Old Wives' Tales
Radio & TV
Toxin du jour
Claim: The practice of raising a finger when leaving the Sanctuary originated with slaves signifying they'd received permission from their masters to absent themselves.
Example: [Collected on the Internet, 2004]
Origins: This dubious account first came to us in
Although the e-mailed account names the area being exited as the 'sanctuary,' it is better identified as the nave. A strict definition of 'sanctuary' as it relates to church buildings describes it as the region around the altar used by the clergy and choir (often enclosed by a lattice or railing or in some other fashion set off from the congregation). However, a great number of folks have come to understand the term as meaning the whole of a church's open area, both the chancel (where the service is conducted from) and the nave (where the parishioners sit).
There are problems with this supposed origin. First, if a master had brought some of his slaves to a public event and seated them in that building's balcony, he wouldn't have been keeping an eye on them throughout whatever it was he'd come to see. Given that his attention would have been directed towards the figures enacting whatever public affairs drama was underway (e.g., political speech, criminal trial), he wouldn't have seen upraised hands among his servants, ensconced as they were on a higher level and probably to the back of him. Also, it would have bordered on unthinkable for slaves to risk disrupting public functions with their comings and goings, yet the premise of this origin has it that this practice was so commonplace as to have inspired a widely understood ritual of their raising their hands to seek permission to leave, getting it by way of a nod from their masters, then holding up a finger to signify to others that permission for the act underway had been duly sought and granted.
Holding up a finger as a way of broadcasting certain intelligences is one of the many non-verbal ways we communicate specific messages to others. The gesture described (index finger pointing upwards, other fingers curled into a loose fist, the palm facing those being signaled, and the hand presented at approximately face height) conveys three starkly dissimilar interruption-related messages, with context dictating which meaning carries the day. In all three, the raised digit might well represent a '1,' signaling announcement by the finger-raiser that his request, demand, or absence will not be of lengthy duration (i.e., "This will just take one minute, so bear with me"):
To us, the backstory about slaves announcing their absences having been duly sanctioned sounds contrived to make a religious point by way of a pun. Just as the "Who will take the son?" legend draws on word play to make its point (the person who takes the portrait of the deceased son gets the bulk of a wealthy man's estate, the person who accepts Christ as his savior inherits the kingdom of God — on both levels they "take the son"), so does this story turn on "My Master has excused me." What supposedly started as slaves' way of saying their owners had granted them leave to go relieve themselves now signifies churchgoers have been forgiven by God; that is, washed clean of their sins by virtue of the services just attended.
Our readers speculate those lifted fingers serve:
Barbara "secret squirreled" Mikkelson
Last updated: 9 December 2004
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