[An earlier version of this article was posted in August of 2019.]
Christ is risen! Truly He is risen!
I hope your Paschal season is joyous and that you are celebrating with the consumption of “fleshmeats,” as some of the old service books say. In our house, barbecue is definitely on the menu within 48 hours of the midnight Pascha service.
As we reflect on Christ’s victory over death, it’s a good season to think about the Cross in our daily lives, and especially about using the sign of the cross.
I’ve seen this distinctive gesture repeated on television and in movies through the years, but rarely in real life. The characters, male and female, young and old, and often in period costumes, hurriedly tap themselves—forehead, sternum, left shoulder, right shoulder—during moments of fear or confusion. The presence of a dead body is often involved.
These people who cross themselves are often portrayed as ignorant, possibly uneducated, and definitely superstitious. With an occasional exception, such as the brilliant detective in Murdoch Mysteries whose Catholicism seems otherwise irrelevant to his everyday life, they are usually secondary characters—not the heroes, and certainly not people to emulate.
The sign of the cross in these shows is a sign of desperation. It has nothing to do with genuine, vibrant faith among people with working brains who make sincere efforts to live godly lives.
As I was growing up, the sign of the cross seemed quaint and maybe even a little bit exotic to me. My family, my neighborhood, and 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.
But making the sign of the cross is a precious habit to reclaim.
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
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 making the sign of the cross in his Apostolic Tradition, written around AD 215. 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 sign of the cross as a weapon of spiritual warfare. He wrote:
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. (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.) My church’s former priest has the theory that parishes in either the East or West imitated their priest’s motions when making the sign of the cross, while parishioners on the other side of Christendom mirrored his motions. (My priest very graciously declined to judge which method is the original or “correct” way.) 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 god I am honoring. I am clearly not praying to Krishna, Buddha, or Allah.
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 (19th century)
Why Don’t All Christians Use the Sign of the Cross?
We did, in the past. In the mid-third century, Tertullian described the sign of the cross as a common practice among believers. In his De Corona from AD 250, he 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 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 retain the sign of the cross in their worship services (Anglican, Lutheran, and Episcopalian come to mind), 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 Roman 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 US and around the globe through missionary efforts. One of the negative results of this influence was the removal from the lives of believers of a powerful tool of prayer.
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, 4th century (quoted by St. Athanasius in The Life of St. Anthony the Great)
The sign of the cross is not a superstitious gesture, and it does not belong only to the Roman Catholic Church; it is a weapon of warfare for all Christians.
A Weapon of Warfare
During my last few years as a Protestant, I attended a few charismatic prayer conferences. I remember entire seminars, workshops, and prayer services devoted to “spiritual warfare,” featuring teachings about using (and, frankly, often misusing) Scripture, relying on 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 weapon of prayer that the Church has used for millenia?
The cross is so much more than a symbol, a mere reminder of Jesus’ incredible voluntary sacrifice. Mystically, the sign of the cross gives us strength, power, and protection.
You must cross yourself more often because it guards you just like a lock on the door. Save yourselves and defend yourselves with the power of the honorable and Life-giving Cross. — St. Matrona the Blind of Moscow, 20th century
Several years ago I talked with an Orthodox priest who is a missionary in Central America. I asked him how he could tell the difference between someone suffering from mental illness and someone experiencing 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 the person starts writhing and screaming, desperate to get away.”
By the signing of the holy and life-giving cross, devils and various scourges are driven away. . . . 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. — St. 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 mighty prayer practice, 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, I realized with embarrassment that I make the sign of the cross mostly during formal prayer—in the services of the Church, before meals, or while praying in my icon corner. I’ve talked to a few lifelong Orthodox people who aren’t in the habit either. Why don’t we use it more often? Maybe we forget because our society is so secularized that we don’t have many reminders in our lives. I could blame my background—the sign of the cross was not a part of my faith 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.
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. Like so much of Orthodox faith and practice, there is a wonderful physicality to it, aligning our bodies with our minds and spirits, 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 pot of soup simmering on the stove, over the seeds sprouting in the garden, over our cars when we drive, over our pillows before we sleep, and most especially over our children.
Mothers, teach your young children to cross themselves. If they cannot make the Sign of the Cross by themselves, sign them yourselves with your own hands. — St. John Chrysostom, 4th century
Let us attend!