The Sign of the Cross

Dear Friends in Christ,

Positions of the Fingers While Making the Sign of the Cross, Licensed from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Sign-of-the-cross--fingers-position.jpg

I’m writing this message the week before the Third Sunday of Lent, when we commemorate the Holy Cross. The Holy Cross has such an important meaning to us, that we celebrate it twice a year. Back in September’s bulletin, I wrote about the appearances of the Cross in history. Appearances of the Cross led to such miracles as the conversion of the Emperor St. Constantine in AD 312. Since we’ve so recently covered the appearances of the Cross, I would like to take this opportunity to speak about a related subject, namely, the Sign of the Cross.

Humans seem to have a natural desire to identify themselves as part of a group. One of the ways that members of a group identify themselves to one another, and cement their ties, is by the use of signs. A well-executed performance elicits a thumbs-up, the peace sign became a symbol of a generation opposed to war, and a certain obscene gesture can be used to insult others. The handshake is used to greet and to seal a deal, and a salute is used to show obedience to a superior.

Christians from the time of the Apostles have had their own unique sign as well. This is the Sign of the Cross, which we should make many times a day. Saint Cyril of Jerusalem (+ AD 386) writes:

Let us then not be ashamed to confess the Crucified. Be the Cross our seal, made with boldness by our fingers on our brow and in every thing; over the bread we eat and the cups we drink, in our comings and in goings; before our sleep, when we lie down and when we awake; when we are traveling, and when we are at rest.

In other words, making the Sign of the Cross should become second nature to the Christian, because Christ should be Lord over all aspects of our life.

This Sign should be executed attentively, however; it should not be done out of habit without reflecting on its action. Each of the many times that we make the Sign, it should be done deliberately. Let us not fall into the trap of thinking that by doing something often it will become rote; let us do it often and with attention! Tertullian (+ AD 220) writes: “We Christians wear out our foreheads with the Sign of the Cross.”

We make the Sign of the Cross properly by taking the thumb, index finger, and middle finger of our right hand, and joining them together. This represents the Holy Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We then take the ring finger and pinky finger of our right hand and close them into the palm of our hand, representing the two natures of Jesus Christ: divine and human. With our fingers in this formation, we move our hand to our forehead, to the solar plexus (navel area), then to our right shoulder, then to our left shoulder (it should be noted that Roman Catholics make the Sign from the left to the right, but this is an innovation dating to the 13th century). We should avoid what some call the “banjo” Sign of the Cross, where the Sign appears to be more akin to a man strumming an instrument rapidly with no discernable pattern!

The Sign of the Cross identifies us as Christians, and it wards off the demons. In fact, in some lives of the saints, we see that when an “angel” appeared to a monk, he would be naturally cautious and ask the “angel” to make the Sign of the Cross. At this moment, in many cases, the “angel” would reveal its true nature, that of a demon, and flee. Demons cannot make the Sign of the Cross, because of the power of Jesus Christ that the Sign communicates. In fact, we know that in the last times, some men will take the Sign of the Beast, or the Devil, instead of the Sign of Christ, upon themselves: “…that no man might buy or sell, save he that had the mark, or the name of the beast, or the number of his name” (Revelation 13:17). We perhaps should not understand this mark to be literal in a physical sense, but a figurative mark or sign that mimics in opposition the Cross of Christ that Christians have made since the beginning of the Church. At the same time, there is a spiritual reality that many of us cannot see because of our sinfulness, such that the Sign we make with our hand may make a spiritual impression that is visible to God and the Angels.

As a visible sign to other humans, making the Sign of the Cross marks us as Christians. It is a mini- “confession of faith.” We should never be ashamed to make the Sign of the Cross in front of other people who are not Christians (while of course keeping humility in mind). The Sign of the Cross is seen by the patristic quotes above to be something that dates back to the beginning of the Church, and should be performed by all Christians. Finally, in the lives of the Saints, we see the power of the Cross. Many more examples from the saints’ lives could be elicited if there were space in this column to include them. I encourage you all to do some research on the topic!

Let us make the Sign of the Cross our own; let it adorn us in everything we do. May it lead us to greater repentance, and to focus our lives even more on Our Great God and Saviour Jesus Christ.

In Christ,
Fr. Anastasios