Then likewise he shall say,
O Lord, open thou our lips
Answer. And our mouth shall show forth thy praise.
Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost;
Answer. As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.
Minister. Praise ye the Lord.
Answer. The Lord’s Name be praised.
The setting of my first serious consideration of the Sign of the Cross couldn’t have been any more pretentiously typical of graduate student life. Some friends and I were in a crowded pub, and I was getting out a match to light my pipe, smoking a blend of tobacco called “The Philosopher.” I like to live dangerously close to Poe’s Law territory. Before lighting my match I held it up and told my friends, “Chesterton used to make the sign of the cross with every match before he struck it.”
“Pshaw, superstitious nonsense,” one of my friends scoffed.
I’d been in graduate school about a week too long to keep calm and gracious, and my patience had run out. “Oh, shut the hell up. You can’t possibly know that. If you can worship with words and with music and with work, then you can worship with your body.” At least, I meant to say something like that. I think only the first sentence came out.
The truth is I probably have too many things that I want to say about the Sign of the Cross and the Gloria Patri all at once. I’m not sure I can ever explain it. I think it’s partly because, more than any other prayer in the Christian tradition, the Sign of the Cross really becomes a part of us. I mean to say, I’ve said the Lord’s Prayer more throughout my life, but making the Sign of the Cross is more incorporated into who I am because it involves my whole Personhood, including my body. I have spent more time studying the Psalms, but they are not as moving to me as genuflecting in front of the Altar and making the Sign, even though my study of the Psalms goes back to my childhood, and I never crossed myself before I was a senior in college.
I grew up in the Messianic, or “Hebrew Roots,” Movement. And as much as that tradition did a lot to teach me about using my whole body and life for worship, I can distinctly remember wanting to cross myself when I put on my tallit. I can remember one specific day in the synagogue, when we came to a blessing referring to the Messiah, starting, “The Branch of David your servant quickly cause to flourish,” I wanted to cross myself so badly that my stomach actually ached. There is something so viscerally appealing about this simple act of faith and worship. It’s almost like it’s in our DNA. Even when we’re conditioned to distrust it, the body wants to be covered in the Cross of Christ.
I’m not sure there’s much more to say, except to quote Tertullian (circ. 155-240 A.D.) in De Corona (or Concerning the Crown):
At every forward step and movement, at every going in and out, when we put on our clothes and shoes, when we bathe, when we sit at table, when we light the lamps, on couch, on seat, in all the ordinary actions of daily life, we trace upon the forehead the Sign.((Cleveland A. Coxe, ed. Latin Christianity: Its Founder, Tertullian I. Apologetic; II Anti-Marcion; III. Ethical. (USA: Hendrickson Publishers. 2012). 94-5.))
What Christians often miss is that not only is all of this a part of the prayer of the Shema in Jewish practice, but it is all taken quite literally. The first prayer in the morning and the last at night is the Shema. It is recited at morning and evening prayer. It is written on a scroll, encased in leather, and bound on the arm and the forehead during the major hours of prayer. It is affixed to every doorframe. In fact, it is hard to imagine that Tertullian is not making a veiled reference to the Shema in his description of how Christians use the Sign of the Cross. When we say “In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit,” we are even reflecting the formula of that other Prayer, “The Lord our God, the Lord is One” (Deut. 6:4). Our God is the Three in One and One in Three.
In fact, if we really dwell on what the formula means, whether “In the Name of…” or “Glory be to…” we should hardly be able to distinguish it from “And you shall love the Lord your God…” (Deut. 6:5) If we are really dedicating our actions and prayers to the Name of God, or to His Glory, that is very much the same as “Love the Lord your God with all your heart” etc. But even better, we’re imposing the sign of Christ’s ultimate act of obedience onto ourselves, as a sign, a reminder, and a request.
But, while Judaism has made a great point about knowing and repeating and beautifying its Symbol, we, at least we Anglicans, have sort of let ours languish. The melody of the Shema is so beautiful, memorable, and well-known that probably most of my fellow Christian readers know it off the top of your heads. On the other hand, only a fraction of us have probably ever had the opportunity to hear sung or to sing the Gloria Patri.
I’ve been to synagogues where the custom is to more or less shout the Shema, but even some of the spikiest of high-church anglo-catholic churches I’ve attended didn’t even sing the Glory Be. In fact, in my ’28 BCP with Hymnal, there is no melody for it included in the Service Music, and I’ve certainly never heard it sung with gusto, let alone shouted. And that may be a great defect in our worship. When I think about it, there must be something seriously wrong with us as long as we can say those words and make that Sign without bowing down to the ground and shouting at the top of our lungs.
Of course, we do bow. At least, most of us do. And rightly so. A great deal of sweat and ink have been spilled in explaining the close relationship between Biblical covenants and ancient treaties, and I will not spend your time by giving a woefully inadequate explanation here when you would be better served by reading any of a thousand books and articles which can treat the subject thoroughly. Suffice it to say that we have claimed that God is our Governor, liege laird, our sovereign prince, the Head of State, to whom we owe our fealty, our loyalty. In the west, we’ve customarily bowed at the waist when we encounter such a person, and so we’ve adopted that as a liturgical practice when we address the King of kings.
But I would like us to consider for a moment the fact that, in the Old Testament, when it says ‘bow,’ they have something in mind more like a genuflection, what my granddaddy would have called a ‘kowtow’ (consider Gen. 24:52 or Isa 49:23, for instance). That’s not to say that we’re not doing it right unless we lick the floor, but it seems to me that we often hesitate to bow with depth and enthusiasm out of reserve, or even fear of showing off. But that is a misdirected hesitance. If our custom is to bow at the waist, well and good, but we ought, at least, not hesitate to bow until our backs creak.
Fr. Austin Farrer describes preaching in the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as “placing what we say under the protection of God, that we may speak on his behalf, not on our own.”((Austin Farrer, “The Burning-Glass,” published in The Truth Seeking Heart: Austin Farrer and His Writings. Gen. eds. Ann Loades and Robert MacSwain. (Norwich: Canterbury Press. 2006). 133.)) And that’s also true of anything we say or do under the Sign of the Cross, not least Morning Prayer.
I think that, in a way, everything up to this point in Morning Prayer is preface, and this is where the Office really begins. As I mentioned in my last post, confession is necessary before we can worship properly. Once we have confessed, then we’re really able to get into praise, which is sort of the meat of prayer. And it begins with dedicating our prayer to the Glory of God, followed by an exclamation of praise, “The Lord’s Name be praised.”
I had originally intended to talk about both the Gloria Patri and Psalm 95, known as the Venite, in this post, but I kept thinking of more things that I wanted to say about the Gloria Patri and the Sign of the Cross, then finding myself approaching 1,500 words, I rather think I should stop now before I start physically jumping up and down in my chair and hurt myself. But I will leave you with one final thought:
In Ezekiel 9:4, an angelic scribe is instructed to seal the righteous with a letter taw on their foreheads. The letter today looks like this: ת, but in Pre-Exilic scripts, it looked rather more like an X, or a Roman cross. So I think that it was no mere coincidence that the earliest Christians, witnessed by Tertullian already in the second century, made the Sign of the Cross on their foreheads.