The Church of St. Peter
The Sign of the Cross
What is It?
The Sign of the Cross is a symbolic act of prayer within the worship and prayer life of Anglicans, Roman Catholics, Orthodox and some Lutherans. The Sign of the Cross is made by touching your hand to your forehead, bringing it down to your chest and then moving your hand from your left to right shoulders. The Sign of the Cross draws the shape of the cross over the upper body. In the Orthodox Tradition, the hand moves from right to left with the hand ending over your heart. The Sign of the Cross can also refer to the hand gesture of the clergy when they bless people or objects or give absolution.
The Sign of the Cross is one of Christianity’s oldest practices and has its origins in the Baptism ceremony of the early Church. After the newly baptized were immersed in water in the Name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, they were anointed or “sealed” on their forehead with chrism (holy oil) in the shape of the cross. The anointing action in the shape of the cross marks and seals us as Christians, that is, the people of Jesus the Christ – Christ is Greek for “The Anointed One”. St. Paul may have been referring to the “sealing” of the cross at Baptism as he writes to the people of Ephesus in the early 60s AD (Ephesians 1:13,14, 4:30). The marking of the Sign of the Cross is most certainly alluded to in the Book of Revelations written around AD 90-100 (Revelations 7:3, 9:4, 14:1), as well as in John’s First Letter written around AD 80-90 (1 John 2:26,27).
Baptism marks the starting point for the new life in Christ. In Baptism we are united to the living Christ, our old self dies and the new self shares in the power of Christ’s risen life. So powerful was the life-transforming act of Baptism that early Christians began to make the Baptismal Sign of the Cross on their foreheads as part of their daily life, prayers and communal worship. By the second century, the Christian writer Tertullian (AD 160-225) says that the making of Sign of the Cross was passed down by oral tradition and was an old custom even in his day. He writes, “...we trace upon the forehead the Sign. For these and other such customs if you look for a definite Scriptural law you will find none. Tradition will be held forth as its origin, our custom confirms its use and it is observed in faith.” Tertullian tells us that the early Christians frequently made the Sign of the Cross as a way of transforming their most mundane daily tasks into little sacred moments with God. In AD 211 he wrote, “At every step and movement, at every going in and coming out, when we put on our clothes and shoes, when we bathe, when we sit at table, when we light the lamps…in all ordinary actions of daily life we trace upon the forehead the Sign.” Origen, another early Christian writer (AD 185-265) wrote, “…the Sign made by Christians on the forehead, which all believers make no matter what work they begin upon, and especially at the beginning of prayers and holy readings.”
The ways of making the Sign of the Cross changed over time, but by the ninth century the large cross over the upper body came into common use as it remains to this day.
The Sign of Our Baptism
Like the early Christians, we can continue to remake the Sign of the Cross to help us remember who we are and that through our baptisms we are “made a member of Christ, the child of God, and an inheritor of the kingdom of heaven.” (Catechism, Book of Common Prayer, page 544.) Through the Sign of the Cross at our baptism, we are marked as “Christ’s own forever”. We now do not belong wholly to ourselves but are now part of Christ himself and his people – the Body of Christ on earth, the Church (see Holy Baptism, Book of Alternative Services, page 160.) Baptism and the Sign of the Cross set us apart. Baptism proclaims our identity as the people of God, the disciples of Jesus and the community of the Holy Spirit. We can remake our baptismal Sign of the Cross as if to say, “I no longer belong to the world, I belong to Jesus, I am a Christian, and a child of God.”
In many Anglican and Roman Catholic churches, you will find holy water basins and Baptismal Fonts near the entrance. The water is often taken from previous Baptisms. We are invited to bless ourselves with holy water with the Sign of the Cross when we enter the church. This act reminds us of who we are and symbolically washes away our sins and distractions as we come to worship God. Perhaps equally as important, we can bless ourselves with holy water and the Sign when we leave the church to remind us that we are called to be God’s people in and for the world.
The Sign of Our Faith
At our baptisms we affirm our faith in God who has revealed himself as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Surprisingly, our faith can be symbolically affirmed by making this simple sacred gesture!
We first touch our forehead when making the Sign indicating God the Father, the creative source of all consciousness, knowledge, wisdom, being and matter. We then follow a line with our hand from the forehead down to our hearts. Here we profess our faith in Jesus the Christ, the Word made flesh, the Son of God who came down from the Father to live among us and who now dwells in our hearts through faith. In moving the hand over the chest from shoulder to shoulder, we are reminded that our heart and lungs are located in the chest – the place of our life-giving blood and breath. This reminds us of the Holy Spirit, the “Lord the giver of life”, the very breath of God who breathes through us and gives us our spiritual life. “Holy Spirit” in the languages of the early Church (Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, Latin), literally means “Divine Breath”.
