Wednesday, November 17, 2010

the sign of the cross

photo: Wikimedia/Adriatikus

It was 1666. A culture of reform was sweeping through the hierarchy of the Russian Church like a wildfire, overturning long-standing traditions in the process.

Weary from the ravages of the plague and spooked by the spectre of the apocalypse, the faithful suspected the Antichrist was behind it all. How else to interpret these suspicious innovations the Fathers handed down so harshly? The sign of the cross was now to be made with three fingers instead of the usual two. The procession which had always proceeded clockwise was now going to proceed counterclockwise. A vowel was to be added to the spelling of Jesus’ name. On the one hand, the changes were trivial enough. On the other hand, it was exactly this pettiness, this needless reinvention, that offended the faithful so deeply.

Resistance to the new policies was swift and universal. The Old Believers, as the holdouts came to be known, stood their ground against the spread of these heresies and clung to the established traditions of the Church, even under threat of violence.  When they traced the sign of the cross in the air, they refused to use three fingers, as was the new-fangled custom. They defiantly kept using two fingers.