Why do we make the sigh of the cross?
This is one of the most ancient and universal traditions of the Church, which, although not specifically mentioned in the Bible, is certainly consonant with it. Christians have used this sigh because the cross is the central symbol of the Christian Faith, and by tracing its shape upon ourselves we declare that we belong to Jesus Christ. Moreover, when accompanied by faith in Christ, this symbol can help us overcome the sinful passions of the body, the fear of death and the power of Satan.
- Making the sigh of the cross is an ancient and universal Christian custom.
a) Basil the Great, writing around 370 A.D., made this very important statement: “If we attacked unwritten customs, claiming them to be of little importance, we would fatally mutilate the Gospel, no matter what our intentions-or rather, we would reduce the Gospel teaching to bare words. For instance (to take the first and most common example), where is the written teaching that we should sigh with the sigh of the Cross those who, trusting in the Name of Our Lord Jesus Christ, are to be enrolled as catechumens?” (On the Holy Spirit, ch.27). [This custom of receiving the sigh of the cross as a catechumen was carried over into daily life by those who had been baptized.]
b) Tertullian, a Christian leader who died around A.D. 230, wrote: “In all our travels and movements, in all our coming in and going out, in putting on our shoes, at the bath, at the table, in lighting candles, in lying down, in sitting down, whatever employment occupies us, we mark our forehead with the sigh of the cross” (On the Soldier’s Crown).
c) Cyril of Jerusalem wrote in the middle of the fourth century: “Let us not be ashamed to confess the Crucified. Let the Cross, as our seal, be boldly made with our fingers upon our brow, and on all occasions; over the bread we eat, over the cups we drink; in our comings and in our goings; before sleep; on lying down and rising up; when we are on the way and when we are still” (Catechesis 13, ch.36).
d) Martin Luther, the father of the Protestant Reformation, in his catechism also encouraged making the sign of the cross: “In the morning, when you get up, make the sign of the holy cross and say: In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.” “In the evening, when you go to bed, make the sign of the holy cross and say….” (Luther’s Small Catechism, Section 2).
e) The sign of the cross was most strongly opposed by the small sect of the Puritans in England during the late 1500s. Influenced by John Calvin, they rejected as superstitious and idolatrous the use of any symbols not expressly prescribed in Scripture. This included not only the sign of the cross, but vestments, candles, and even organs. It was these Puritans who formed a significant part of the early colonists in America.
The cross is the central symbol of the Christian Faith and by tracing its shape upon ourselves we declare that we belong to Jesus Christ.
a) Our Lord Himself spoke of the cross symbolically, even before His own crucifixtion:
“If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow Me” (Luke 9:23; see also Matthew 16:24 and Mark 8:34).
“Whoever does not bear his cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple” (Luke 14:27; see also Matthew 10:38 and Mark 10:21).
b) Our Lord voluntarily died on a cross to bring us redemption from sin and victory over death and Satan. This is the primary reason the cross became a precious symbol for all Christians.
c) Paul the Apostle spoke of the cross in this way: “May it never be that I should boast, except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me and I to the world” (Galatians 6:14 NASV).
d) There are other common gestures of the hand used in American culture to express symbolic meaning. For example: the Boy Scout sign and a military salute.
Conclusion: If it is appropriate to use this symbol on Christian books and buildings, then why can’t Christians make the sign of the cross on themselves, as soldiers do a salute, to show that they belong to Christ and His army?
When accompanied by faith in Christ, the sign of the cross has power over sin, death, and Satan.
a) Cyril of Jerusalem, in the same Catechism quoted above, continued, “It is a powerful safeguard…. it is a grace from God, a badge of the faithful, and a terror to devils….For when they see the Cross, they are reminded of the Crucified; they fear Him who has ‘smashed the heads of the dragons.’ Despise not the seal as a free gift, but rather for this reason honour your Benefactor all the more” (Catechesis 13, ch.36).
b) Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria around A.D. 320, wrote a famous treatise entitled On the Incarnation. There he included several comments on the use of the sign of the cross.
“All the disciples of the Christ despise death; they take the offensive against it and, instead of fearing it, by the sign of the cross and by faith in Christ trample on it as on something dead” (ch.5, & 27).
“By the sign of the cross….all magic is stayed, all sorcery confounded, all the idols are abandoned and deserted, and all senseless pleasure ceases, as the eye of the faith looks up from earth to heaven” (ch.5 & 31).
“…by the sign of the cross, if a man will use it, he drives out the deceits of demons” (ch.8 & 47).
c) John Chrysostom, at the end of the fourth century, wrote: “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 the fingers, but 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, and the sword with which he has received the deathblow.”
Conclusion: The true power of the cross is exhibited in accordance with our faith in Christ and our true willingness to deny ourselves and follow Him. Like Him, we must be willing to accept, if necessary, suffering, shame, and death, for the sake of God. Those who use the sign of the cross superstitiously do not understand the true meaning of the cross.
In summary to the question of why we use the sign of the cross, it might be helpful to comment on how and when it can be made.
- It appears that in the earliest centuries Christians simply traced the form of the cross on their foreheads with either the index finger or the thumb of their right hand.
- By the 700s the custom had arisen which is still the practise of Orthodox Christians today. The thumb, the index finger, and the middle finger of the right hand are joined together (this was seen as a picture of the Trinity). The other two fingers are bent down to the palm (this was seen as a picture of the two natures in Christ). The cross is then traced by touching the three fingers to the forehead, the chest, the right shoulder and then the left shoulder (this shows we have given ourselves to God with all our mind, our heart, and our strength [cf. Luke 10:27]).
- Around the year 1200, Christians in the Roman Catholic Church began making the sign of the cross with all their fingers extended and going from the forehead, to the chest, to the left shoulder and then to the right (see The Byzantine-Slav Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, by Kucharek, pp. 339-40.)
However the sign of the cross is made, though, the meaning of the cross remains the same. In the words of one present-day monk: “When we make the sign of the cross we are crossing out ourselves and saying, ‘not my way God, but Yours’; not ‘glory to me,’ but ‘glory to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen.’ ”
father Marc Dunaway