The Sign of the Cross
My niece’s friend asked: “Does the Sign of the Cross always have to be made with the right hand?” Another friend reacted immediately: “Of course it must.” A third retorted, “But isn’t that awkward for a left-handed person?” An account of this debate then zoomed across cyberspace to my desk in Rome (surely her uncle would have something to say about this hotly contested matter!).
This innocent question prompted me to investigate the Sign of the Cross. I found the research quite fascinating.
As one might guess, crosses began to be used in very early Christian times to recall Christ’s death. Sometimes they were carved in stone, or made of wood or metal. Often, in times of persecution, the image of the cross was disguised as an anchor or was entwined amid vines.
The use of the Sign of the Cross, as a gesture of the hand, also began very early in the history of Christianity. We have clear evidence for its use in the second century; it was probably used even before that as a concrete symbol to express faith in the mystery of victory through defeat, glory through humiliation and life through death. The earliest Signs of the Cross were of the type that we see at baptisms. Christians simply traced the cross on their own or someone else’s forehead. Members of the early church frequently employed this gesture: at the beginning of the day, when beginning to pray or at the start of important actions.
The sign expressed two things: it was a profession of faith—“We belong to Christ crucified”— and it was a prayer acknowledging the presence and invoking the protection of the crucified, now-risen Lord. Tertullian, who died around A.D. 230, puts it quite concretely: “In all our actions, when we come in or go out, when we dress, when we wash, at our meals, before resting to sleep, we make on our forehead the Sign of the Cross. These practices are not commended to us by a formal law of Scripture, but tradition teaches them, custom confirms them, and faith observes them.” St. John Damascene (676–c. 754) adds, “For wherever the sign shall be, there also shall he be.”
Christians have traditionally also used the Sign of the Cross as a prayer in times of temptation. Hippolytus (c. 170–c. 236) wrote: “When tempted, always reverently seal your forehead with the Sign of the Cross. For this sign of the Passion is a symbol openly combatting the devil if you make it in faith, not in order that you may be seen by others, but consciously putting it forth like a shield.”
Little by little, what began as a small sign traced on the forehead with the thumb gradually developed into larger gestures. The one that everyone is most familiar with is the one my niece describes, in which we touch the forehead, the chest, the left shoulder and the right shoulder, while invoking the Trinity.
My investigations then prompted a question that, to be truthful, I had never thought about before: how did the Sign of the Cross, which commemorates Christ’s death, get linked with the Trinitarian formula, which is really quite a distinct mystery of faith? In other words, why, while making the gesture called the Sign of the Cross, do we say that we are beginning an action (Mass, a meal, a meeting): “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit”?
The introduction of words to accompany this gesture occurred only gradually over the early centuries. The words that all of us are so used to, professing our faith in the Trinity, became linked with the Sign of the Cross only after the turbulent Christological controversies of the fourth century, when the divinity of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, came to be explicitly defined in the ecumenical councils of Nicea and Constantinople.
Still, the Trinitarian formula is by no means the only set of words connected with the Sign of the Cross. Actually, there are many variations. At the beginning of the Office of Readings or Morning Prayer each day, those who pray the Liturgy of the Hours start with the words, “O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth shall proclaim your praise,” while tracing a Sign of the Cross on their lips with the thumb. In baptism, the priest, parents and godparents use the sign on several occasions, sometimes in silence, sometimes accompanied by words and sometimes using oil as well. During confirmation the forehead is anointed with oil in the form of a cross. In the sacrament of the anointing of the sick, both the forehead and the hands are anointed, while the minister makes the sign. During ordination to the priesthood, the bishop anoints the priest’s hands with a cruciform gesture. In all these cases, the words that accompany the action vary significantly.
In many other instances, the Sign of the Cross is used as part of a blessing. In fact, for many people the word “blessing” is almost synonymous with “Sign of the Cross.” The most common of these is the one that we are all familiar with at the end of Mass, when the priest traces the Sign of the Cross in the air, saying: “May Almighty God bless you: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.”
Here in our house in Rome, which is quite multicultural (we come from nine different countries), we got talking about the Sign of the Cross and its use in blessings today.
Of course, there are some usages that one might question. Last night, on Italian television, I saw a soccer player make the Sign of the Cross before kicking a penalty shot. Some basketball players in the United States make it before taking a foul shot. I notice too that toreadors in Spain, upon entering the arena, stand before the crowd and solemnly make the Sign of the Cross, with their hat. Is this just superstition? Is it popular devotion? Is it a vestigial form of the type of prayer described above, where one acknowledges the presence of the crucified, now-risen Lord and asks his help?
No matter, our conversation here in the house made clear that there are rich religious and cultural traditions in this regard that are still quite strong. A priest from Mexico and a brother from Slovakia mentioned that whenever they are leaving home for a period of time, they ask their father and mother for a blessing. Each parent makes the Sign of the Cross on the son’s forehead, while asking God to accompany him on his journey. A Polish priest mentioned that in his village the parents bless a newly ordained priest before he leaves the house in procession to the parish church for his first Mass; they likewise give their blessing to a young couple leaving the house for their wedding. The same priest mentioned that his father, when preparing to sow seeds in a newly plowed field, makes a small cross from twigs, places it in the first furrow and covers it with dirt, invoking God’s blessing on the harvest to come.
My house members from Italy and the Philippines added that people in their countries still make the Sign of the Cross today whenever they pass a church. Others said they use the Sign of the Cross upon waking in the morning or just before going to bed at night. A Colombian said that his family always uses it upon leaving or re-entering the house. Others related that they make the Sign of the Cross on the forehead of small children whose mothers come to Communion with a child in their arms or at their side. A brother from Poland stated that in his home, before cutting a freshly baked loaf of bread, his mother traces the Sign of the Cross with a knife on the still-warm loaf.
I myself recounted how I often use the original version (the small sign traced on the forehead) when visiting sick people in the hospital or when blessing people in large crowds. In the past I often felt quite awkward when I met with our priests, brothers, sisters and lay groups in a foreign country, because sometimes three or four hundred people were pressing in on me and several at the same time were trying to tell me of the pain that they were experiencing or were asking my prayer or my blessing. I then discovered that a simple Sign of the Cross on their forehead with a brief prayer and a word of understanding brings them much peace.
So the Sign of the Cross turned out to be a very interesting research topic! And what about the right hand (the subject of my niece’s original question)? Basically, it’s just a custom that evolved out of the desire to have everyone make the gesture uniformly.
The quest for uniformity, though, has never been quite successful. In the Eastern Church, for example, the gesture is made with two fingers of the hand rather than all five fingers. In other places the gesture is made with the bottom three fingers (to signify the Trinity), while the thumb is held extended by the index finger (to signify unity or, in some cultures, to signify the two natures of Christ, human and divine). Some make the sign with one finger, some with two, some with three and some with five. In certain places, people touch the right shoulder first and then the left, rather than the left and then the right. We in the Western Church tend to think that the right-left movement is characteristic of the Eastern Church, but it was also the traditional way of making the Sign of the Cross in the Western Church until around the 14th century.
Anyway, most children are taught by their parents to make the Sign of the Cross with their right hand at a very early age. And to be truthful, I have never heard any complaints.