The Sign of the Cross (Latin: Signum Crucis) is a ritual hand motion made by members of many branches of Christianity. It may be accompanied by the trinitarian formula. For Christians, the motion symbolizes the Cross on Calvary by tracing the shape of the cross in the air or on one's own body. There are two principal forms, one form used in the Latin-Rite Catholic Church and used in Anglicanism, Lutheranism, Methodism, and Oriental Orthodoxy; the other form is used in the Eastern Rites of the Catholic Church and in the Eastern Orthodox churches. The sign is never or rarely used by evangelical or more modern groups of Protestants.
- The hand
The open right hand is used in Western Christianity. The five open fingers represent the Five Wounds of Christ. Though this is the most common method of crossing by Western Christians, other forms are sometimes used. The West also employs the "Small Sign of the Cross" in which a small cross is traced with the thumb over the forehead, lips, and breast of the individual while whispering the words "May Christ's words be in my mind, on my lips, and in my heart". This is used at the Proclamation of the Gospel at Holy Mass and also is commonly used when blessing oneself with holy water when leaving or entering a church. In the Eastern Catholic and Orthodox Churches, the thumb, index, and middle finger are brought to a point, symbolizing the Trinity (the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit/Ghost, three persons sharing a single essence), the remaining two fingers (kept pressed together and touching the palm) representing the human and divine natures of Jesus Christ. However, the Russian Orthodox in the past used two fingers brought to a point with the three remaining fingers pressed down. Russian Old Believers still use this form. The Oriental Orthodox (Armenians, Copts, Ethiopians etc.) generally use the "Western" direction as well, though often with the Byzantine finger formation.
In Russia, until the reforms of Patriarch Nikon in the 17th century, it was customary to make the sign of the cross with two fingers (symbolising the dual nature of Christ). The enforcement of the three-finger sign was one of the reasons for the schism with the Old Believers whose congregations continue to use the two-finger sign of the cross.
- The motion
The sign of the Cross is made by touching the hand sequentially to the forehead, lower chest or navel area, and both shoulders, accompanied by the Trinitarian formula: at the forehead In the name of the Father (or In nomine Patris in Latin); at the stomach or heart and of the Son (et Filii); across the shoulders and of the Holy Spirit/Ghost (et Spiritus Sancti); and finally: Amen.
There are several interpretations, according to Church Fathers: the forehead symbolizes Heaven; the stomach, the earth; the shoulders, the place and sign of power. Also, the hand to the forehead may be seen as a prayer to the Father for wisdom; the hand to the stomach as a prayer to the Son who became incarnate; and the hand to the shoulders as a prayer to the Holy Spirit.
There are some variations: for example a person may first place the right hand in holy water. After moving the hand from one shoulder to the other, it may be returned to the stomach. It may also be accompanied by the recitation of a prayer e.g. the Jesus Prayer, or simply "Lord have mercy". In some cultures it is customary to kiss one's hand or fingers at the conclusion of the gesture.
Theodoret (393–457) gave the following instruction:
This is how to bless someone with your hand and make the sign of the cross over them. Hold three fingers, as equals, together, to represent the Trinity: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost. These are not three gods, but one God in Trinity. The names are separate, but the divinity one. The Father was never incarnate; the Son incarnate, but not created; the Holy Ghost neither incarnate nor created, but issued from the Godhead: three in a single divinity. Divinity is one force and has one honor. They receive on obeisance from all creation, both angels and people. Thus the decree for these three fingers.
You should hold the other two fingers slightly bent, not completely straight. This is because these represent the dual nature of Christ, divine and human. God in His divinity, and human in His incarnation, yet perfect in both. The upper finger represents divinity, and the lower humanity; this way salvation goes from the higher finger to the lower. So is the bending of the fingers interpreted, for the worship of Heaven comes down for our salvation. This is how you must cross yourselves and give a blessing, as the holy fathers have commanded.
Pope Innocent III (1198–1216) gave the following instruction:
The sign of the cross is made with three fingers, because the signing is done together with the invocation of the Trinity. ... This is how it is done: from above to below, and from the right to the left, because Christ descended from the heavens to the earth, and from the Jews (right) He passed to the Gentiles (left).
Others, however, make the sign of the cross from the left to the right, because from misery (left) we must cross over to glory (right), just as Christ crossed over from death to life, and from Hades to Paradise. [Some priests] do it this way so that they and the people will be signing themselves in the same way. You can easily verify this — picture the priest facing the people for the blessing — when we make the sign of the cross over the people, it is from left to right...
