I saw it happen on television and in movies, but never in real life. The characters, male and female, young and old, and often in period costumes, hurriedly tapped themselves—forehead, sternum, left shoulder, right shoulder—during moments or fear or confusion. The presence of a dead body was often involved.
These people who crossed themselves were often portrayed as ignorant, possibly uneducated, and definitely superstitious. They were secondary characters—not the heroes, and certainly not people to emulate.
The sign of the cross in these shows was a sign of desperation. It had nothing to do with genuine, vibrant faith among people with working brains who make sincere efforts to live godly lives.
As an act of piety, to me the sign of the cross seemed quaint and maybe even a little bit exotic. My family, my neighborhood, my Bible Belt hometown were all very Protestant, and even though several of my classmates were Catholic, they didn’t cross themselves publicly. (In the survival-of-the-coolest worlds of middle school and high school, they probably didn’t want to draw unnecessary attention to themselves.)
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.
— St. John of Kronstadt (d. 1909)
An Ancient Sign of Devotion
The practice of crossing oneself is not a Catholic thing—it is a Christian thing, noted in some of our earliest writings. Hippolytus of Rome wrote about the power of the sign of the cross in his Apostolic Tradition. He was not promoting new innovations, like a modern Christian author marketing a “new revelation” into a bestseller. Instead, he wrote to record and preserve older Church practices so that they would not be lost.
Hippolytus understood the power of the cross as a weapon of spiritual warfare:
If you are tempted, seal your foreheads reverently. For this is the Sign of the Passion, displayed and made manifest against the devil, provided that you do it with faith, not to be seen by men, but by presenting it with skill like a shield. Because the Adversary, when he sees the strength of the heart and when he sees the inner man which is animated by the Word show, formed on the exterior, the interior image of the Word, he is made to flee by the Spirit which is in you. . . . By sealing the forehead and eyes with the hand, we turn aside the one who is seeking to destroy us. (~AD 215, Apostolic Tradition 42:1, 2, 4)
This method of tracing a cross on the forehead later morphed into the tradition of placing the thumb and first two fingers together, representing the Holy Trinity, with the last two fingers bent toward the palm, proclaiming Jesus’ human and divine natures. (This was the practice in both East and West until the thirteenth century, when Pope Innocent III changed Roman Catholic practice to using the open hand with fingers joined together.)
No doubt some obscure reason exists for the difference between the Catholic practice of left-to-right versus the Orthodox practice of touching the right shoulder first. (I’ve probably seen half a dozen “authoritative” explanations on the Web.) But no matter how the cross is formed, making one is a distinctly Christian practice.
When I thank God for a meal at a restaurant and cross myself, dedicating my mind (forehead), heart (sternum), and strength (shoulders) to Jesus Christ, other diners don’t wonder which spiritual entity I am honoring. I am clearly not praying to Krishna, Buddha, or Allah.
Why Don’t All Christians Use the Sign of the Cross?
We did, once. In the mid-third century, Tertullian affirmed the sign of the cross as a common practice among believers:
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 our candles, in lying down, in sitting down, whatever employment occupies us, we mark our foreheads with the sign of the cross. (AD 250, De Corona, 30)
But after the Protestant Reformation, many ancient practices were jettisoned as being too Catholic. Although some denominations (Anglican, Lutheran, and Episcopalian come to mind) retain the sign of the cross in their worship services, it is not necessarily a part of personal devotion in daily life.
The United States was settled by Puritans and members of other sects who were fleeing religious persecution in Catholic Europe. The Puritans took a radically ahistorical approach to their faith, rejecting many beautiful Christian traditions as “papist.” Their reactionary and, frankly, ignorant renunciation of many Christian practices heavily influenced Protestant culture across the U.S. and around the globe through missionary efforts. One of the negative results of this influence was the removal of a powerful tool of prayer from the lives of believers.
A Weapon of Warfare
In my final years as a Protestant I attended a few charismatic prayer conferences. (For those of you who are not familiar with the charismatic movement, Wikipedia gives a good definition: “a form of Christianity that emphasizes the work of the Holy Spirit, spiritual gifts, and modern-day miracles as an everyday part a believer’s life.”)
I remember entire seminars, workshops, and prayer services devoted to “spiritual warfare,” featuring teachings about using (and often misusing) Scripture, the power of the Holy Spirit, and even speaking in tongues to fight against the power of Satan. Isn’t it odd that these very sincere and committed Christians never once taught about a powerful weapon of prayer that the Church has used for millenia?
For [the demons] are cowards, and utterly dread the sign of our Lord’s Cross, since it was on the Cross that the Savior despoiled them and exposed them. — St. Anthony the Great (quoted by St. Athanasius in The Life of St. Anthony the Great)
The cross is so much more than a symbol, a mere reminder of Jesus’ incredible voluntary sacrifice, “trampling death by death” to unite us with God. Mystically, the sign of the cross gives us strength, power, and protection.
Several years ago I talked with an Orthodox priest who is a missionary in a country in the developing world. I asked him how he could tell the difference between someone suffering from mental illness and someone experiencing genuine demonic oppression.
His answer surprised me. I expected him to talk about the need for hours of prayer to discern rightly, but instead he responded, “Oh, it’s easy to tell. When a parishioner brings a family member to me who has, say, schizophrenia, that person is grateful and eager to receive prayer. But when someone has a demon, I pull out my hand cross, and they start writhing and screaming, desperate to get away.”
By the signing of the holy and life-giving cross, devils and various scourges are driven away. For it is without price and without cost and praises him who can say it. … Again, by the movement of the hands … the enemies of God will be driven out, as the Lord triumphs over the Devil with His inconquerable power, rendering him dismal and weak. — Athanasius of Alexandria (AD 269–373)
My Neglected Form of Prayer
By the grace of God, the Church has provided us with this simple yet powerful tool of prayer, available to all. Even those who are unable to move their arms can use their eyes (gazing up–down–right–left) or move their heads in the form of the cross. But do we actually use this gift?
As I was writing this post, I realized with embarrassment that I make the sign of the cross mostly during formal prayer—in the services of the Church or before meals. Why don’t I use it more often? I could blame my background—the sign of the cross was not a part of my life or my thinking for more than forty-five years. But I know better now, and if I’m honest, I don’t cross myself often because I’m inattentive.
This precious practice is not superstition. The sign of the cross is power and proclamation: Christ is risen, conquering death by death on the Cross, and His Spirit dwells within us! Making the sign of the cross should be a frequent, everyday part of our lives, the use of physical motion reminding us of God’s presence with us always. With our hands we can invoke God’s blessing over our work, over the stove, over our gardens, over our cars when we drive, and most especially over our children.
Let us then not be ashamed to confess the Crucified. Be the cross our seal, made with boldness by our fingers on our brow and in everything; over the bread we eat and the cups we drink, in our comings and in our goings out; before our sleep, when we lie down and when we awake; when we are traveling, and when we are at rest. — St. Cyril of Jerusalem (d. 386), Catechetical Lectures
Let us attend!