Saturday, May 12, 2007

The Sign of the Cross

The sign of the cross is a reminder of whose we are.

As Andreas Andreopoulos (author of The Sign of the Cross: The Gesture, the Mystery, the History) , from an Eastern Orthodox perspective, and Bert Ghezzi (author of The Sign of the Cross) , from a Roman Catholic perspective, both show, making sign of the cross is a powerful act of daily prayer, dedication, and remembrance. Ghezzi writes that at its heart, the sign of the cross is "a simple gesture and … a simple prayer."

Over time, Christians have imbued this small, simple gesture with volumes of theological meaning.

  • Holding three fingers together — thumb, forefinger, and middle finger — as you make the sign symbolizes the Trinity.
  • Holding the other two fingers against your palm represents the two natures of Christ, human and divine.
  • Dropping the hand from forehead to waist to begin the gesture represents Christ's descent to earth.
  • The upward movement that follows represents his resurrection. And so on.

    Andreopoulos and Ghezzi find in the sign of the cross a symbol of baptism, protection, profession of faith, defiance of the Devil, invocation of God's power, solidarity with the church, and a rebuke of self-indulgence—to name a few. The earliest descriptions, such as Tertullian's, indicate that the cross was made with one finger—probably the thumb—on the forehead in the shape of a Hebrew T or a Greek X, letters that stood for names of God and Christ. Presumably, early Christians were taking their cues from passages in Genesis 4:15, Ezekiel 9:4, and Revelation 14:1 and 22:4 that describe a mark on the forehead as a sign of God's claim on a person.
    In the fourth century Augustine declared, "What else is the sign of Christ but the cross of Christ?"

    Andreopoulos explains that "the sign, as an act, however small it may be, expresses the impetus of crossing the threshold between thinking in theological terms and practicing the Christian life".
    Both Andreopoulos and Ghezzi urge all Christians to rediscover—or discover for the first time—the ancient, simple, and profound act of making the sign of the cross.

    "The spiritual weight of the sign has always been the same," Andreopoulos writes. "In texts from Tertullian and Origen to Kosmas and Aitolos, it is a blessing, a prayer, a proclamation of the Christian identity, a living mystery, and an acceptance of the role that God has given us."
    "Whether I sign myself silently or with the invocation [of 'in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit']," writes Ghezzi, "it helps me to look beyond the mundane things I have to do every day … and focus on God and on the greater part of reality, the part that is spiritual and invisible."

    Christians of a variety of traditions have begun to discover the beauty and meaning of this ancient act. Protestant objections to the sign of the cross are seldom articulated beyond the vague dismissal, "It's a Catholic thing," but Martin Luther prescribed the sign of the cross in his Small Catechism, and the sign has long been part of Episcopal and Lutheran practice. As both Andreopoulos and Ghezzi show, the sign of the cross has clear ties to Scripture.
    From centuries ago, Chrysostom admonishes us to mean what we do. "You should not just trace the cross with your finger," he wrote, "but you should do it in faith."
Ever wonder why some people kiss their thumbs after making the sign of the cross? My husband (who is Hispanic) tells me that in many Latin countries the sign of the cross is made with the fingers forming a smaller cross, as in this picture.

You are actually kissing a cross not your "thumb".


  • article by Nathan Bierma in Christianity Today

  • The Sign of the Cross: The Gesture, the Mystery, the History, by Andreas Andreopoulos (Paraclete Press, 2006)

  • The Sign of the Cross: Recovering the Power of the Ancient Prayer, by Bert Ghezzi (Loyola Press, 2006).

1 comment:

Soutenus said...

CC, was my description ok?

Blog Widget by LinkWithin