Some twenty years ago there was added to, the English ritual on the explanation of the Sign of the Good Shepherd the sentence “This sign represents a shepherd holding a lamb.” As we know that no record is kept in England as to why changes are made, we only know that this interpolation brought a great change not only to the esoteric meaning of the Sign but even to the way in which it was displayed - a rather loose and somewhat cradling mode rather than the firm St. Andrew's cross which led naturally to the two St. Andrew's crosses which follow.

But it was in significance that the Sign suffered greatest change. It concentrated our minds on the Lamb and what it means in our religion - the sacrifice that the young Isaac asked about when Abraham took his knife (gen. 22.7) the lamb that is brought to the slaughter in our lesson from Isaiah (53.7), a phrase repeated in Jeremiah (11.19) and other Old Testament verses where the lamb is the offering in numerous sacrifices.

But the sign more importantly reminds us of the tender care and loving- kindness of the beneficent Shepherd of the Twenty-third Psalm; who gathers the lambs with his arm (Isaiah 40.11); the Good Shepherd of the parable (John 10 11 - 18); but above all the Lamb of God, of our much prized First Chapter of John's Gospel which has become the climax of the Latin mass – “Agnus Dei qui tollis peccata mundi”  “O Lamb of God who takest away the sins of the world" at that mystical moment in the Eucharist when the Agnus bell is rung, that hushed moment sacred to everyone whatever his beliefs about impanation and transubstantiation, doctrines about which debate and conflict have divided religions for almost two thousand years.

But in spite of this beautiful background for our sign, there is a disappointing side because now we had to share a meaning which previously had stood alone - the significance which the sign had previously held. This sign of crossing the arms over the breast is an age-old sign of reverential submission to a supreme authority. There are Egyptian wall paintings with priests reverentially exhibiting this sign before the Pharaoh. In the museum at Heraklion in Crete there are clay figurines excavated at Piskokephalo with this sign in centuries long pre-dating the Minoan and Mycenaean cultures. It is certainly not the sign of the reluctant vanquished to their conqueror" but rather that of a willing votary.

In our religion it is often seen. On the bottom panel of the door to St. Peters in Rome Saint Peter himself stands at this sign except that the right arm is uppermost. Inside to the left of the baldachino over his tomb there is a painting by Arnoldo Thorvalsen showing Pope Pius VII with this sign. In the Pantheon with its mighty dome, built by the Emperor Trajan like a globe to symbolize his mastery over the whole world and the only classical building not despoiled by the early Christians but kept by them as a church, immediately to the right of the entrance this sign is to be seen in a painting.





Among the thousands of icons in mediaeval cathedrals and abbeys, venerating saints and saintly virtues, naturally there developed certain conventions as to the significance of colours of drapes or postures of limbs. In a dictionary of Iconology published at Padua in 1618 the right hand placed on the left breast indicates religious thinking while the left hand folded across the heart indicates piety. Both hands crossed on the breast, left uppermost, signify a humble submission as exemplified in the lives of St. Bernard or of Baldwin, first king of Jerusalem and a name well-known in Rose-Croix lore.

It was a sign much used by the church Militant and Crusaders. On the island of Rhodos in the old town in that severe street called Iroton, where inns of the various ‘tongues’ of crusading knights are preserved there is the Palace of the Knights and Grand Master - a magnificent building with its stone walls, its wooden ceiling and its marble floor in mosaic, not to mention views from the high windows and the tall chairs and stalls prominently carved with five-petal roses. In its museum marble plaques show Knights at our sign, though right arm uppermost; this contrasting with lids on tombs where arms are crossed in the arms reversed manner.

It is easy to tolerate less relevant displays of the sign - in a painting over the head of Shakespeare's bed in Anne Hathaway's cottage; and more recently by a VFL footballer in a moment of triumph and not even forgetting a current TV ad of a woman in joy at her purchase.

Even in such prosaic usage there is an element of devotion. In making this sign there is a natural inclination to bend the head in dedication. To suppress this the Supreme Council a year or two before it added the Lamb sentence added an instruction that when' giving this sign, one must never bow but subsequently modified this to the phrase 'without bowing'. This in itself was a volte- face because nearer the beginning of this century princes were instructed to bow when giving this sign at the closing prayer.

So' from our Sign of the Good Shepherd or Pastor we now have two rich streams of heritage. It is of course true that the Lamb of God background is closer to our degree and more in keeping with its name. But the word Pastorwhich 1iterally means a herdsman or shepherd then smacks of redundancy. After all Pastor has many other meanings and discarding such exotic ones as a species of sparrow or a small tropical fish which swims between the tentacles of a Portuguese man-o-war, we should not forget that it is the appropriate word for a priest with care for a congregation ranging from the lowliest curate to the highest bishop. Certainly there is something to be said for remembering the original sign, which keeps us in touch with the culture of worship from Stone Age man to the present day.




Back to Main Page