By Fr. Anthony Aneke
“The most basic Christian gesture in prayer is and always be the Sign of the Cross.”
– Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (Benedict XVI)
From the earliest times, Christians made the sign of the cross. This is the most common prayer of Christians, and it has been so since the founding of the Church. In his writings, St. Basil the Great reminds us that the apostles themselves taught the sign of the cross. This is shown by the fact that the earliest mentions of the sign of the cross speak of it as an already established custom and simply encourage the faithful to do it.
St. Paul the apostle of the gentile speaks of the cross of Christ in almost all his new Testament writings. “But far be it from me to glory except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world” (Gal 6:14).
Scott Hahn is of the view that we could fill a book with the early Christians’ testimonies to the practice of making the Sign of the Cross. For him, it was their favorite devotion as it required no special knowledge or skill. You didn’t have to be literate to make the sign of the cross, or rich enough to own a book of instructions. All you needed was one working finger. Martyrs made the Sign as they were taken to their death. Even Julian, the notoriously ex-Christian emperor, fell back to tracing the Sign whenever he felt oppressed by demons. It is mentioned everywhere because it was practiced everywhere.
Going through history, Tertullian at the end of the second century proclaimed: “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 task occupies us, we mark our forehead with the sign of the cross.”
The earliest account suggests that Christians traced the cross with their thumb upon their forehead. They also traced it on objects, such as food, and over the sacramental elements: bread, wine, oil and water. Over the centuries the faithful have developed many ways of doing it. In the Western Churches, we bless ourselves with our open right hand, touching our fingertips to the forehead, then the breast bone, then the left shoulder, and finally the right shoulder. Some interpret the five open fingers as a sign of the five Wounds of Christ.
Words often accompany the sign of the cross. In a way, when we combine this gesture with a vocal prayer, we make two prayers. So, we recognize the power of what we do when we pray, “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”
Significance and Interpretation
Worldwide and throughout history, there are countless variations on the practice and its interpretations. In his book, Signs of life, Scott Hahn draws an explanation Saint Francis de Sales:
‘We raise the hand first to the forehead, saying, “In the name of the Father,” to signify that the Father is the first person of the Most Holy Trinity, of whom the Son is begotten and from whom the Holy Spirit proceeds. Then saying, “And the Son,” the hand is lowered to the breast, to express that the Son proceed from the Father, who sent Him down to the womb of the Virgin. Then the hand is moved from the left shoulder or side to the right, while saying, “and of the Holy Spirit,” thereby signifying that the Holy Spirit, as the third person of the Holy Trinity, proceeds from the Father and the Son, that he is the love that unites both, and that we, through His grace, partake of the fruit of the passion. Accordingly, the Sign of the Cross is a brief declaration of our faith in the three great mysteries: of our faith in the Blessed Trinity, in the passion of Christ, and in the forgiveness of sin, by which we pass from the left side of curse to the right of blessing’.
It is not an accident of piety that these two themes converge in the words and gestures of the Church’s most fundamental and most popular prayer.
The cross is an image in time of the Trinity’s life in eternity. On the cross, Jesus Christ gave himself entirely. He held nothing back. Such is the self-giving of the Son for the Father, the father for the Son. Each makes a complete and loving gift of life to the other, and that gift, that life, that love, is the Holy Spirit. The sign of that love in the world is the Sign of the Cross.
Similarly, in explaining the significance of the sign of the Cross, the theologian Berth Ghezzi described six meanings of the sign of the cross. For him, The sign of the cross is: a confession of faith; a renewal of baptism; a mark of discipleship; an acceptance of suffering; a defense against the devil; and a victory over self-indulgence.
Buttressing further, he explained that when we make the sign, we are professing a mini version of the creed — we are professing our belief in the Father, and in the Son and in the Holy Spirit. When we say the words and pray in someone’s name we are declaring their presence and coming into their presence — that’s how a name is used in Scripture.
As a sacramental, it’s a renewal of the sacrament of baptism; when we make it we say again, in effect, “I died with Christ and rose to new life.” The sign of the cross in baptism is like a Christian circumcision, which united Gentile converts to the Jewish nation. The sign links us to the body of Christ, and when we make it, we remember our joining to the body with Christ as the head.
The sign of the cross is a mark of discipleship. Jesus says in Luke 9:23, “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me.” The word that the Fathers of the Church used for the sign of the cross is a Greek word that is the same as what a slave owner put on a slave, a shepherd put on a sheep and a general put on a soldier — it’s a declaration that I belong to Christ.
Self-denial is not just giving up little things; to be a disciple we are under Christ’s leadership and we don’t belong to ourselves. By doing the sign of the cross, we’re saying to the Lord, “we want to obey you; we belong to you. You direct all our decisions. We will always be obedient to God’s law, Christ’s teachings and the Church.”
When suffering comes, the sign of the cross is a sign of acceptance. It’s remembering that Jesus became a man and suffered for us and that we participate in Christ’s suffering. The sign of the cross says, “I am willing to embrace suffering to share in Christ’s suffering.”
When we are suffering, when we’re feeling like God is not there, the sign of the cross brings him there and declares his presence whether we feel it. It is a way of acknowledging him at that time of trial.
One of the main teachings of the early Church Fathers is that the sign of the cross is a declaration of defense against the devil. When you sign yourself, you are declaring to the devil, “Hands off! I belong to Christ; he is my protection.” It’s both an offensive and defensive tool.
I’ve found that the sign of the cross is a way to put to death self-indulgence — those big problems we have, the stubborn things we can’t get rid of. The Church Fathers say if you are angry, full of lust, fearful, emotional or grappling with fleshly problems, make the sign when tempted and it will help dispel the problem.
In fact, the sign of the cross is the supreme sacramental.
When people make the sign of the cross casually, I pray that they will recognize how serious it is — that they are declaring that they belong to Christ; they want to obey him and accept suffering. It’s not a good-luck charm.