The symbol of the Christian Faith has always been and always will be the sign of the cross, because it is the sign of our Redemption by our Lord Jesus Christ. When we wish to show that something is dedicated to Christ it is marked with a cross, whether it be church buildings, the Holy Gospel, the sacred vessels or the graves of the departed. Christians wear baptismal crosses to show that they are dedicated to Christ.
Making the sign of the cross upon ourselves
This is an act of rededication; it is accompanied by slightly bowing our head to express to God our reverence and humility. The first three fingers of the right hand are joined together and the other two are bent down to the palm. We then trace upon ourselves the cross by touching the three joined fingers to the forehead, the breast, the right shoulder and the left shoulder. The joining of three fingers symbolizes our belief in the Trinity, God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit, three persons yet One God. The two fingers bent across the palm symbolize our belief in the two natures of Christ, human and divine. We touch our forehead to ask God to sanctify our thoughts and our breast to sanctify our senses and our shoulders to strengthen our wills for the keeping of God’s commandments. When we make the sign of the cross we are saying that we belong to Jesus Christ and want to serve Him alone. Unless we are in the middle of another prayer, as we make the sign we say to ourselves the words ‘In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit’
When to make the sign of the cross
The following are some of the occasions when the sign of the cross may be used. However, this is a personal matter and not a set of rules certainly not something we look at others for to see if they are doing it!
- Before and after prayers to protect ourselves from distraction.
- During the Liturgy at high points and especially when God’s holiness is being worshipped and when we hear the phrase ‘In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit’.
- Upon entering church or approaching a sacred object.
- When venerating an icon.
- In the morning to obtain God’s blessing on the day.
- In the evening to ask for God’s protection during the night.
- Before important undertakings and journeys.
- In times of danger, sorrow and joy.
- At mealtimes as we ask for God’s blessing on the food.
The second-century Christian author, Tertullian, wrote:
Let us not be ashamed to confess the Crucified; let us boldly make the sign of the cross on the forehead, and on everything; on the bread which we eat; on the cups from which we drink; let us make it at our going out, and coming in; when we journey and when we rest: It is a great safeguard, given to the poor without price, to the weak without labor. For this is the Grace of God; a token for the faithful, and a terror for evil spirits.
What the sign of the cross means to us
The Holy Martyrs learned that it is a symbol of power. They braved the terrors of the dungeon and death in its most terrible forms supported and sustained and encouraged by this never-failing source of supernatural strength. It will be our shield and strength also in times of trial and danger, our victory in temptations, our pledge of perseverance.
St.Cyril of Jerusalem wrote:
Let us make the Sign of the Cross boldly and courageously. When the demons see it they are reminded of the Crucified; they take to flight; they hide themselves and leave us.
The Sign of the Cross is also a prayer. It is an appeal to heaven in the name of the Crucified One.
Just as it was a powerful weapon for the early Martyrs, schooled in the use of it by the Apostles, so it is also a powerful weapon against the assailants of our faith in modern times (the false philosophies, pride of intellect, religious indifference, materialism, atheism).
The importance of making the sign reverently.
The cross traced correctly, with faith and reverence, dispels demons, calms sinful passions, attracts Divine Grace and gives us the strength to do good and expel that which is evil. The sign should not be made hurriedly, without deliberation or degenerate into a wave of the hand!
The sign of the cross inspires self-respect by teaching the true dignity of man, reminding us of our redemption through the infinite price of Christ’s blood, our sanctification (being set apart for God) and of our union with the Three Divine Persons of the Trinity.
The power of the sign of the cross
St. John Chrysostom writing in the fourth century about the Sign of the Cross:
More precious than the universe, the cross glitters on the diadem of emperors. Everywhere it is present to my view. I find it among princes and subjects, men and women, virgins and married people, slaves and freemen. All continually trace it on the noblest parts of the body, the forehead, where it shines like a column of glory. It is made over sick animals, over persons possessed by the demon; in war, in peace, by day, by night, in pleasant reunions and in penitential assemblies. It is a question of who shall seek first the protection of this admirable Sign. What is there surprising in this? The Sign of the Cross is the type of our deliverance, the monument of liberation of mankind, the souvenir of the forbearance of Our Lord. When you make it, remember what has been given for your ransom, and you will be the slave of no one. Make it, then, not only with your fingers but also with your faith. If you engrave it on your forehead no impure spirit will dare to stand before you. He sees the blade with which he has been wounded, the sword with which he has received the deathblow.
How to make the sign of the cross
Frederica Matthewes-Green demonstrates how to make the sign of the cross.