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MEDIEVAL-RELIGION  February 2001

MEDIEVAL-RELIGION February 2001

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Subject:

Re: Sign of the Cross (and digression on sufflation)

From:

Dennis Martin <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Scholarly discussions of medieval religion and culture <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Wed, 14 Feb 2001 14:43:27 -0600

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medieval-religion: Scholarly discussions of medieval religion and culture

We had different passages in mind.  I was incorrect about it being De baptismo.  The passage I had in mind is _De corona_, discussing whether a Christian may wear the chaplet awarded to a solder, because no explicit Scriptural warrant exists for it.  The sentence regarding the sign of the cross is at the very end of ch. 3.

Tertullian, De Corona (On the Soldier's Crown; On the Chaplet), ch. 3-4 (ANF 3:94-96)
        "How long must we go at each other like this [over the question of whether a Christian can wear a soldier's chaplet]?  In fact, we have an ancient practice which by its very existence presents the solution.  For if no scriptural passage has settled this, custom has strengthened the practice, a custom which beyond any doubt flows from tradition.  How can something be the custom if it has not been handed down?  But, you will object, even when pleading tradition, a scriptural source must be shown.  Let us ask, then, whether a tradition must be received if there is no written source.  Clearly, we shall say 'no ' if we can find no other examples of customs without a clear scriptural source, whose sole claim is tradition yet have gained the force of custom.
        To begin with Baptism: When we are about to enter the water, but a little before, under the bishop's hand, in the midst of the assembly, we solemnly declare that we renounce the devil and his pomp and his angels.  After that we are immersed three times, answering somewhat more fully than the Lord required in the Gospel.  Right after that, we taste a mixture of milk and honey and from that day for a week we keep from our daily bath.  The sacrament of the Eucharist, which the Lord entrusted to all and at a meal, we receive at pre-dawn services, and from no other hand than that of those who preside.  We celebrate annually the sacrifice for the deceased on their birthdays.  We consider it wrong to fast on Sundays or to worship on our knees that day.  It is the same practice during the period of rejoicing from Easter to Pentecost.  We are very careful not to allow anything from the cup or the bread to fall to the ground.  ***We make the sign of the cross on our foreheads at every turn, coming and going, dressing, putting on our shoes, waking, eating, lighting the lamps, going to bed, sitting down, in all other actions of our daily life.****

(ch. 4) For these and many other parts of the Christian life and practices, if you seek one, you will find no scriptural command.  Rather tradition will be brought forward as the origin, with custom to confirm and faith to require its continued observance.  You yourself will come to see, or someone who has realized it will teach you, that reason supports tradition, custom and faith.  In the meantime, you can safely presume that there is a reason why the custom should be observed. . .
        If I cannot find a law, it follows that tradition has given the practice the force of custom and would receive at a future time the support of Paul, from an interpretation of reason.  From these examples, you will admit that a tradition even though without specific scriptural foundation, because it is observed, can be defended, when it is confirmed by custom, which is itself a suitable witness from the very length of its observance that a tradition has been tested and approved.  In civil affairs, custom can have the force of law when a law is lacking and it makes no difference whether there is a basis in something written or in reason only so long as reason supports the law.  Moreover, if law is based on reason, then anything based on reason will be a law, wherever it comes from .  Or do you not believe that it is permitted to anyone of the faithful to conceive and to establish (a practice) so long as it is fitting to God, promotes discipline, and is profitable for salvation. . .?

Dennis Martin

>>> [log in to unmask] 02/14/01 08:22AM >>>
>> Now my question is this:  When did the sign of the cross become
>> commonplace among lay folks?

> Tertullian treats signing (making the sign of the cross) as an act
> characteristic not of clergy but of Christians generally...

The passage that I had in mind is in the _Ad uxorem_ (2.5), in which
Tertullian is discussing the impropiety of mixed (pagan-Christian)
marriage, pointing out that a Christian woman married to a non-Christian
husband will perforce expose to his uncomprehending eyes the privities
of the faithful:

  "The more care you take to conceal them, the more liable
  to suspicion you will make them, and the more exposed to the
  grasp of gentile curiosity. Shall you escape notice when
  you sign your bed (or) your body [cum lectulum, cum corpusculum
  tuum signas]? when you blow away some impurity? when even by night
  you rise to pray? Will you not be thought to be engaged in some
  work of magic?

  (text ed. Charles Munier, _Tertullien: a son e/pouse_ [Sources
  Chre/tiennes 273], p. 138; tr. Thelwall, AnteNicene Fathers 4:46)

As for sufflation (ex- and in-), in both East and West it is
most commonly liturgical, associated primarily first with the
catechumenate and then with baptism. But there are hints, such
as in the passage above, that it also led an extraliturgical life
in folk practice, medicine, and the like. I summarized such
evidence as I could find a few years ago in an article that
also contains a fairly substantial bibliography on sufflation
generally: "The errant morsel in Solomon and Saturn II ...,"
Mediaeval Studies 57 (1995), 223-57.

pfs
--------------------------------------------------------------------
Paul Schaffner | [log in to unmask] | http://www-personal.umich.edu/~pfs/ 
--------------------------------------------------------------------

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