Many Christians denominations practice making the sign of the cross. How is it made and how do they explain it?
Orthodox Church. The Orthodox make the sign of the cross with their right hand. The tips of the first three fingers (the thumb, index, and middle ones) are brought together, expressing one’s faith in the Trinity, and the last two (the “ring” and little fingers) are pressed against the palm to symbolize the two natures of Christ. First we touch the forehead with the three fingers and say “In the Name of the Father”, then we press them against the belly and say, “and the Son”, then the hand goes to the right shoulder, at which point we say, “and the Holy”, before moving our hand to the left shoulder and finishing the phrase by saying “Spirit”. Immediately after that, we bow and seal the formula with Amen. All Orthodox Christians use the same Trinitarian formula. We raise our hand and remember the Father who is the Source of the Trinitarian being. Then we remember the Son and, by putting our hand to the belly, we recall his Incarnation in the womb of the most holy Theotokos. As we touch our right and left shoulders, we invoke the Holy Spirit. When we touch our forehead, we ask God to cleanse our mind; when we touch our belly, we ask him to purify our inner feelings. Shoulders are an image of our physical strength and everything we do. We touch the right shoulder first because the right side has always been more honorable than the left side, judging from the Bible. The Lord Jesus Christ sits to the right side of his Father. The good thief was crucified to the right side of Jesus; the Lord will put the sheep to his right side and goats to his left side, etc.
Roman Catholic Church. Catholics make the sign of the cross with an open hand and from left to right, in contrast with the Orthodox. Other Western Christians, e.g., Lutherans, Anglicans, Episcopalians, and some Presbyterians follow the same pattern because they inherited it from the Western Church. Catholics have strict rules concerning the sign of the cross, while many Lutherans don’t feel obliged to use it, although Luther himself recommended to cross oneself every day. The open palm symbolizes the five wounds on the Savior’s body. Aside from the “big” sign of the cross, the Catholics have also preserved the ancient “small” sign of the cross. The cross is made with the thumb first on the forehead, then on the mouth, and finally on the heart. They use this sign before the reading of the Gospel during the mass, as a way of showing that they are ready to receive the Good News in their mind, to preach it with their mouths, and to keep it in their hearts. There is also a tradition in the Catholic Church to dip one’s fingers in holy water upon entering the church and then crossing oneself to remind oneself of one’s baptism and as a remnant of the long-gone practice of washing of hands before the Eucharist.
Ethiopian Church. Ethiopians use their index and middle fingers to make the sign of the cross. This position is called the Cross of salvation. They press the thumb against the tip of the ring finger, while the little finger clings tightly to the ring finger. Fingers crossed in this way symbolize the Most Holy Trinity and resembles the way Old Believers cross their fingers. The Ethiopians touch the forehead and say In the Name of the Father, then the chest and say and the Son, then the left shoulder and say and the Holy Spirit. They add, One God, while touching the right shoulder; then bow and say Amen. They say that the left side symbolizes the Prophets, the Old Testament, the West, the robber on the left side of Christ, the sin, as well as the Exile of the Holy Family to Egypt; while the right side symbolizes respectively the Apostles, the New Testament, the East, the good thief, righteousness, and the return of Jesus from Egypt. Therefore, the left-to-right movement symbolizes rejection of sin and old self and striving for the light of righteousness.
Ancient authors ascribed the notion of holiness to the right side. That is why when Greeks said the words Holy Spirit (Άγιο Πνεύμα), they designated the word Holy to the right shoulder and the word Spirit to the left shoulder. That was why they crossed themselves from right to left. However, Latin has reverse word order, i.e., spiritus sanctus. Possibly, that was why the Latin West, wanting to assign sanctus to the right shoulder, chose left-to-right direction. This attempt to explain the direction of the gesture from the linguistic point of view is interesting but not applicable to all traditions. Thus, the Assyrian Church of the East has right-to-left direction, while the Syriac Jacobite Church has left-to-right direction, in spite of the fact that both churches use Syriac as their liturgical language.
Regardless of how Christians cross themselves and what meaning they attribute to it, let us remember that it isn’t the way we cross that saves us – it is Christ who died on the Cross for us. Let us be thankful to the Lord throughout our lives, bearing in mind the price that He had to pay for our salvation. Let us follow St. John Chrysostom’s advice, “When you make the sign of the cross, may your forehead express living hope and your soul shall become free.”
There are Lutherans who use the Orthodox sign of the cross.
Yes. There are also Orthodox who make the Sign of the Cross using Latin tradition. I mean the Orthodox of Western Rite.
