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6. Sign of the Cross

Antiquities of the Christian Church
XVIII. Domestic and Social Character of the Primitive Christians

6. Sign of the Cross

There was no feature of their private manners more remarkable, than the frequency with which they made use of the sign of the cross. With minds filled as theirs were, with lively faith in the grand doctrine of redemption, and making it, as they did almost every moment, the subject of their meditations, and the theme of their gratitude, it is not wonderful, that they should have devised some concise mode of recalling it to their memories, or of expressing to each other by some mutual token, the principles and hopes they held in common. Accordingly, the sign of the cross naturally suggested itself as an appropriate emblem, and so early was its introduction among the daily observances of the Christians, that the most ancient of the Fathers, whose writings have descended to our times, speak of it as in their days a venerable practice, which, though it would be in vain to seek any scriptural authority for its use, tradition had authorized, and faith observed. Although, however, we have no authentic account of its introduction, we can guess at its origin. It was a beautiful custom of those who lived while the ministry of Christ was recent, and who were suddenly brought from the depths of despair at his death, to indescribable joy at his resurrection, to break off in the middle of conversation, and salute one another with the words, "Christ is risen." The practice was peculiar to the contemporaries of the Saviour; and it is not improbable, that when time, by removing them farther from that spirit-stirring event, had brought the interesting custom into disuse, his followers, in the next age, sought to substitute in its place that, which in every variety of time and circumstance, forms the chief subject of interest in the history and religion of Jesus, and on which, as the grand foundation, the whole superstructure of christian doctrine rests. Accordingly, the cross was used by the primitive Christians as an epitome of all that is most interesting and important in their faith; and its sign, where the word could not be conveniently nor safely uttered, represented their reliance on that event which is at once the most ignominious and the most glorious part of Christianity. It was used by them at all times, and to consecrate the most common actions of life – when rising but of bed, or retiring to rest – when sitting at table, lighting a lamp, or dressing themselves – on every occasion, as they wished the influence of religion to pervade the whole course of their life, they made the sign of the cross the visible emblem of their faith. The mode in which this was done was various: The most common was by drawing the hand rapidly across the forehead, or by merely tracing the sign in air; in some cases, it was worn close to the bosom, in gold, silver, or bronze medals, suspended by a concealed chain from the neck; in others, it was engraven on the arms or some other part of the body by a colored drawing, made by pricking the skin with a needle, and borne as a perpetual memorial of the love of Christ. In times of persecution, it served as the watchword of the christian party.

Hastily described by the finger, it was the secret but well-known signal by which Christians recognized each other in the presence of their heathen enemies; by which the persecuted sought an asylum, or strangers threw themselves on the hospitality of their brethren; and nothing appeared to the pagan observer more strange and inexplicable, than the ready and openhearted manner in which, by this concerted means, foreign Christians were received by those whom they had never previously seen or heard of, – were welcomed into their homes, and entertained with the kindness usually bestowed only on relations and friends. Moreover, to the sacred form of the cross were ascribed peculiar powers of protecting from evil; and hence it was frequently resorted to as a secret talisman, to disarm the vengeance of a frowning magistrate, or counteract the odious presence and example of an offerer of sacrifice. It was the only outward means of defending themse lves, which the martyrs were wont to employ, when summoned to the Roman tribunals on account of their faith. It was by signing himself with the cross, that Origen, when compelled to stand at the threshold of the temple of Serapis, and give palm-branches, as the Egyptian priests were in the habit of doing, to them that went to perform the sacred rites of the idol, fortified his courage, and stood uncontaminated amid the concourse of profane idolaters. But, perhaps, the most remarkable instance on record of the use of this sign by the primitive Christians, and of the sense they entertained of its potent virtues, occurs in the reign of Diocletian, when that timorous and superstitious prince, in his anxiety to ascertain the events of his Eastern campaign, slew a number of victims, that, from their livers, the augurs might prognosticate the fortunes of the war. During the course of the sacrifice, some christian officers, who were officially present, put the immortal sign on their foreheads, and forthwith, as the historian relates, the rites were disturbed. The priests, ignorant of the cause, searched in vain for the usual marks on the entrails of the beasts. Once and again the sacrifice was repeated with a similar result, when, at length, the chief of the soothsayers observing a Christian signing himself with the cross, exclaimed, "It is the presence of profane persons that has interrupted the rites." Thus common was the use, and thus high the reputed efficacy of this sign among the primitive Christians. But it was not in the outward form, but solely in the divine qualities of Him whose name and merits it symbolized, that the believers of the first ages conceived its charm and its virtues to reside. It was used by them "merely as a mode of expressing, by means perceptible to the senses, the purely christian idea, that all the actions of Christians, as well as the whole course of their life, must be sanctified by faith in the crucified Redeemer, and by dependance upon him, and that this faith is the most powerful means of conquering all evil, and preserving oneself against it. It was not till after times, that men began to confound the idea and the token which represented it, and that they attributed the effects of faith in the crucified Redeemer, to the outward signs to which they ascribed a supernatural and preservative power."

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