Writers such as Herbert Thurston, author of the article Sign of the Cross in the Catholic Encyclopedia interpret this as indicating that at that time both Eastern and Western Christians moved the hand from the right shoulder to the left. However, Thurston confesses that the point is not entirely clear. He quotes another liturgist who inclined to the opinion that in this passage of Innocent III, and in those of Belethus, Sicardus and Durandus, which are usually appealed to in proof of this, these authors had in mind the small cross made upon the forehead or external objects, in which the hand moves naturally from right to left, and not the big cross made from shoulder to shoulder.
Today, Western Christians and the Oriental Orthodox touch the left shoulder before the right. Orthodox Christians use the right-to-left movement. A Greek catechetical textbook attempted to explain the difference between the Latin and the Greek customs by saying that the right side is associated with holiness, and the heart (on the left) with the spirit, so that those who, in mentioning the Holy Spirit, used the Latin phrase "Spiritus Sancti" (noun before adjective) touched left before right, while those who said, in Greek, "τοῦ Ἁγίου Πνεύματος" (adjective before noun) did the opposite.
Use of the sign
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. Priests are allowed to bless using the right hand, while bishops may bless simultaneously with both, the left mirroring the right. While individuals may make it at any time, clergy must make it at specific times (as in liturgies), and it is customary to make it on other occasions (see below).
During rituals such as the Roman Catholic Mass, the Sign is required at certain points: the laity sign themselves during the introductory greeting of the service, before the Gospel reading (small Signs on forehead, lips, and heart), and at the final blessing; optionally, other times during the Mass when the laity often cross themselves are during a sprinkling with holy water, when concluding the penitential rite, immediately after receiving Communion, and when concluding private prayer after Communion. The celebrant makes the Sign over the bread and wine before the Words of Institution (i.e., words of Christ). In the Tridentine Mass the priest signs the bread and wine 25 times during the Canon of the Mass, ten times before and fifteen times after they have been consecrated. In the Mass of Paul VI the priest signs them only once: before the consecration. The priest also uses the Sign of the Cross when blessing a deacon before the deacon reads the Gospel, and when blessing the congregation at the conclusion of the Mass.
Roman Catholic bishops make the Sign of the Cross three times when they are blessing a large group of people, in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
In the Eastern traditions, both celebrant and congregation make the Sign of the Cross much more frequently than in Western Christianity. It is customary in some Eastern traditions to cross oneself at each petition in a litany, and to closely associate oneself with a particular intention being prayed for or with a saint being named. The Sign of the Cross is also made upon entering or leaving a church building, at the start and end of personal prayer, when passing the main altar (which represents Christ), whenever all three persons of the Trinity are addressed, and when approaching an icon.
When an Eastern Orthodox or Eastern Catholic bishop or priest blesses with the sign of the cross, he holds the fingers of his right hand in such a way that they form the Greek abbreviation for Jesus Christ "IC XC". The little finger is extended to make the "I"; the index finger and middle finger are also raised, with the middle finger bent slightly so that the two fingers together form the "X"; the thumb touches the lowered third finger to signify the two "C"s. When a priest blesses in the sign of the cross, he positions the fingers of his right hand in the manner described as he raises his right hand, then moves his hand downwards, then to his left, then to his right. A bishop blesses with both hands (unless he is holding some sacred object such as a blessing cross, chalice, Gospel Book, icon, etc.), holding the fingers of both hands in the same configuration, but when he moves his right hand to the left, he simultaneously moves his left hand to the right, so that the two hands cross, the left in front of the right, and then the right in front of the left. The blessing of both priests and bishops consists of three movements, in honour of the Holy Trinity.
Some Christians make the Sign of the Cross in a way that may seem idiomatic: for example, in response to perceived blasphemy. Others sign themselves to seek God's blessing before or during an event with uncertain outcome. In Latin countries people often sign themselves in public. Athletes can be seen crossing themselves before entering the field or while concentrating for competition.
In societies with constant Christian observance the Sign of the Cross is employed during everyday activities. For example, the spoon crosses the newly poured mixture before stirring, housewives bless food when placing it in the oven, potters bless the clay before creating a vessel, and one slicing bread crosses the bread with the knife before cutting, as bread is considered to represent the body of Christ.