Appropriately then, we make the Sign of the Cross when we profess our faith in the Holy Trinity when saying the Apostles’ or Nicene Creeds, or give praise to the Trinity at the end of the Gloria (Glory be to God on high…) The Sign of the Cross is also made when we call on the name of the Holy Trinity, “In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen” or “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.”
The Sign of Love
The cross of Christ is the ultimate sign of the depth of God’s love, a love that is willing to travel with us in our pain, suffering, and even into our death. God’s love is a real and tangible thing. It is as tangible as the hard wood of the cross. The Sign of the Cross is the sign of God’s love in Christ. We make the Sign of the Cross, when we receive Jesus in the bread and wine, his Body and Blood of the Holy Eucharist – The Banquet of his love.
We make the Sign of the Cross when we receive God’s loving mercy at the absolution or forgiveness of our sins. The Church, commanded by Christ and in his name, forgives sins and through a bishop or priest the Sign of the Cross is made over us. We in turn receive this sign of reconciliation by tracing that Sign of the Cross on ourselves as a symbolic reception of Christ’s mercy.
We are given God’s blessing when the Sign of the Cross is made over us. We in turn make this Sign over ourselves and by this we are reminded that there is no greater blessing than the love of Jesus. Making the Sign of the Cross over ourselves is our outward response, our saying “Yes!” to Jesus as he invites us to receive his love in communion, forgiveness, and blessing.
Our Sign of Discipleship
Jesus said to his disciples, “If anyone wants to be a follower of mine, let him renounce self and take up the cross and follow me.” (Mark 8:34) Jesus calls us to deny ourselves, to surrender ourselves to him and follow his path of self-giving, unconditional love. Symbolically, the downward motion of the hand from the forehead to the chest in the Sign of the Cross draws the letter “I”, as in “me, myself and I”. The cross motion from shoulder to shoulder, crosses out our “I/me” self-contained universe and reminds us that we are not the centre of the universe – God is. By crossing out the self, we again are reminded of our Baptism. In Baptism our old individual selves are gone, dead and buried with Christ in the waters of Baptism. We are reborn as a new people in Christ. By eliminating the “I” we are reminded that serving Christ is fully realized when it is done together by the whole community of God’s people.
To take up the cross of Christ is to take up a life that is marked by a heart of generous self-offering. Making the Sign of the Cross reminds us, as followers of the Crucified One, that “I have been crucified with Christ, and I live now not with my own life but with the life of Christ who lives in me.” (Galatians 2:20, 21)
At the Good News
Before the reading of the Gospel during the Holy Eucharist, we may make three small Signs of the Cross with our thumb over our forehead, lips and heart. This gesture is a prayer that Jesus’ words may always be meditated with our minds, spoken to others with our lips and that the Gospel of Christ may be written in our hearts. “Let the word of God and the Sign of Christ be in the Christians heart, in his mouth, on his forehead…” wrote St. Gaudentius (died AD 410). After the reading of the Gospel, the reader makes the Sign over the Gospel Book or can make the Sign of the Cross with the Gospel Book over the people as a symbol that we are to go out from the church to “preach Christ crucified” to the world (1 Corinthians 1:23).
The Sign of Eternal Life
We can make the Sign of the Cross when we pray for those who have died. Christians have always understood that there is only one Church whose members are both the living and the departed in Christ. The Church on earth and the Church in heaven is one community of prayer. As the saints and the faithful departed pray for us, so we too pray for those who have departed this life that the Lord’s will may be continued to be fulfilled in them. The cross of Christ is the ultimate sign that death is not our final end. Christ’s death on the cross and his rising to new life is the path where he leads the way to eternal life for all who put their life in his hands. The Sign of the Cross for the departed, joyously affirms our faith in eternal life in Christ.
Conclusion – A Sign of Contradiction
We glory in the cross, says the Apostle Paul, because it is God’s power at work (Galatians 6:14). But what a very odd way for God’s power to be realized! The cross of Christ is a sign of contradictions. From Jesus’ cross and resurrection, serving turns to freedom, love springs out of hatred and oppression, despair turns into hope, suffering turns to rejoicing, and death is transformed into new and eternal life.
So too, God’s people are compelled to be a sign of contradiction in this the world. In a world of materialism, we bring forth the gifts of the Spirit. In hatred, we teach love and reconciliation. In the lonely world of individualism, Christ teaches us to welcome the stranger and to build community. In a self-occupied and selfish world, Jesus shows us how to love and sacrifice for others.
Every time we make the Sign of the Cross we can embrace those contradictions and with silent prayer and a sacred gesture of the hand we take up our cross and follow Jesus to transform our world.
By Dean Rose
Permission is granted to use and replicate this or parts of this article with the following ascription;
From an article by Dean Rose, St. Peter’s Church, Oshawa, Diocese of Toronto.