically, the sign of the cross is an act of prayer. We are praying with our bodies! Why did God give us bodies, after all, if not to worship him? (See: there is yet another either/or lurking here. Either intellectual prayer or "empty" external ritual. I'll take a both/and anyday!)

Also significant is the emphasis of subjective evaluation in this first reason. The word "seems" (somewhat ironically) puts the focus on a perceiving subject to whom things can appear in different ways. Just like each individual is unique, such that things will appear differently "to you," our subjective dislike of a particular teaching is no reason to dismiss that teaching. The objectivity of the Truth (who is Christ) and of Christ's teachings (didn't he tell the apostles "he who hears you, hears me. He who rejects you...") demands that we conform ourselves to Him, not make Him in our own image. When humans make Christianity in their own image, we end up with 50,000 different Christianities.

This is why I brought up the apostles to begin with--the underlying issue to our discussion of the sign of the cross is actually far more central than the sign itself. The underlying issue is that of authority. Are each of us given the personal perogative to make Christianity what we want it to be, or are there some areas in which we are required to give the ascent of our wills and the obedience of faith?

Second, it seems to encourage the belief that one *is* Christian (or Catholic) based solely on what one *does.* As in, "See? I made the sign of the Cross. That's how you know I'm Catholic."

For this reason, would you have warned the apostles about encouraging their flock to make the sign?

There are actually two ironies embedded in your second reason. The first is that the very churches that teach their members to make the sign of the cross are very explicit what the sign of the cross means, what it means to *be* a Christian, and how these two things relate. As a Catholic, I find the idea that making the sign of the cross could somehow confuse my understanding of the difference between being and doing difficult to believe. (Could you unpack your argument that "doing" something (necessarily?) encourages a belief that "being" is (reductively?) based on "doing"? Isn't it possible that "being" issues forth in "doing"?) In the second sentence, you seem to treat the sign of the cross as a mere outward sign, but aren't you begging the question here? Isn't the whole point of my earlier post that the sign of the cross is a powerful, grace-filled act of Christian worship?

The second irony is that it was really the early Protestants who rejected making the sign of the cross that made the sign (turned into a non-sign) into an identity marker. "See? We DON'T make the sign of the Cross. That's how you know we're NOT Catholic."

The sign of the cross is a wonderous gift that belongs to both Protestants and Catholics alike. I am simply sharing the good news regarding the sign and inviting Protestants and Catholics alike to rediscover the gift and to come together in unity through it. Enough of the divisions! Let's turn the sign back into the sign of unity that it is. Let us be unified!

I believe that loving the Lord, your God with all your heart, mind, and strength is what makes one Christian.

Yes, but doesn't loving God with all your heart, mind, and strength mean taking seriously with the obedience of faith the very teachings God gives us? Again, this reason simply begs the question.

Also, the argument reflects more of the either/or mentality: EITHER loving the Lord OR following His teachings.

If you don't think the sign of the cross is of Godly, apostolic origin, then that is one thing. But I happen to believe that the "good news" left once and for all with the saints (Jude 3) includes a number of profoundly awesome gifts, one of which is the sign of the cross. I don't think Jesus thinks of these gifts with the same kind of either/or mentality (you can EITHER have me OR you can make the sign of the cross, EITHER Me OR the Sacraments, EITHER Me OR the Church) that underlies the common Protestant mentality.

The third reason is probably why you can't seem to get a response that makes sense to you. Quite simply, it would not occur to most non-Catholics to make the sign.

Philsophers speak of different types of causes, and I'm aware that, in the current historical moment, the material cause of many Christians not making the sign is because it doesn't occur to them. The rhetoric of asking the question "why don't Protestants make the sign of the cross" was to draw Protestants toward examining the other causes of why this ancient tradition was let go. In a sense, asking the question contains the implied statement: I don't think the current material (and yes, the simple, obvious) cause is a good one.

It's not part of Protestant services because Martin Luther's goal was to rid the church of "empty" ritual. Since it's not something Protestants do regularly, it just wouldn't be something that most non-Catholics would think at all about.

First, the sign of the cross is not an empty ritual. Would you have been so bold to accuse the apostle standing next to you of promoting empty rituals?

Do miracles, exorcisms, healings, and salvation itself all occur through empty ritual? Do you really know the incredible, miraculous history of this "empty" sign?

Again, this reason begs the question: is the sign just an empty sign? If you were offered a million dollars, would you take it? Doesn't the answer most readily depend on whether the stack of bills are real or counterfeit?

You might be surprised to know that Martin Luther promoted quite actively the making of the sign of the cross. A little poking around online quickly reveals resources such as the following: I am no expert on the life and thought of Martin Luther, but the research I have done reveals a much more complex person (with complex motives) than what your above reason reflects. Too often, Martin Luther is used as a kind of mythic figure to promote many positions that Luther himself would have vehemently rejected. One thing fascinating about Protestantism is how practically every denomination considers itself a descendent of the first "reformers," even though there are few denomations that exist today that believe even a fraction of all the "reformers" themselves believed. The legacy of the "reformers" is one of continuing division.

The single question that keeps coming up is whether or not the sign of the cross is an empty sign or a full sign. Is it merely an identity marker or does it flow from the deepest part of what it means to be a Christian? Does it distract from prayer or is it a prayer in and of itself?

Your reasons, it turns out, are not reasons, but a simple denial of what the sign of the cross actually is, at least according to the centuries upon centuries and billions upon billions of Christians over two thousand years who have made the sign. Those of us who make the sign trace this gift back to the apostles themselves. With the help of the Holy Spirit, we faithfully pass on the gift from generation to generation.

God gives you the free will to accept or deny the gift. I pray that you will look more closely at the wonderous gift of the sign of the cross (see my first post for a few links to get you started), and I pray that God will give you the grace to accept all the gifts he desires to bestow on your life. And I ask that you will pray for me the exact same prayer! I need it as much as anyone.

Now, let us take up our crosses...

1 comment:

rew said...

I'd like to clarify a couple things in my comments that appear to have been misconstrued. Most importantly, I did not intend to say, imply, or convey in any way that the sign of the Cross is, necessarily, an empty ritual. This is why I placed quotes around it. I am acquainted with many Catholics for whom the act of crossing themselves carries great meaning and, I'm sure, is therefore valued by God. However, I've known many more Catholics who, themselves, do not know why they make the sign of the cross. In such cases, I would submit, it is an empty ritual.

Further along this line, I obviously did not mean to say that what one does bears no relationship with who one is. Of course, being Christian should result in certain actions, and abstaining from certain actions.

I appreciate your desire for unity among all Christian bretheren. But when making the sign of the Cross hinders me from communing with God in prayer and worship, I will not do it.

Sadly, I also agree with whw in that your apparent desire for unity and understanding amongst the denominations is very rare, in my experience. I've been to Mass several times and in several parishes. At each one, there was a note in the bulletin, "Members of the Roman Catholic Church are welcome to participate in the Sacriment [Eucharist]" I've been told by numerous people that one is only permitted to cross ones-self if they are Catholic, and if a non-Catholic does so, it is hypocritical. I've been told because I am not Catholic, I am not a sister-in-Christ, and am condemned to hell.

If making the sign of the cross is a way of worship for you, helps you to do God's will, and brings you closer to God; I encourage you to continue, by all means. However, making the sign of the cross does the opposite for me. (See Ro. 14:13-22)