A history of right and left in the church

By Patricia Kasten | October 16, 2014

This Sunday’s first reading has the Lord grasping the right hand of “his anointed,” the pagan king, Cyrus the Great of Persia. Cyrus freed the Jews from Babylonian captivity and allowed them to rebuild Jerusalem and the Temple. In the Gospel, Jesus speaks of another foreign ruler, Caesar.

But did you notice “the right hand” reference with Cyrus? What’s that about?
It’s about power — Psalm 98 begins by speaking about God’s right hand: “His right hand and holy arm have won the victory.” And Jesus was exalted to God’s right hand (Acts 2:33).

So Cyrus’ right hand is receiving power from God’s own hand.

What does that mean for left-handers?

Left hands and right hands have a bit of history in the church. One old tradition says the devil is left-handed. Maybe that came about because of the Latin word for left: sinister, which didn’t start out meaning anything bad, but which quickly took on unfortunate meanings when associated with omens: In ancient Rome, for example, bad omens — often on the wings of birds — came from the left. So “sinister” worked its way into several languages, including English, as meaning “evil.”

Then there’s the parable about sheep and goats in Matthew’s Gospel: “He will place the sheep on his right and the goats on his left” (25:33). (The goats don’t get the rewards, by the way.)

In St. Francis Xavier Cathedral in Green Bay, there’s a 40-foot tall crucifixion scene painted by Johann Schmitt. It shows the blessed on Christ’s right (including his mother) and the damned on his left (including the bad thief and those who gambled for his clothing). A chasm separates them.

I always wondered why, in most churches, Mary’s statue is on the left — nearest the right side of the crucifix. Now I realize that she’s at Christ’s right hand. (Joseph’s statue is often on the other side, but since tradition says he died before Christ, I don’t think this means Joseph is on Jesus’ “left hand.” After all, someone has to be on the left side of the cross in church.)

Look around at the placement of objects in church today — are they on the left side or the right? The ambo — from which the Gospel is proclaimed — is to the right of the altar (from the celebrant’s position). Where is the baptismal font? Where are the confessionals (reconciliation room)? Is holy water easier to reach with the left or the right? We make the sign of the cross with our right hands, just as we shake right hands at the sign of peace. (The story goes that, in olden days, shaking with the right hand showed that you had no weapons.)

Now, of course, most right-handed placements happen because 90 percent of the population is right-handed, not because anyone thinks left-handers are evil. But, once in a while, the placement of objects might offer a message about good and evil, goats and sheep, good kings and bad ones.

Kasten is an associate editor of The Compass and the author of two books: “Linking Your Beads: The Rosary’s History, Mysteries and Prayers” and “Making Sense of Saints.”

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