Making the sign of the cross

08.09.15 | Faith | by Troy Beecham

Making the sign of the cross

    Why we make the sign of the cross.

    Why do we...?

    A continuing series

    Make the Sign of the Cross 

    You may have seen this rubric in our service booklets:

    "X Indicates when it is customary to make the sign of the cross."

    Early Christians adopted the Cross as a symbol of Christ’s victory over sin and death. Making the sign of the cross upon oneself is a common practice amongst Christians around the world, from our earliest origins to today, and is a symbolic gesture invested with deep theological significance. The sign is generally made by the tracing of an upright cross upon the body with the right hand, often accompanied by spoken or silent recitation of “In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.”


    Making the sign of the cross was originally made by Christians with the right-hand thumb across the forehead only. In the late second century, Tertullian wrote, "In all our travels and movements, in all our coming in and going out, in putting on our shoes, at the bath, at the table, in lighting our candles, in lying down, in sitting down, whatever employment occupies us, we mark our foreheads with the sign of the cross." In the fourth century, John Chrysostom encouraged Christians to "never leave home without making the sign of the cross." By the 4th century, the sign of the cross expanded to include the whole body: beginning with the forehead, symbolizing the Father in heaven; then to the stomach or chest, symbolizing the incarnate Son who came to the earth; then to each shoulder, symbolizing the Spirit who fills all creation, East to West; and ending with the heart, where we ask Christ to dwell. Early on, the shoulders were marked right to left, as remains the practice of the Eastern Orthodox and Eastern Catholic Churches, and later left to right, as is the common practice of the Roman Catholic, Oriental Orthodox, Anglican, and some Lutheran Churches.


    Whereas the small sign is made using the thumb of the right hand, the full sign of the cross uses the tips of the first three fingers (the thumb, index, and middle ones) brought together, and the last two (the “ring” and little fingers) are pressed against the palm. The first three fingers express our faith in the Trinity, while the remaining two fingers represent the two natures of Jesus, divine and human.


    The Sign of the Cross is itself a prayer, a blessing, and a sacramental. The sign of the cross may be made by individuals upon themselves as a form of prayer, and by clergy upon others or objects as an act of blessing. As a sacramental, it prepares us to receive grace and disposes us to cooperate with it. The Christian begins their day, their prayers, and their activities with the Sign of the Cross. In this way a person dedicates the day to God and calls on him for grace and for strength in temptations and difficulties. In the liturgy, the sign of the cross is made by all at the introductory greeting, before the Gospel reading (small Signs on forehead, lips, and heart, "May Christ's words be on my mind, on my lips, and in my heart"), when we receive absolution from our sins, and at the final blessing by the bishop or priest. Other times during the Mass we cross ourselves during a blessing with holy water, when concluding the penitential rite, immediately after receiving Communion, and when concluding private prayer after Communion. The sign of the cross is also made during Morning and Evening Prayer, or any other occasion, at the recitation of the Magnificat, the Benedictus, and the Nunc Dimittis. In the liturgy, the bishop or priest also makes the sign of the cross over the deacon before they proclaim the Gospel, over the bread and the wine during the prayer of consecration, when consecrating Holy Water or Holy Oil, when sending out Eucharistic Ministers, and when blessing God’s people. In Anglican Churches, the full sign of the cross is also commonly made during the liturgy at the conclusion of the Gloria to honor the Trinity, at the promise of the resurrection at the conclusion of the Creeds, at the conclusion of the Sanctus (“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord”), and when asking the blessings of God on those who have died in the Burial Office or other commemoration of the faithful departed.


    In the Western Churches, including the Anglican Churches, it is also customary to make the full Sign of the Cross using holy water when entering and leaving a church. The first three fingers of the right hand are dipped into the font containing the holy water and the Sign of the Cross is made on oneself to remind us that we are the Body of Christ through the waters of Baptism. This gesture also serves another two-fold purpose: to remind us that we are entering a sacred space to worship the Lord, who’s children we are through our Baptism; and to remember that we are going out into the world as disciples and as the Body of Christ, called and empowered by the Holy Spirit to proclaim the Gospel to all people, baptizing them and making disciples of all people.


    Who knew there was so much invested in such a simple gesture!