In making the sign of the cross, believe and constantly remember that your sins are nailed to the cross.+ St. John of Kronstadt +
I was attending the Crowning (blessing their civil marriage of some 9 years) of some friends, who had invited lots of different friends to witness their committment. I ended up sitting behind the groom’s mom (as I was asked to do), in order to help corral some of the kids, and next to a friend of hers I had met at a birthday party earlier in the year. In addition, her friend had her two children with her; her son was about 10 and her daughter was 4 years old. Her daughter ended up on my lap most of the ceremony, and I spent most of the time leaning over, explaining a Byzantine Crowning Ceremony to these Protestant guests. And the kids had so many questions about what they were seeing and hearing for the first time. I loved every moment of it.
One of the things I noticed, especially when I began explaining it to someone who had no previous experience in a Byzantine Church, was how often we make the Sign of the Cross in any Byzantine or Eastern Rite Liturgy. The young boy sitting next to his mom, leaning over her towards me, kept asking me what I was doing. I had to explain that we believe that whenever we hear the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, we make the Sign of the Cross. Whenever we hear the word, “Trinity,” we also make the same Sign of the Cross. He asked me why. And I thought about it, realizing mom and daughter were also listening, and I replied that I did it to remind myself of Christ’s sacrifice for me, and that He had died on the Cross for me, taking my sins upon Himself. And to remind me also that God is Father, God is Son, and God is Holy Spirit – Three in One – the Holy Trinity. He saw my husband, who was assisting at the Crowning as a deacon, make the Sign of the Cross across his lips once or twice, and asked me why he “did it then.” I explained that he had made a mistake in the words he was saying, or the prayer he was praying, and signing his lips with the Cross was a way to ask for forgiveness for the mistake, and to seek a blessing from Christ for his efforts, and to protect him from making the mistake again. The little boy asked me, “You can do that?” I was surprised and answered, “We do it as often as we feel the need to do it.” I also told him that God appreciates us turning to Him on the Cross and seeking His aid in everything we do. We also make the Sign of the Cross as a protection against any evil, or bad things, we see or feel around us. Sometimes we do it to remind ourselves that God is ever and always present around us.
My husband signs the cross on my forehead before he leaves for work, as I groggily kiss him goodbye and tell him I love him. I don’t think my day starts as well without his loving blessing. We bless our homes this time of year in the Eastern Churches. The priest comes, and in times past, he pokes into every nook and cranny, praying and sprinkling holy water, carrying incense. (Talk about deep cleaning before someone comes to visit!!). I think it is wonderful that our parish priests come to the home of each and every parishioner, at least once a year, to bless our homes. I love knowing my house is blessed. I sleep better in a house that has been blessed. Our priest has not blessed our home yet, but I have. I always have Holy Water on hand! There’s also candles and incense in our home, accompanying our icons, statues, and Holy artwork. This past Sunday we celebrated the Presentation in the Temple of Christ, and the meeting of St. Simeon and the Prophetess, Anna. As part of the celebration, we were all given lit candles, to remind us that Christ is our light. We light candles at home, to keep the light of Christ in our homes. We light candles and burn incense when we pray, when we need comfort, when we need to know Christ is here with us. It gives us comfort, as well as reminds us that He is with us always, in all things.
And I thought a lot about making the Sign of the Cross. I do it all the time, without even thinking about it. I bless my day, cooking, my kids, any project I propose to do. It especially helps me when the chores I dislike are due to be completed (the dreaded laundry or bathroom cleaning!!). It comes as easily as breath. And I wear a holy object every day. A Byzantine cross, usually, but I have a selection. My favorite is a beat-up silver St. Olga cross I bought for myself in Los Angeles, years ago. It used to have blue inlay, but that has long since worn off. I love the feel of it around my neck, and reach for it often, when in distress. Most days I also wear a prayer rope, to remind myself to keep praying, “Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” I say it over and over again.
The little girl on my lap was pointing away to the area behind the Holy Doors. She kept asking me, “What’s that? What’s that?” I was naming off all sorts of things (icon, altar, fans, cross, Holy Bible…) but nothing was the right thing. Then I noticed the incensor swinging its way back and forth, occasionally visible from the right side, behind the Holy Doors. “Are you asking me about the smoke?” “Yes! Are we on fire?” Ha-Ha! “No,” I assured her, we are not on fire. That is called an incensor.” She looked so confused. I asked her to close her eyes and to breathe in deeply. She was so cute, as she squished her eyes shut and took quite a loud, deep breath. “Oooo, what is that smell?” I asked her if it smelled good to her and she told me she loved that smell. I then told her to watch the smoke, as it rose above the altar and made its way to the Icon of Christ above us. She was so adorable as she moved her head and strained to watch the incense. I told her we love to cleanse the Church of the everyday smells (she, of course, asked about what smells. That lead to a whole other discussion about hot dogs and coffee – her questions – and lead to her question of, “How much longer is this? I’m starving!!” Kids!). But back to the incense. I explained that incense reminds us that there are angels all around us, that our prayers rise with theirs to God, and that our prayers smell sweet to God. She loved that explanation. And I loved that a little child, stopping me long enough to notice all those little details of our worship, caused me to not forget the whys of what we do.
