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Robert P. MaloneyMay 19, 2003

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.

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20 years 9 months ago
I have just finished reading "The Sign of the Cross" by Robert F. Maloney. I will now begin to make the sign of the cross with my left hand: forehead, sternum, left shoulder, right shoulder. Left-handers are nice people and should not be discriminated against by dextrous and ambi-dextrous people. We left-handers are not sinister by any means. So there!

17 years ago
I have just finished reading “The Sign of the Cross” by Robert F. Maloney, C.M., (5/19). I will now begin to make the Sign of the Cross with my left hand: forehead, sternum, left shoulder, right shoulder. Left-handers are nice people and should not be discriminated against by dextrous and ambidextrous people. We left-handers are not sinister by any means. So there!

20 years 9 months ago
I have just finished reading "The Sign of the Cross" by Robert F. Maloney. I will now begin to make the sign of the cross with my left hand: forehead, sternum, left shoulder, right shoulder. Left-handers are nice people and should not be discriminated against by dextrous and ambi-dextrous people. We left-handers are not sinister by any means. So there!

14 years 8 months ago
Identifying the Cross in a Pluralistic Society: Hail, O Cross, Our Only Hope Eric. J. Boos, MA, PHD, JD, LLM Associate Professor of Philosophy University of Mary, Bismarck, ND What is the “Cross?” What does it symbolize? What does it mean? How is it part and parcel of our Christian discipleship? When it flies on a flag and is colored red with a white background, it is second only to the Coca-cola trademark in World-wide recognition. But that is not exactly the cross we are talking about. The cross we are talking about is the one which symbolizes the actions of the person Jesus Christ. Those actions are expressive of a “love to the end” (Jn 13:1), which confers on Christ’s sacrifice (of his own life) its value as redemption and reparation; as atonement and satisfaction. REDEMPTION?-?REPARATION (atonement) (satisfaction) FORGIVENESS “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures,” (1 Cor. 15:3), and our salvation flows from God’s initiative of love for us, because “he so loved us and sent his Son to be the expiation for our sins,” (1 Jn 4:10). Thus, “God was in Christ reconciling the world unto himself,” (2 Cor 5:19). The redemption won by Christ consists in this, that he came “to give his life as a ransom for many,” (Mt 20:28). That is, he loved unto the end that they might be “ransomed from the futile ways inherited from [their] fathers,” (1 Peter 1:18). It is this idea, that we are saved from the futile ways inherited from our fathers, that gives us a most clear indication of the scope of the cross’s symbolic nature. The “futile ways” we inherited give a particular political and social flavor to the saving power of the cross. Though the cross symbolizes redemption from individual sinfulness for souls so inclined as to accept the action of Christ, the cross itself should not be confused with those individual sins. It transcends considerations of individual iniquity and necessarily includes collective behavior. Because he knew and loved us all when he offered his life (Gal. 2:20; Eph. 5:2,25), the cross symbolizes a “love [of Christ] which controls us” (2 Cor. 5:14). That control finds expression in the social sphere and is manifest in a spirit of community. This idea of “community,” which epitomizes the “love” Christ bore on the cross and which controls us, finds expression in Matthew’s notion of “church:” a community of individuals dedicated to serving others in a spirit of humility and forgiveness. Where “church” is realized, there we will find “The Kingdom of [the] Man,” over which Jesus presides (as moral and ethical exemplar and ultimate judge). Another way to consider the scope of the cross’s symbolic value, is to approach it logically: it doesn’t make much sense to focus on that which doesn’t exist—at least not in ways which limit the symbolic value of the cross. By his loving obedience to the Father, “unto death, even death on a cross” (Phil 2:8), Jesus fulfills the atoning mission (cf. Isa 53:10) of the suffering servant, who will “make many righteous; he shall bear their iniquities,” (Isa 53;11; cf. Rom 5:19). Since Christ has already born our iniquities, it doesn’t make much sense to focus on the cross as a symbol of our redemption from them—without developing some “cross-like” attitude which moves us to social action. If the cross only symbolizes the redemptive act for individuals, in the sense that it was a unilateral act on Jesus’ part and requires nothing of us, then what sense does it make for Jesus to challenge his disciples to “take up [their] cross and follow him?” (Mt 16:24). Such a challenge would appear to be non-sensical if the cross merely symbolizes redemption from individual sinfulness. “For Christ also