By Jubel D’Cruz –
The sign of the cross is a beautiful gesture which reminds the faithful of the cross of salvation while invoking the Holy Trinity. Technically, the sign of the cross is a sacramental — a sacred sign instituted by the Catholic Church which prepares a person to receive grace and which sanctifies a moment or circumstance. Along this thought, this gesture has been used since the earliest times of the Church to begin and to conclude prayer and the Mass.
The early Church Fathers attested to the use of the sign of the cross. Tertullian described the commonness of the sign of the cross: “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”
St. Cyril of Jerusalem in his Catechetical Lectures stated, “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 everything; over the bread we eat and the cup we drink, in our coming in, and in our going out; before our sleep, when we lie down and when we awake; when we are travelling, and when we are at rest”.
Gradually, about the ninth century A.D., the sign of the cross was incorporated in different acts of the Mass, such as the three-fold signing of the forehead, lips, and heart, at the reading of the gospel or the blessing and signing of the bread and wine to be offered.
The earliest formalized way of making the sign of the cross appeared during the Monophysite heresy which denied the two natures in the divine person of Christ and thereby the unity of the Holy Trinity. The sign of the cross was made from the forehead to the chest, and then from the right shoulder to the left shoulder with the right hand. The thumb, forefinger, and middle fingers were held together to symbolize the Holy Trinity – Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit. Moreover, these fingers were held in such a way that they represented the Greek abbreviation I X C (Iesus Christus Soter, Jesus Christ Saviour): the straight forefinger representing the I; the middle finger crossed with the thumb, the X; and the bent middle finger, the C. The ring finger and the ‘pinky’ finger were bent downward against the palm, and symbolize the unity of the human nature and divine nature, and the human will and divine will in the person of Christ. This practice was universal for the whole Church until about the twelfth century A.D., but continues to be the practice for the Eastern Rites of the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Churches.
An instruction of Pope Innocent III (1198-1216) evidences the traditional practice but also indicates a shift in the Latin Rite practice of the Catholic Church: “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 Jesus Christ descended from the heavens to the earth, and from the Jews (right) He passed to the Gentiles (left).” While noting the custom of making the sign of the cross from the right shoulder to the left shoulder was for both the western and eastern Churches.
No matter how one technically makes the sign of the cross, the gesture should be made consciously and devoutly. The individual must be mindful of the Holy Trinity, that central dogma that makes Christians ‘Christians’. Also the individual must remember that the cross is the sign of our salvation: Jesus Christ, true God who became true man offered the perfect sacrifice for our redemption from sin on the altar of the cross. This simple yet profound act makes each person mindful of the great love of God for us, a love that is stronger than death and promises everlasting life. The sign of the cross should be made with a purpose and precision not hastily or carelessly.-
We thank Christeen magazine for giving us permission to run this article which appeared in its January 2018 issue.