Arthur Middleton on the sphragis as ownership and protection

As Christians we are a marked people that too often are inclined to ignore the fact. The ceremonies of Baptism include a rite, what in the early church was called the rite of sphragis, that is to say, the imposition of the sign of the Cross on the forehead of the candidate for Baptism. This rite is a very ancient tradition; St Basil saw it as being among the unwritten traditions that go back to the Apostles: “Who taught us to mark with the sign of the Cross those who put their hope in the Lord.” Though the position of the rite has varied, more commonly, it seems to have been given after Baptism, and this is what we fin in Cyril of Jerusalem and Ambrose. For them it is associated with the anointing with chrism.


The Sphragis

Baptism is the participation in the Logos, the destruction of sin, the vehicle to carry us to God, the key of the kingdom of heaven, the robe of incorruptibility, the bath of rebirth, the seal (sphragis). The word sphragis in ancient times designated the object with which ownership’s mark was stamped on sheep or cattle. Clement of Alexandria recommends that Christians should have for seal (sphragides) a dove or a fish or a ship with sails unfurled, but not mythological figures or swords. These seals were used especially to seal official documents and wills. So St Paul uses the symbol when he tells the Corinthians that they “are the seal of his apostolate in the Lord” (1 Corinthians 9:2), that is to say, that they are the authentic sign of it. But more particularly – and here we come to the baptismal symbolism – the word sphragis was used for the mark with which an owner marked his possessions. Used in this sense the word sphragis had various applications which are of particular interest to us here: the sphragis was the mark with which the shepherds branded the beasts of their flock in order to show ownership. It was the custom in the Roman army to mark recruits as a sign of their enlistment and this mark was called the signaculum and consisted of a tattooing made on the forearm.


The Bible and Liturgy

The Fathers of the Church gave a different emphasis to the baptism sphragis. The sign of the cross with which the candidate for baptism is marked on their forehead shows that henceforth they belong to Christ. And this can signify that they belong either to the flock of Christ or the army of Christ. These different interpretations are connected with the different themes of baptism. The theme of the flock is in harmony with the idea od supreme importance in Baptism, of the Good Shepherd who knows his sheep and defends them from wicked shepherds. By receiving the sphragis. The catechumen is seen to be incorporated into the flock of the Shepherd. The sphragis is a guarantee of the protection of the Shepherd, at the same time as it is the mark of His ownership. The sphragis imprints in the soul the image, the likeness of God, according to which man was created from the beginning.