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The Sign of the Cross

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 Contents - Sep 2015AD2000 September 2015
Refugees: Give priority to Syria’s persecuted Christians: Archbishop Fisher
The Americas: Pope Francis’ challenge to American Catholics - AD2000 Report
The Americas: Cuba: new centre for evangelisation - AD2000 Report
Preview: Mercy and compassion: focus of Synod of Bishops - Peter Westmore
Apostolic Letter: Pope Francis proclaims Year of Mercy - AD2000 Report
Concordat: Catholic Church signs concordat with East Timor - Peter Westmore
Hebrew: The Sign of the Cross - Andrew Sholl
Letters: Victoria stops class-time religious instruction - Arnold Jago
Letters: The nature of Heaven - Frank Mobbs
Letters: Media bias on “same-sex marriage” - Robert Bom
Books: YEAR OF THE LORD’S FAVOUR: A Homiliary for the Roman Liturgy, Aidan Nichols OP - Paul Simmons (reviewer)
Reflection: The proper celebration of the Mass - Cardinal Robert Sarah

All Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and many other Christians are quite familiar with the Sign of the Cross: the sign of our redemption by Our Lord Jesus Christ.

But, if one is not a Hebrew-speaker (as is the case with most Christians), then one may be surprised, nay, stunned to know that the Hebrew word “hitztaleiv” means not only “to be nailed to the cross”, but also “to make the sign of the cross”.

So, we as Christians, by making the Sign of the Cross, actually have ourselves (albeit symbolically) nailed to the Cross of Jesus!

However, how many Christians are aware that the sign in the shape of a cross was part of the daily Jewish liturgy of the Temple in Jerusalem, right up to its destruction by the Romans in 70 AD?

As a Hebrew Catholic, I know that the following psalms were sung by the choir of Levites (who also played the instruments which accompanied the singing as per Psalm 150):

(a) On Sunday, Psalm 24 was sung: it being the first day of the week, and thus of Creation by God. Appropriately, it began: “To the Lord belongs the earth and all it holds”.

(b) On Monday, Psalm 48 was sung, as it continues the Creation story in Genesis 1:6-7, and appropriately starts with “The Lord is great and supremely to be praised in the city of our God”.

(c) On Tuesday, Psalm 82 was sung, further continuing the Creation story in Genesis 1:9-10; it began with: “God stands in the divine assembly.”

(d) On Wednesday, Psalm 94 was sung, and it called on God to judge the world for its iniquity. This day commemorated the creation of the whole “array of Heaven” (Genesis 1:14-17): sun, moon and stars; and the psalm was a warning to mankind not to worship them as idols, but only to worship the Creator.

(e) On Thursday, Psalm 81 was sung. It began with the words: “Shout for joy to honour God, our strength”. This day commemorated the creation of all creatures except man (Genesis 1:20-25), and we are to give thanks and praise to God for his Creation.

(f) On Friday, Psalm 93 was sung, and it began: “The Lord is king, robed in majesty.” It commemorates the creation of man in Genesis 1:26-27. It is God's supreme handiwork, since man has the intellectual capacity to recognise and accept God's greatness and his sovereignty over the universe.

(g) On Saturday, the Sabbath, Psalm 92 was sung: the Bible itself calls it “For the Sabbath”. It starts with, “It is good to give thanks to the Lord”. Ultimately, it looks to mankind’s future well-being … everlasting life.

It is noteworthy that during the singing of the daily liturgy, whenever the choir comes to the Hebrew word “sela” (pause), which is found in the margin of most Bibles, since this is of special importance, the Levite choir would pause, the Priests would sound the silver trumpets, and all the people would prostrate themselves, with arms stretched out, in the shape of a cross, to worship God in total silence, until the choir resumed the singing, accompanied by the musical instruments.

To me this is very reminiscent of the ordination of Catholic priests, and the consecration of bishops, when priests and bishops prostrate themselves, with arms outstretched in the shape of a cross, facing the ordaining/consecrating bishop.

There are at least two other occasions when a sign in the shape of a cross was produced by the Temple clergy in Jerusalem prior to 70 AD.

Many Christians are aware that in the Old Testament God expected every male Israelite to “appear” before him three times a year, if it did not cause unnecessary hardship. This was during the festivals of Pesach (Passover), Shavuot (Pentecost), and Succot (Tabernacles). These were the three “pilgrim festivals”.

Less well known is the fact that in the land of Israel, each feast had a parallel agricultural component. (It is different in Australia, since the seasons are reversed, as elsewhere in the Southern Hemisphere).

Thus, Passover was also the time of the barley harvest, and 50 days later, after “counting the omer” (offering a sheaf of barley) from the second day after Passover, came the wheat harvest at Pentecost (pentecosti in Greek means 50).

The last feast, Tabernacles, was “paired” with the grape harvest. So, these three harvests were tangible recognition of God's goodness and bounty in providing the Israelites with food (barley and wheat), as well as drink (grapes), and thus appropriate offerings were made to the Lord in thanksgiving.

And note, even Shavuot (literally “weeks”: 7x7=49, and 49+1=50, i.e. “Pentecost”) has the alternate name of Bikurim (“First Fruits”) to signify the practice of offering the first fruits of the land to the Lord.

But how this was done is most significant to Christians. We are told in Leviticus 23:9-11 that “on the day after the Sabbath”, namely Sunday, the first day of the week, the priest, in front of the Temple, and in full view of the people, would take the first barley sheaf of the harvest and would wave it up and down, then side to side, in the shape of a cross.

Hence, not surprisingly it was called “the wave-offering” to God: after all, God deserves the first and the best of the product of his Creation!

Notice, that in the Oriental Catholic (and Orthodox) churches, leavened bread is used for the Eucharist, just like in the Temple liturgy at Pentecost [verse 17], whereas in the Latin, or Western Catholic Church, unleavened hosts are used, just as in Jewish homes, unleavened matzot are eaten since it says in Leviticus 23:6, “For seven days you shall eat bread without leaven.”

Then at Pentecost, as per Leviticus 23:17, the priest in front of the Temple, again in full view of the congregation, would take “two loaves, made of two-tenths of an ephah (sheaf, i.e. bundle of grain) of wheaten flour baked with leaven (my italics), and would wave them before the Lord, again in the shape of a cross. Then verse 17 finishes by telling us that “these are first-fruits for the Lord”.

But why two loaves? Over the centuries the rabbis have explained this by saying that one loaf represents the Jews, whereas the other one represents the Gentiles, especially proselytes to Judaism.

To conclude, in the Eucharist everywhere, whether leavened bread or unleavened hosts are used, Jesus becomes really and truly present at the Consecration: he is then offered back to the Father on the altars of the Church, and this action goes back to Jesus at the Last Supper nearly 2000 years ago, in an unbroken priestly line: an offering which he originally made on the Cross, on the first Good Friday, for our salvation once for all, but which continues to be re-presented universally, and to the end of time, in the Sacrifice of the Mass.

Andrew Sholl is the co-founder of the Association of Hebrew Catholics ( Andrew lives in Townsville, Queensland, Australia.

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Reprinted from AD2000 Vol 28 No 8 (September 2015), p. 7

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