Indeed there are Aleksandra Mihajlovic. It is a significant factor in how I left Lutheranism for holy Orthodoxy.
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\\o// The Indian Orthodox Church encourages the faithful to do the sign of the CROSS , as many times as possible + ….. By doing this Sign means, the Sign itself is a PRAY of the Soul, and immediately reaches a state of ‘Nirvana’….. Whenever the Mind requires divine support of the Almighty, and the Body prostrate to accept the divine presence for STRENGTH, COURAGE and DETERMINATION in every moment of our life.
Great article! Thanks for explaining the differences without bias or prejudice such as “we’re right, they’re wrong.”
Very informative! Thanks.
There is an important commonality here. The cross is signed on our bodies, as Christ’s body was nailed to the cross. St. Paul said ” I am crucified with Christ.”
Mr John says: ”Regardless of how Christians cross themselves and what meaning they attribute to it, let us remember that it isn’t the way we cross that saves us – it is Christ who died on the Cross for us. ”
As though the way we make the sign of the cross or what we believe about the sign of the cross is insignificant. God help us if this is what they teach in ‘theological schools’ these days. No wonder the Orthodox Church is so infected with ecumenist heresy.
St John of Kronstandt clearly believes very differently: ”Glory, O Lord, to the power of Thy Cross, which never fails! When the enemy oppresses me with a sinful thought or feeling, and I, lacking freedom in my heart, make the sign of the Cross several times with faith, suddenly my sin falls away from me, the compulsion vanishes, and I find myself free… For the faithful the Cross is a mighty power which delivers from all evils, from the malice of the invisible foe.”
I have not said that what we believe about the sign of the Cross is insignificant. I have said that the way how we do this sign and which symbolism we put in it is not so important, as the fact that we invoke the power and grace of Christ when we do so. I guess and hope that everybody who make this Sign believe in the power of Christ Who protect us with His sign of the victory. The history and the development of the sign of the Cross even in terms of Orthodox Church is quite long. For example even now in Russian Church there plenty of ways of doing the sign of Cross: normal usual way, old believers way, the sign of the cross by a priest and the sign of the cross by a bishop. And I guess, that all these types are full of grace.
St. John of Kronstandt once kisses the pectoral Cross of one of the Anglican bishop, if I am not mistaken. So what? Is it a problem?
“The act of “Placing the cross on oneself” is a request for a blessing from God. We make if from right to left to mirror the actions of the priest when he blesses us. The priest, looking at the parishioners, blesses from left to right. Therefore, the parishioners, putting on the sign of the cross on themselves, do it from right to left.
Because the Lord separated the sheep from the goats, putting the faithful sheep on His right side, and the goats on the left, the Church always treats the right side as the preferred side. We only cross ourselves with our RIGHT hand. The priest, when blessing a person, first touches or points to their RIGHT side, then their left. Also the censing of the Holy Table in the Altar is always done from the RIGHT side first; censing of the Ikonostasis, the Congregation and of the Church itself always begins with the right side. The priest always gives communion with his RIGHT hand, even if he is left handed. There are other examples of this right side preference.
When a parent makes the sign of the cross over a child, they will cross them from left to right, just as the priest blesses. When they make the sign of the cross over themselves, they would do it, logically, the other way.
The Catholic Encyclopedia states that in the Roman Catholic Church, the faithful crossed themselves from right to left, just as the Orthodox do, until the 15th or 16th century. They must explain why they have changed an ancient and apostolic tradition. We cannot answer as to their motivations.
Is it important to cross ourselves a particular way? In a word, YES. We do not have the authority to choose willy-nilly what parts of the Christina Tradition we want to follow. Our fathers, and countless saints crossed themselves from right to left. Ancient icons show Christ or bishops beginning a blessing from right to left. the right side is referred to in a preferential way many times in scripture and our sacred hymns What should we want to change?”
Basically. it does matter how we cross ourselves, especially if the blog is considered to be Orthodox Christian.
Thank you for your nice comment. However, there is an interesting question: if we cannot change our tradition, if we have to accept without alterations the heritage from our Fathers, why then the sign of the cross was constantly changing in the church history? The first sign of the cross, known from the Tradition is to make the sign on ones forehead using only the thumb. There where different traditions of making the sign of the cross in the Orthodox Church. Why the Russian Orthodox Church has changed the most ancient practice of making the sign of the cross, now preserved in Old Rite believers tradition and adopt the new one? St. Sergius of Radonezh and other famous Russian Saints used the old version and we are using the new one, after patriarch Nikon reforms.