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Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Ancient Faith Practices

Fourth century icon of St. Paul preparing to make the sign of the cross.

We are a family that prays with our hearts, minds, souls, spirits, and bodies. Since God made humanity in flesh, before the Fall, since He created matter, matter matters to us. So, we pray with our hands and our bodies as well as our mouths and minds. The Sign of the Cross is the first prayer most of our children attempt. It is not the first prayer they say, but it is the first one they do. They copy us and try to make their hands do as ours do. Even if your family does not pray in this way, but bows your heads in prayer, or fold your hands in prayer, you are also praying with your bodies, and you probably have witnessed your children imitating this before they were able to articulate the words of any prayer.

The Sign of the Cross is an ancient Christian prayer that dates to the Apostles. The way people did it has evolved and changed, in some times and places it was only done on the forehead, in others from the head to the heart and torso as is commonly seen now. However, I was delighted to find out that not only is it found all the way back to Apostolic times, but can be traced to a specific Apostle and deacon.

Most Christians know the story of Philip the Evangelist (the deacon, not the Apostle) and the Ethiopian eunuch.

But an angel of the Lord said to Philip, "Rise and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza." This is a desert road. And he rose and went. And behold, an Ethiopian, a eunuch, a minister of the Can'dace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of all her treasure, had come to Jerusalem to worship and was returning; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. And the Spirit said to Philip, "Go up and join this chariot." So Philip ran to him, and heard him reading Isaiah the prophet, and asked, "Do you understand what you are reading?" And he said, "How can I, unless some one guides me?" And he invited Philip to come up and sit with him. Now the passage of the scripture which he was reading was this:

"As a sheep led to the slaughter or a lamb before its shearer is dumb, so he opens not his mouth. In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken up from the earth."

And the eunuch said to Philip, "About whom, pray, does the prophet say this, about himself or about some one else?" Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning with this scripture he told him the good news of Jesus. And as they went along the road they came to some water, and the eunuch said, "See, here is water! What is to prevent my being baptized?" And he commanded the chariot to stop, and they both went down into the water, Philip and the eunuch, and he baptized him. And when they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord caught up Philip; and the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing.

Acts 8:26-39

The African churches trace their lineage to this official and his interaction with St. Philip. St. Matthew, the Apostle, also evangelized directly into Africa. The Christian community there was not as closely tied to, and had difficulty maintaining connections with the rest of the Church, so they lost many aspects of orthodox Christianity over the years. However, 300 years later, missionaries traveling in Africa found communities who were aware of and made the Sign of the Cross in Ethiopia and the Sudan. They had no other contact with Christians for the most part, and their knowledge of this ancient prayer were directly traced to their contact with St. Philip and St. Matthew. While the missionaries did need to correct some of their theology, and strengthen them, they had no need to explain this prayer.

We use this method to teach our children the Sign of the Cross. The thumb, index, and middle fingers are together to remind us of the Trinity, and the ring and pinky finger are down to remind us of the hypostatic union, that Jesus is fully man and fully God.

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