suffered for [us], leaving [us] an example so the [we] should follow in his steps,” (1 Pet 2:21). More to the point, Christ is united to every human (through the redemptive act) in such a way as to make us partners in bringing about the Kingdom. As St. Rose of Lima said, “apart from the cross there is no other ladder by which we may get to heaven.” And since heaven is the conceptual culmination of the salvific act which requires direct human response to the redemptive act in the form of an unwavering effort to bring about the Kingdom (by working for peace and justice), then the cross is a necessary condition of our effort. That condition is expressed most completely in the act of forgiveness. Because the cross symbolizes redemption (through forgiveness), and we are called to “take up our cross.” That endeavor isn’t a matter of obsessing over our mistakes and improving our piety, but rather it is a matter of committing ourselves to building community (which is the church and which is a pre-condition for the establishment of the Kingdom). Thus, we must commit ourselves to serving others in a spirit of humility while practicing forgiveness. The attitudes of humility and forgiveness are inextricably linked and share a symbiotic relationship (as evidenced by the universal ethic established in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew Chapter 5). The more we practice humility, the easier it is to forgive; the more we forgive, the easier it is to practice humility. It is no surprise then that the entire ethical discourse in Matthew returns consistently to the theme of forgiveness. When we have achieved a modicum of the virtue of humility and are able to forgive, we will be, as Jesus says, “salt of the Earth,” (Mt 5:13ff). To achieve that virtue we need a deep appreciation of the cross and all that it symbolizes. When we limit the symbolism of the cross to our own personal sinfulness, we run the risk of overlooking the cross’s symbolic challenge to stand against human institutions (“ways inherited from our fathers”) which are disruptive of “community,” (i.e., “church” which is the Kingdom of [the] Man). However, it is easy to limit the symbolism of the cross to an expression of our own temptations and struggles. This is reflected in the colloquial phrases we use so flippantly like “oh, that’s my cross to bear;” in referring to some element of one’s life which is seemingly beyond individual control but remains a nuisance. It is all too easy to identify Christ’s personal suffering (and hence our own suffering) with the “cross” itself—as in Mel Gibson’s movie “The Passion of the Christ.” The deeper meaning of “bearing one’s cross” can be obscured by the Passion. As an older Franciscan Friar used to tell me in seminary, “we shouldn’t let Good Friday spoil Easter Sunday.” The suffering which is part of human existence is ours to bear regardless of the cross of Christ—and it is doubtful that our afflications are what Jesus was referring to when he said “Whosever does not take up his CROSS and follow me is not worthy of me,” MT 10:38.” (Repeated in MT 16:24; MK 8:34, 10:21; Luke 9:23, 14:27; John) According to Strong’s Hebrew-Greek dictionary of the Bible [4716], the use of “cross” in Mt. 10:38 comes from the Greek noun stauros and is connected to the Hebrew base of i-sthmi) [2476], and means: a stake or post as set upright; i.e., a special pole or cross for the [specific] purpose as an instrument of capital punishment. Figuratively, it meant exposure to death, i.e., self-denial; by implication, the atonement of Christ. The verb-form of the word, stauro [4716] means: to impale on the cross. Figuratively, it means to extinguish (subdue) passion or selfishness—i.e., to crucify as in MT 20:19, “…and shall deliver him to the Gentiles to mock, and to scourge and to crucify him.” Jesus’ use of the word stauros (“cross”) is a grim reflection of the Roman custom of crucifying people in highly visible places as a “political message.” Given the etymological and hermeneutical analysis of Jesus’ use of the word, we might infer that “taking up one’s cross” demands taking a risky political stand—which is precisely the stand we necessarily take if we commit ourselves to the counter-cultural realities of the Gospel message. For example, to “love one’s enemies and pray for them,” as Jesus commands in Matthew 5:43, or to “turn the other cheek,” or, “to give our coat as well as shirt if someone wants to sue us” as Jesus suggests in Mt 5:38ff, are all very counter-cultural for us. Such actions mimic the humility and vulnerability of Christ himself in his own trial and persecution, but are they necessary for the Kingdom to be made manifest? Jesus alludes to the necessity of the cross [and his imminent crucifixion] when he says: “as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the son of Man be lifted up, so that whoever believes in Him may not perish, but may have life everlasting.” John 3:14-15; ref.: Numbers 21:8-9: and God said to Moses, “make thee a fiery serpent and set it upon a pole…that whoever is bitten may look upon it and live.” In a different context, Paul offers in 1 COR 1:17-18 that: “Christ sent me not to baptize, but to preach the Gospel: not with wisdom of words, lest the cross of Christ should be emptied of its power. [18] For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing; but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” Paul goes on to challenge us in 1 COR 20-25: “Where is the wise man? Where is the scholar? