Two-Fingered Blessing

Over on the New Liturgical Movement weblog, we have recently been treated to a pictorial discussion of the priestly blessing given with the first two fingers extended. While the subject matter of the post is indeed limited to the use of this form of blessing in the Latin Rite, I feel that the reference to it as "the Latin Gesture of Benediction" is something of a misnomer, as it implies that this gesture is peculiar to the Latin Rite, which is highly inaccurate.

This gesture is readily found in the Byzantine Rite, and indeed was the form of blessing in the Russian Church before the 17th century reforms of Patriarch Nikon, when, among other changes, the Greek ICXC Christogram was imported into Russian practice. To this day, those priests and bishops within the Russian Orthodox Church who are blessed to serve the Old Rite still impart the blessing in this manner, as do those of the Old Believers still not yet restored to communion with the Church since the schism and persecutions.

Writing from the Church of Antioch in the 5th century, St Theodoret of Cyrus has this to say:

This is how to bless someone with your hand and make the sign of the Cross over them. Hold three fingers, (that is, the thumb, ring finger, and little finger), as equals, together, to represent the Trinity: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost. These are not three gods, but one God in Trinity. The names are separate, but the divinity one. The Father was never incarnate; the Son incarnate, but not created; the Holy Ghost neither incarnate nor created, but issued from the Godhead: three in a single divinity. Divinity is one force and has one honour. They receive on obeisance from all creation, both angels and people. Thus the decree for these three fingers.

You should hold the other two fingers slightly bent, not completely straight. This is because these represent the dual nature of Christ, divine and human. God in His divinity, and human in His incarnation, yet perfect in both. The upper finger represents divinity, and the lower humanity; this way salvation goes from the higher finger to the lower. So is the bending of the fingers interpreted, for the worship of Heaven comes down for our salvation. This is how you must cross yourselves and give a blessing, as the holy fathers have commanded.

While I have not been able to find the texts of these, OrthodoxWiki tells us of the homilies of Ss Meletius of Antioch and Peter of Damascus, also writing from within the Patriarchate of Antioch, in which they also affirm the two-fingered making of the Cross as proper. So it seems that this was an early tradition in the Antiochene rites.

Below is a video of part of the consecration of a bishop at the Old Rite Church of the Nativity. It shows a portion of the election and presentation of Hegumen John immediately prior to his consecration as Bishop of Caracas. At 0.26, you can see Bishop Peter of Cleveland blessing in the traditional two-fingered manner.

Not only is this found in practice and in writing, but also the iconographic tradition shows that the ICXC Christogram used in New Rite churches is in fact a late variant practice. Here, for instance, is the famous Pantokrator icon of the Saviour at Holy Transfiguration Monastery, Sinai:

Here also is the equally-famous Pantokrator from Agia Sofia in Constantinople:

Here is the dome icon of the Christ Pantokrator in the Church of the Nativity, (the location of the consecration in the above video):

Below are a number of icons, dating from the 16th century and earlier, all showing this form of blessing as normative in the Byzantine Rite churches up until at least that point.

The Hodigitria icon of the Mother of God:

St Thomas the Apostle:

St Theodore the Studite:

St Nicholas the Wonderworker of Myra:

St Elias the Prophet:

So strong is this form of blessing in the Byzantine Rite consciousness that many newer icons depict Christ and his Saints giving the two-finger blessing, even when the icons are of modern-day Saints who used the New Rite during their earthly lives.

St Nicholas of Japan:

St Raphael of Brooklyn:

St John of Shanghai and San Francisco:

There is even one of St Seraphim of Sarov, who was himself a staunch New Ritualist and firmly opposed to the older tradition*:

All things considered, I think that it's fairly safe to say that any presentation of this manner of blessing as "the Latin gesture of benediction" is a very difficult one to support indeed.

*This is no slight on the great Saint, whom I love dearly. He lived at a time when many people still believed the reasons given for the Nikonian revisions: that the Russian Old Rite was different from the Greek tradition of the time because of illegitimate developments in Russian custom. Due to more recent scholarship and the discovery of manuscripts, it is now widely accepted that the Old Rite in many ways represents an earlier, authentic tradition which fell into disuse elsewhere. Among other things, this has led to the lifting of the anathemas against those who use the Old Rite and an asking of forgivness of the Old Ritualists for the wrongs done to them.

6 responses:

BillyD said...

Fascinating. How large a percentage of Russian Orthodox use the Old Rite? Are there efforts to reconcile separated Old Believer groups with the Church? Besides the difference in blessing, what other differences exist between the Rites?

Ian Climacus said...

Fascinating indeed. Thank you for the information, the quote from St Theodoret of Cyrus [which explains in more detail what I was taught] and the beautiful icons too.

Michael said...

Hello, BillyD and Ian. :-)

Yes, I find it quite fascinating too.

At first, I found it a little unsettling that St Seraphim is depicted blessing in a manner that he firmly rejected during his earthly life but then I realised that, actually, he will likely not mind in the slightest now. :-)

Only a tiny percentage of the Old Ritualists have returned, BillyD. There is a lot of mistrust after the persecutions, which were especially fierce under Tsar Peter the Great, leading to many of them fleeing Russia.

To my knowledge, only one parish has returned in ROCOR. We even consecrated Bishop Daniel for the Old Rite, in the hope that more may return but that hasn't happened yet. I think that the consecration of Bishop John according to Old Rite practices was the Synod's way of affirming the full inclusion of the Old Rite within the life of the Church. As for the situation in Russia, I'm less familiar with that although I do know that a number have returned, but again, only few.

I do actually own a copy of the Old Rite prayer book. Some of the more notable differences are in the texts of the litanies, in the Alleuia, alleluia, glory to Thee, O God (Alleluia said only twice), and the much more restrained provision for abbreviations. Here is one curious Old Rite Liturgy which seems to have completely disappeared in modern practice.

I actually blogged a little bit about the Old Rite last year so I've added a label to those posts and this one so you can easily find them.

Jon Marc said...

Prior to the Bolshevik Revolution as much as a quarter of all Russians may have belonged to the Old Ritualist synods and accords, but the Soviet era was hard on them and their numbers in the former Russian Empire are a fraction of what they were.

Jon Marc said...

I forgot to ask - was St. Seraphim really opposed to the Old Rite? I remember reading in his lives that he reconciled many Old Believers to the mainstream Russian Orthodox Church, but I also remember being told very proudly by the Old Ritualists in Erie that he had used the lestovkha to count his prayers and not the Greek-style chotki...

Michael said...

I hadn't realised the Old Ritualists had had such a difficult time under Soviet rule but I suppose it makes sense now I think about it. I have a great deal of respect for them and truly believe that they have much to teach the rest of us, especially when it comes to the attitude of coming before God in worship.

As for St Seraphim, you made me think for a moment so I went back to his biography by Archimandrite Lazarus (Moore), and it seems that I did indeed overstate my case. I would say that you are most probably right in what you say about his use of the lestovkha. From what's in the book, the examples of his criticisms seem restricted to the form of the Cross and don't seem to extend to the Old Rite generally. He was quite adamant, though, that the two finger Cross is against Tradition.

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