18 October 2009

Persignarse versus Santiguarse

I have a friend named Tony in Tomball, Texas who asked me the other day about the origin of the Catholic "Sign of the Cross" where one traces the form of the cross either on their head and torso or on their forehead, lips, and heart. This could be a simple matter or a complicated one depending upon ones understanding of history, the place where one lives, and one's religious point of view. I am going to stay on the safe side and say that this is my personal point of view and understanding of the matter as it relates to me here in Mexico.

First of all we need to deal with the mark or the sign itself and where it was first placed. For that I turn to the Bible. There are several passages in the Old Testament that refer to the placing of a mark or sign on a person's forehead. One place in particular is Ezikiel 9:4. The Douay-Rheims translation of the Bible which is the Catholic Bible says "Go through the midst of the city, through the midst of Jerusalem: and mark Thau upon the foreheads of the men that sigh, and mourn for all the abominations that are committed in the midst thereof." The "Thau" that it refers to is the Hebrew letter "Taw" or "Tav" which was the last letter in the ancient Hebrew alphabet and looked kind of like our present letter "X". It makes the sound of our English and Spanish letter "T". In fact, the Greek letter "T" or "Tau" makes the same "T" sound and has the same form as the English and Spanish "T". The Bible was first translated from Hebrew and Aramaic into Greek. In Biblical times, the Taw (Tav) was put on men's foreheads to distinguish those who lamented sin. It was considered a mark of reform or renewal. The Greek "Tau" was adopted by St. Francis of Assisi for just that reason and it is sometimes referred to as the "Tau of St. Francis". When the Jewish sect "The Essenes" (the Dead Sea Scrolls people) received converts into their community, they baptized them and then signed them on their foreheads with a Taw (pronounced Tav or Tof). In all probability Saint John the Baptist did the same thing and his disciples, who were later also also disciples of Christ, most likely followed the same practice. So, from a very early period we have reason to believe that people were at least making an "X" like sign on their foreheads to set them apart as believers.

Why do we trace a cross instead of an "X" (or a "T") when making the sign of the cross? Let's put aside the usual controversy about what was the exact form of the apparatus upon which Jesus was put to death. From ancient times the cross has been a powerful symbol and we have documentation from several historians going back to the second and third centuries that Christians were marking the sign of an actual cross on their foreheads. Tertulian wrote about it around A.D. 200 , Saint Cyril of Jerusalem wrote about it around A.D. 380, St. Jerome, who died in A.D. 420 wrote that the cross was sometimes made on the lips, and a Christian poet named Prudentius who died in A.D. 405 wrote that the sign was made on the chest. Some people might claim that Emperor Constantine first established the cross as a Christian religious symbol but he was a Johnny come lately. He wanted to consolidate his empire under a sign and he supposedly chose the cross because he said at the Battle of Milvain in A.D. 312, about noon, he saw a cross in the sky with the words “Conquer under this sign”. The only trouble with that story is that he didn’t tell anybody about this at the time or start using the cross himself until about thirteen years later. History tells us that the sign of the cross was well established long before Constantine. What Constantine did do, however, was to end Christian persecutions by formally adopting the sign.

During the fifth and sixth centuries there were various factions of Christianity emerging and one group started making the full head and torso sign of the cross to differentiate from those who made the small sign of the cross on the forehead, lips, and chest only. Thus, after things finally got sorted out we use both forms today. In Spanish they are called by two different names. "Persignarse" is to cross oneself with small crosses on the forehead, lips, and chest and "Santiguarse" is to make a full head and torso sign of the cross. Santiguarse means to bless yourself. Persignarse means to sign yourself. It is done by taking your right hand with thumb and forefinger crossed and the other three fingers held straight out and with the tip of the thumb touching the forehead making the four points of the cross there, and then on the mouth and then on the on the chest. While making the sign on the forehead you say:

Por la señal de la Santa Cruz
By the sign of the Holy Cross

Then, while making the the sign on the lips you say:

de nuestros enemigos
From our enemies

And while making the the sign over your heart you say:

libranos Señor Dios Nuestro.
deliver us Oh Lord God.