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? [22] Jews demand signs, Greeks demand wisdom, be we preach Christ crucified.” Paul himself thus speaks, "we must through much tribulation enter the kingdom of God," (Acts 14:22;) and again, "that I may know him, and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings, being made conformable unto his death," (Romans 8:29.) How powerfully should it soften the bitterness of the cross, to think that the more we are afflicted with adversity, the surer we are made of our fellowship with Christ; by communion with whom our sufferings are not only blessed to us, but tend greatly to the furtherance of our salvation. In other words, the Cross is a mechanism of instruction. As we ponder its significance as a symbol of redemption (through forgiveness) and endeavor to make that symbol a reality in our own lives, we learn bit by bit of its transforming power. As was stated by St. Francis of Assissi, “it is in forgiving that we are forgiven.” Likewise, the Lord’s own prayer fosters the same sentiment, “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Perhaps John Calvin said it best when he offered, “Nay, even the holiest of men, however well aware that they stand not in their own strength, but by the grace of God, would feel too secure in their own fortitude and constancy, were they not brought to a more thorough knowledge of themselves by the trial of the cross.” As an instructional device, the cross becomes also a mechanism of healing insofar as knowledge of our “sickness” can facilitate our “healing.” Interestingly enough, the cross has long been associated with healing in a variety of ways. When we see it as a source of healing, our awareness is such that it would be completely counter-intuitive to act against it. This completes the move from Redemption to Reparation, and brings us full circle form Christ’s act of forgiveness to his invitation to discipleship. On an individual basis, the radical actions prescribed in the Gospel seem somewhat plausible, but are they tenable on an institutional level? How does the “Church” practice forgiveness? How many Christian churches are currently offering heartfelt prayers for our enemies? How many Christian churches are giving not only their “shirts” but their “coats” as well when they are sued? The cross is symbolic in at least three significant ways beyond our own personal afflictions. It is a symbol of redemption through forgiveness. It is a symbol of discipleship (studentship) through increased awareness. It is a symbol of healing through faith in God. As we have seen, the internal dynamics of the cross involve us in a cyclical pattern of growth. When we reflect on God’s plan of Salvation by the cross, we are moved to forgive others. When we forgive others we complete the Salvific act and we begin a pattern of increased awareness. Once we recognize that forgiveness teaches, we become our own best teachers in the method of the cross itself. As we grow in our comprehension of forgiveness and in our awareness of other areas in life where forgiveness is needed, we become a symbol (in and of ourselves) of healing. With regard to locating the cross in a pluralistic society, the potential is almost paralyzing. Sage advice says “choose your battles wisely for it is a long, long war.” As individuals, we cannot fight on every front. The best, most logical place to begin is to look for a place where forgiveness is needed. It can be as close as the neighbor whose dog wakes you up in the morning, or as far away as the gun of an enemy combatant in Iraq. Attempting forgiveness (in the context of the cross) will lead to enlightenment of other areas where forgiveness is needed. If we assume that Christ’s command to “take up our cross” involves taking a political stand (or at least a stand which has specific social and moral significance) then we might consider issues of life: abortion, euthanasia, reproductive rights, adoption, smoking, drinking or other dietary crusades, poverty, war, disease, or the environment. Though we might not see where we have been personally harmed by any of these, there are still areas of life where forgiveness is needed—especially for healing to take place. Finally, we must consider that our discipleship occurs within the context of the Institutional Church. Certainly there are initiatives in the Church that call for active participation—and hence afford us opportunities on an institutional level to help the cross claim its full symbolic value.
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