During persecutions, such as in Communist Romania, some believers would hide the gesture by moving their tongues in a cross pattern inside their mouths.
Footballers also make the sign of the cross before a match as part of a pre-match ritual. Also baseball players will make the sign of the cross before proceeding to step onto into the batters box.
Origins of the sign of the cross
The Christian sign of the cross was originally made with the right-hand thumb across the forehead only.
Vestiges of this practice remain: some Christians sign a cross on their forehead before hearing the Gospels during Mass; foreheads are marked with an ash cross on Ash Wednesday; holy oil (called chrism) is applied on the forehead for the sacrament of Confirmation. Around the year 200 in Carthage (modern Tunisia, Africa), Tertullian says: "We Christians wear out our foreheads with the sign of the cross". By the fourth century, the sign of the cross involved other parts of the body beyond the forehead.
Although the Sign of the Cross dates to early Christianity, it was rejected by some of the Reformers, and is absent from some forms of Protestantism. Since the Reformation it has generally been rejected by Protestants and some Low-Church Anglicans as being a Catholic practice, despite Martin Luther's positive personal view, the prescribed use of the sign in Book of Common Prayer and the defence of the sign of the Cross in Anglican Canon Law in 1604.
Among Lutherans the practice was widely retained. For example, Luther's Small Catechism states that it is expected before the morning and evening prayers. Lutheranism never abandoned the practice of making the sign of the cross in principle, and it was commonly retained in worship at least until the early 19th Century. During the 19th and early 20th Centuries it was largely in disuse until the liturgical renewal movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Since then, the sign of the cross has become fairly commonplace among Lutherans at worship. The sign of the cross is now customary in the Divine Service. Rubrics in Contemporary Lutheran worship manuals, including Evangelical Lutheran Worship, Lutheran Service Book, Lutheran Book of Worship and Lutheran Worship provide for making the sign of the cross at certain points in the liturgy, such as at the trinitarian formula "In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit". Devotional use of the sign of the cross among Lutherans may also include after the reception of the Eucharist, and at the time of Holy Absolution.
The Methodist churches are essentially a product of the Protestant Reformation. Currently the sign of the cross is less common in a Methodist service as opposed to a Catholic Mass, but on Ash Wednesday it is almost always applied by the elder on the laity. However, it is a personal choice whether or not a Methodist uses the sign for personal prayer, and is encouraged by the bishops of the United Methodist Church. Some United Methodist churches also perform the sign before and after receiving Holy Communion. Some ministers also perform the sign after blessing the congregation at the end of the sermon.
- Christian cross
- Christian symbolism
- Prayer in Christianity
- Trinitarian formula
- Prayer Book, edited by the Romanian Orthodox Church, several editions (Carte de rugăciuni - Editura Institutului biblic şi de misiune al Bisericii ortodoxe române, 2005),
- De myst. Alt., II, xlvi.
- III, iv.
- V, ii, 13.
- "Why Do Lutherans Make the Sign of the Cross?". Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. http://www.elca.org/worship/faq/liturgy/sign_of_cross.html. Retrieved 2007-06-16.
- "Sign of the Cross". Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod. http://www.lcms.org/pages/internal.asp?NavID=3941. Retrieved 2007-09-12.
- Minneapolis:Augsburg Fortress, 2006
- St. Louis: Concordia, 2006
- Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1978
- St. Louis: Concordia, 1982
- "Can United Methodists use the sign of the cross?". United Methodist Church. http://archives.umc.org/interior.asp?ptid=16&mid=1432. Retrieved 2007-06-16.
- "What is the significance of ashes being placed on the forehead on Ash Wednesday?". http://archives.umc.org/interior.asp?ptid=1&mid=2871. Retrieved 2007-06-16.
- Roman Catholic
- Sign of the Cross (entry from the Catholic Encyclopedia)
- The Sign of the Cross (a Traditional Catholic perspective)
- Significance of the Sign of the Cross
- Sign of the Cross (orthodoxwiki.org)
- Why do Orthodox Christians "cross themselves" different than Roman Catholics?
- The Church Council of the Hundred Chapters(1551) (Old Believers)
- Sign of the Cross (Old Believers)
- Why Do Lutherans Make the Sign of the Cross? (ELCA website)
- Sign of the Cross (Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod website)
- Sign of the Cross (Episcopal Church website)
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