Let your fingers do the talking

Friday 4 July 2014 — Homeport: Falmouth Harbor — American Independence Day

You know me, dear readers, I keep my thumb on the pulse of the popular culture — or at least I thought I did until quite recently. Faithful reader Father David Deston has fraternally corrected me. It does no good whatsoever to keep my thumb on the pulse. The proper method of taking a pulse is not with the thumb at all but rather with the index and middle fingers. Father David should know. He’s a hospital chaplain. This goes a long way in explaining why I so often miss the mark when it comes to interpreting trends in contemporary culture. I’ve been using the wrong digit all along.

This quite naturally leads me to today’s meditation on the symbolic meaning of hand and finger gestures. On this Independence Day, I think of the U.S. military salute. Some say it began in late Roman times, when political assassins known as the Sicarii (dagger-men) roamed the streets. In those days, when greeting a public official, it was best to show your right hand to prove you were unarmed. 

Others say it came from medieval times when a knight in armor (shining or otherwise) would lift the visor of his helmet to reveal his face to a friend. Still others maintain it comes from tipping the hat. So many expensive military hats were worn out by this gesture of respect that, as a cost-cutting measure, the hat tipping was replaced by a salute. At any rate, a military salute is a signal of respect which uses the full right hand raised to the eyebrow, palm down.

The civilian pectoral salute of placing the hand over the heart during the Pledge of Allegiance and the National Anthem was introduced by Congress in 1942 at the request of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. 

There are also less honorable hand signs — those used by criminal gang members to identify themselves or to insult members of rival gangs, for example. These gestures are carefully studied by police departments all over the country.

Then there are similar signs used by “gangsta-style” musicians, hip-hop artists, and such iconic performers as Justin Bieber and Miley Cyrus. Our teens have picked up some of these gestures and repeat them in harmless imitation, generally oblivious to the original meanings. 

Did you know, dear readers, that hand signs have been used for centuries in Jewish, Catholic, and Orthodox worship? These prayer gestures are sometimes so subtle you might miss them. 

In the Jewish tradition, the Aaronic Blessing (Num 6:22- 27) is prayed by the kohamin, the sons of Aaron, with hands extended over the people. Both hands are held flat, palms down, with the four fingers of each hand divided into a “V” shape. (Think “Star Trek”: “Live long and prosper.”) The hand gesture forms shin, an emblem of El Shaddi. El Shaddi is “The Lord God Almighty” in the Jewish priestly tradition of Torah.

blessings father tim.jpg

As very young Roman Catholics, the first religious hand gesture we probably learned was the Sign of the Cross. We were taught to bless ourselves with our right hand in the Name of the Trinity — Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We used holy water to recall the original blessing of our Baptism.

In Eastern Rite icons of Jesus, the Lord is shown holding His right hand in a particular way. The pinkie and ring fingers are touching the thumb, these three digits symbolizing the Three Persons of the Blessed Trinity. The other two fingers are held straight. Those two fingers represent the two natures of Jesus — Divine and human. It’s a gesture that is sometimes used by the Vicar of Christ, the pope.

There’s another gesture used by Eastern Catholic and Orthodox bishops and priests. It is a form of finger spelling. The index finger of the right hand is held up straight (forming the letter “I”). The middle finger is slightly curved (forming the letter “C”). The ring finger is held down and crossing the thumb, thus forming an “X.” The pinkie is held up, but slightly curved in the form of another “C.” Put it together and what have you got? IC XC. These Greek letters are a Christogram or monogram for the name of Jesus. The four Greek letters stand for the Holy Name — Jesus the Christ.

We Roman Rite bishops and priests don’t speak as eloquently with our hands as do our Eastern Rite brothers. We bless with our hands extended, held flat, fingers together. You can see this when a priest extends his hands horizontally over the gifts of bread and wine placed on the altar. You can see this as well in a Solemn Blessing or Prayer over the People. We bless by making the Sign of the Cross in a similar fashion but with hands held vertically. You can see this at the very conclusion of Mass or in the blessing of religious objects.

So, dear readers, when it comes to prayer, you can sometimes let your fingers do the talking.

Anchor columnist Father Goldrick is pastor of St. Patrick’s Parish in Falmouth.

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