Then at this point the full head and torso sign of the cross (santiaguarse) is made saying:

En el nombre del Padre
In the name of the father

y del Hijo
and the Son

y del Espíritu Santo. Amen.
and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

This ritual is performed whenever one enters a church to pray or prays before going to bed at night, etcetera. There are some variations on this when people bless each other or bless medicine before they take it. My wife Gina and I bless each other whenever we part by making the sign of the cross in turn over each other's face and then kissing the hand of the person who blessed us just as the sign of the cross is finished. No doubt other families and regions have different customs.

When passing a church or a roadside shrine people usually Santiguarse or "bless themselves". This is normally done by making the full head and torso sign of the cross only. In both cases, however, after saying the final "Amen" the right hand continues to be held with the thumb and forefinger in the shape of a cross and the other three fingers outstretched and is brought up to the lips to be kissed on the the thumb at the place where it crosses the forefinger. Unfortunately the santiaguarse when passing a church is usually done unobtrusively and on the move and if you didn't watch closely it might look like someone shooing away some flies and then kissing their thumb.

Cuando entro la iglesia para asistir a la misa o para rezar me persigno (pronounced pehr-SEE-noh). When I enter the church to attend mass or pray I cross myself (using both types of the sign of the cross).

Cuando paso una iglesia o alguien que conozco fallece o veo un accidente me santiguo. (pronounced sahn-TEE-gwoh) When I pass a church or someone that I know dies or I see an accident I cross myself (with a full head and torso sign of the cross only).


Leslie Harris (de Limon) said...

Muchas gracias, Señor Bob, por esta explicacion tan a fondo. Ahora se que contestarle a mi hijo cuando me pregunta que por que sus abuelitos se persignan.

I've seen people bless their medicine and I've noticed that most businesses bless the first money they receive each day.

Como siempre, es un gusto leer su blog!

Anonymous said...

Senor Bob,
Thank you for an erudite discourse on a a couple of common actions we Catholics do... I learned something today that I somehow overlooked during 5 years in the seminary. WOW! An absolutely fantastic, and clear explanation. I had never actually thought about the origin of the Sign - I just did it (in both variations) Once again, thanks!
Dan in NC

Calypso said...

Bob - As usual well thought out and explained.

"Why do we trace a cross instead of an "X" (or a "T") when making the sign of the cross?"

The entire crossing of one's self leaves me wondering in-spite of your in-depth explanation.

At least you Catholics don't dot your eyes.

Chrissy y Keith said...

Check this out. Laminin.

Bob Mrotek said...

I´m glad that you liked it. Thanks for the positive vibes.

Dan in NC
There is a lot more to it than that. I did the best I could without writing a book. Perhaps I will do a follow up. Thanks for the shout.

If it would help to save your soul from the fires of eternal damnation I would even dot my eyes. They say it hurts like Hell :)

Chrissy and Keith,
Thank you very much. When I saw the diagram of the Laminin molecule I was impressed but when I saw that the electron microscope picture looked similar to the ancient Hebrew letter Tav there were cold shivers running down my spine. That mark is supposed to be what is referred to in the Old Testament whenever the scriptures refer to the "mark" of God. If that doesn't make one a believer nothing will!

Chrissy y Keith said...

Amen brother Bob. I also want to send you the link for the black hole in the Milkyway(I think) Galaxy. In its center is the same mark.

Chrissy y Keith said...

Correction- Wirlpool Galaxy.

Anonymous said...

Thank you Bob. My mom who was raised in Mexico was telling me about this. My boss is Satan incarnate and I need protection. However, my Spanish is not the best and I was hoping to find the English translation. Thank you!

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I was born and raised in Chicago, Illinois, U.S.A. I have been living in Mexico since January 6th, 1999. I am continually studying to improve my knowledge of the Spanish language and Mexican history and culture. I am also a student of Mandarin Chinese.