There were lots of other questions about altar boys, what they were carrying, why we hold the Bible up and why we decorate it, why we bow our heads, why we pray the Lord’s Prayer more than one time, and what the priest and deacon were up to (consecration). The young boy was especially impressed that women don’t go up there, but just boys and men. He smiled pretty big to his mom! I explained about communion and the mom quietly asked her daughter, “Remember when we get the little cups at Church? What is that for?” She answered, “Jesus’ blood.” And then she asked her daughter, “And what are the little wafers we eat for, that we take out of the plate?” “Hmmm”….as she squished up her face and looked dramatically to the ceiling…”I know this. I know this….” Her mom said, “Jesus’ bod…” And she smiled and yelled, “It’s Jesus’ body!!!” The little one was so happy she remembered. I told them they could come with me and receive a blessing if they wanted to, that the priest would place his hand on their heads and say a prayer for them. Well, that little child was not letting go of my hand for anything! It was so beautiful…their entire family went up with me and received a blessing from our priest during communion and it felt so nice to have them walk with me, holding that little 4-year-old’s hand!
Why do we keep all these symbols around us? What is the purpose? Why should we? I think I have shared above some of the reasons, but like the family I sat with at the Crowning of our friends, there are always lots of questions of whys and wherefores, even among all of us who are of one of the many Eastern Churches, or Catholic, or Orthodox. None of our Churches does it the same way; they just don’t. I have been at enough of a variety of liturgies that I can attest to it. And the Protestants are different than any of us! There was a comment on a Facebook wall that said something to the effect of “Why don’t we all just become one, Eastern Church, then unite with Rome?” And it is just so hard for me to even fathom that. Yes, we all want to be united in our faith, but our ways of doing things are just a tad different. My son commented yesterday that automated driving, where you get into a car and give it your destination and it takes you where you want to go, will never happen. He said it won’t because we are too independent and don’t want to give up our freedom that much. I tend to agree with him. It’s why carpooling is just not what it could be. Or why more people don’t support mass-transit. We are a group of individuals…and keeping our sense of self is so important to us. God granted us free will. We express ourselves to our God in our own ways…that’s why there are so many Churches “in communion with Rome,” and it’s also why there are so many denominations of Protestants around the world…that darned old free will. We hate being told what to do, or worse, how to do it! Ha-Ha!
Personally, having been on a wild journey of faith my whole life, I appreciate the differences. I love the differences. I respect the differences. I think God loves variety; He created variety. Not all the earth looks the same; plants come in an infinite variety, as do the species of animals, and mankind is an endless spectrum of varieties. I think it makes God smile. I would not expect a Latin Rite Catholic from say, Iowa or Arizona, to understand the worship of the little Ukrainian Catholic parish we found in Washington, where the Liturgy is only in Ukrainian. Nor would I expect a little babushka from the heart of Orthodox Russia to understand the Liturgy of the Melkites, who hail from the Middle East and celebrate most of their Liturgy in Arabic. And I would not expect a Protestant from a mega-Church in SoCal to understand the Byzantine Liturgy we celebrate up in Alaska. We can all appreciate the differences, but we can also look to our sameness. We all worship God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. The Roman Catholic may make the Sign of the Cross backwards to the rest of the Eastern world, but we still see it is the Sign of the Cross, and we can argue which side to start on, or we can just smile that we all make the Sign of the Cross. Although, our Protestant brothers and sisters in Christ do not practice making the Sign of the Cross (or most of the other examples from our worship I cited in this post) we can still pray for them and they for us.
The little boy and girl I shared a slice of Byzantine faith with, I tried to leave with positive memories of an afternoon at a Byzantine Church where they saw a Bible decorated with gems in a golden case, held up for all to see and venerate, explaining how we love the Word of God; that the wonderful “holy smoke” they smelled will be a warm memory of the enticing smells of an Eastern Church; that the fans emblazoned with images of angels with six wings will remain with them; the stories in the many icons will warm them some day; the kindness of our community and the blessing of our priest will one day be an impetus to join us again, or at the very least, to pray for us. Perhaps if we all share our love of our traditions, the differences will be swallowed up by the warmth of the love of them, and only the things we have in common will be remembered. And as I made the Sign of the Cross with those children, it renewed within me my own dedication to sharing what I believe with others. I also have some more children to pray to God for…to help entice their guardian angels into keeping that loving memory of an afternoon encircled by “holy smoke” and crowns on the heads of their friends alive for them as they make their way in the world.