St. James Anglican Catholic Church
Holy Cross Tract # 4
Making the Sign of the Cross
WE ARE MARKED MEN! Yes; marked for Jesus! At our Baptism, each one of us was marked with the Holy Sign of the Cross upon our foreheads by the priest as he said:”We receive this Child into the congregation of Christ’s flock; and do sign him with the sign of the Cross, in token that hereafter he shall not be ashamed to confess the faith of Christ crucified, and manfully to fight under his banner, against sin, the world, and the devil; and to continue Christ’s faithful soldier and servant unto his life’s end Amen.”
As we began the battle of life as Christians, as soldiers of Christ, as members of His Body, our Marching Orders were given to us: CONFESS, FIGHT, CONTINUE. And our badge or insignia was the CROSS.
It has ever been the custom of Christians to trace over their own bodies that sacred Sign of the Cross to remind themselves from time to time of their vocations as soldiers of the Cross, to spur themselves on to renewed endeavors against the world, the flesh and the devil, and to recall the words of Christ, “Take up thy Cross and follow me.”
Perhaps the earliest reference we have to the making of the Sign of the Cross comes to us from Tertullian, who lived in north Africa about the year 200 A.D.: “At every forward step and movement, at every going in and out, when we put on our clothes and shoes, when we bathe, when we sit at table, when we light the lamps, on couch, on seat, in all the ordinary actions of daily life, we trace upon the forehead the sign.” What a wonderful way for Christians to impress upon themselves their pledge “to continue Christ’s faithful soldier and servant unto their life’s end!”
There have been various ways of making the Sign of the Cross. Notice that Tertullian said they traced it upon their foreheads. Judging by the comments of St. Augustine and others, this seems to have been the general usage in early times. This is what the priest still does in Baptism. As time passed, the large Sign drawn from forehead to breast and from shoulder to shoulder became common, but anciently the motion was made from the right shoulder to the left. This is the way it is still done in the Eastern Orthodox Churches.
Another custom which the Eastern Churches have preserved is the placing of the thumb and the first two fingers together to represent the Holy Trinity. This is a spiritual meaning which has come down from very early times when it was also thought that the other two fingers pressed back against the palm of the hand stood for our Lord’s two Natures of God and Man.
Of course, there have been many spiritual interpretations put upon the use of the Holy Sign. One of the most interesting comes from a medieval treatise called the MIRROURE OF OUR LADY: “And in this blessing ye begin with your hand at the head downward and, then to the left side, and after to the right side, in token and belief that our Lord Jesus Christ came down from the head, that is, from the Father, into earth by his holy Incarnation, and from the earth into the left side, that is, Hell, by his bitter Passion, and from thence unto his Father’s right side by his glorious Ascension. And after this ye bring your hand to your breast, in token that ye are come to thank him and praise him in the depth of your heart for these benefits.”
These variations as to how to hold the fingers, whether to bring the hand back to the center of the breast at the end, and so on, are minor matters providing they serve to remind us of our Christian vocation. Certainly for private use, the rubric in the First English Prayer Book of Edward VI in 1549 is our best guide here: “…crossing…may be used… as every mans deuocion serueth without blame.”
When one is taking formal part in a service, e.g., as a celebrant or as a server, it is customary in the Western use to do as follows. Unless one is carrying something, the two hands are clasped in front of the breast, the fingers being held parallel to one another, the right thumb being crossed over the left thumb. When it is time to make the Sign of the Cross, the hands are separated, and the left hand, with the fingers still extended, is laid flat against the breast rather low. With the fingers of the right hand also kept extended and parallel, the Sign of the Cross is traced from the forehead to just above the left hand on the breast, and then from the left side to the right side by just touching the shoulders. The two hands are then brought together again as they were to begin with.
In the services of the Church it is now customary to make the usual large Sign of the Cross at the following times: at the words, “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost;” at the end of the Creed, either Apostles or Nicene; at the end of Gloria in Excelsis; at the beginning of Benedictus qui venit; at any blessing or absolution; at the beginning of the Gospel Canticles, i.e., Benedictus, Magnificat, Nunc Dimittis. There is a special form of the symbol to be used just as the Holy Gospel is being announced at Holy Communion, which is done by tracing with the thumb small Signs, of the Cross successively on the forehead, mouth, and breast, as if we were declaring our intention to follow the teaching of the Gospel in thought, word, and deed. Another time when the Sign of the Cross is formed over the lips with the thumb is at the words, “O Lord, open thou our lips.”
Of course, as Tertullian recommended, it is good practice to begin any new deed with the Sign of the Cross to remind ourselves of the Apostle’s words, “Whatsoever ye do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus.” Certainly at the beginning and end of our private devotions, before and after meals (in public as well as in private), we should make the Holy Sign.
Many people find it helpful to begin their meditations by using the words of Psalm 10, verse 14, thus: “Let the words of my mouth (here make the small sign on your lips), and the meditations of my heart (here make it over your heart), be always acceptable in thy sight, (then as you finish the verse, make the usual large Sign of the Cross) O Lord, my strength and my redeemer.”
Just as Constantine had the vision of the Cross with the words, “In this Sign conquer;” so let us seek to hallow all we do or say with this Holy Sign and use it as our Battle Standard.