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The Sign of the Cross

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The sign of the Cross has been used by Christians since the time of the Apostles. It is a pious act, which the Orthodox Christians make in the following manner; the thumb, the index and the middle finger of the right hand are joined together, while the remaining two fingers are bent and touching the palm of the hand. At first, the forehead is touched, then the breast, the left shoulder and the right shoulder.

Besides the impression which the sign of the Cross makes on the senses, it reminds us of its spiritual meanings.

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The three fingers joined together symbolise the Oneness of God in the three Persons of the Holy Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The two fingers, pressing the palm of the hand, signify the union of the two natures in Christ, the Divine and the Human The touch of the forehead signifies that God is in our head (in our mind), the touch of the breast signifies that God is in our heart (in our feelings), the touch of the shoulders signifies that God is in our limbs, directing them as He wills. In other words, by the sign of the Cross we dedicate to the service of God all the power of our mind, heart, and soul.

We are led to this service of God by means of the sign of the Cross, because it reminds us of Christ's death on the Cross, to which "God gave His only-begotten Son" out of His love to the world (John 3:16). The sign of the Cross on our bodies is also a prayer for God's blessing upon us and others. It has often proved a protection against evil, whether in one’s inner thoughts or outward actions, when made in true faith in its power.

Therefore, we rightly make the sign of the cross when we start and close our prayers; when we enter a Church; when we kiss the Icons of the Saints; when the name of the Persons of the Holy Trinity, the name at the Virgin Mary, and of the Saints are pronounced during the Services; when sacred instances occur during the Divine Liturgy; when we start and finish our meals; and on many other occasions. Its frequent repetition, when we are mindful of its significance, can become to us a source and fountain of every blessing.

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 rarely or never used by evangelical or more modern groups of Protestants.


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.
2. 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. [citation needed]
3. 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.


  Common Declaration by Pope Benedict XVI and Patriarch Bartholomew I
Syriac-Greek Antiochian Orthodox Catholic Church in Africa