The Sign of the Cross
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by Greg Goebel
I serve in the South, so usually its, “Why do ya’ll cross yourselves?” Often this is followed by “Isn’t that superstitious, like the baseball players who sign themselves before batting? Isn’t it a dead, rote ritual?” Sometimes folks don’t feel its rote or superstitious, but they wonder why and how to make the sign.
And that’s why Anglican Pastor is here! We want to try and answer those kinds of questions, so here we go…
What is the Sign of the Cross?
The sign of the cross is an ancient Christian practice of marking the shape of the cross of Christ upon one’s self or upon another person or object.
Why make the sign?
Making the sign of the cross is a tangible way to mark ourselves as Christ’s.
Cyril of Jerusalem wrote, “Let us not be ashamed to profess the Crucified One; let us confidently seal our forehead with our fingers, let us make the sign of the cross on everything, on the bread we eat and over the cup we drink. Let us make this sign as we come and go, before sleeping, when we lie down and when we arise, while traveling and while resting.” For him, it was important to make the sign of the cross as a profession of faith.
Signing oneself with the cross is an act of sanctification, which means “setting apart.” Our souls, our bodies, and our lives are set apart for Christ, under and in his cross. For example, many people sign themselves before receiving communion. They are set apart to God.
The act of making the sign of the cross is a prayer in itself. It is often accompanied by a prayer aloud, or in one’s own mind and heart. Usually this is “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” Because the sign of the cross has been so associated with the Trinitarian formula, when we sign ourselves, we are also marking ourselves as orthodox Christians who worship and love the Triune God.
When marking the cross upon our children, we are tangibly setting them under Christ’s cross. When signing our food, or our house, or another object, we are setting that apart as holy in Christ and giving thanks to God.
There is nothing superstitious or rote about making the sign of the cross. Just like anything, if we choose to see it that way, it can become that. But it is not fundamentally a superstitious act. Instead, it is a fundamentally Christian act. In other words, if we make it superstitious or rote, we are denying its fundamental purpose.
How do I make the sign?
The hand and finger traces Christ’s cross upon one’s head, heart (center of chest), left shoulder and right shoulder. In the East it is right, then left shoulder. In some traditions, the finger is kissed after making the sign, or returned to the heart. When a priest or bishop is blessing the people, he makes the sign as if signing them. This means that rather than signing himself, he moves from their left to their right.
The “little” sign of the cross is the marking of small crosses, using the thumb, to the forehead, mouth, and heart. This sign is used at the reading of the Gospel during the liturgy.
Often a cross is signed upon the forehead during anointing or laying on of hands, usually with the thumb. Items such as the communion Bread and Wine are signed, as well as other articles set apart for a sacred use.
Its actually very simple, really. It is an act of marking Christ’s cross upon one’s self and life, or upon the people and basic elements of life (food, homes, children, people).
Check out the video at the end of this post from WhyWeWorship for a simple explanation.
When do Anglicans make the Sign of the Cross?
Anytime! Tertullian said, “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 the table, when we light the lamps, when on the couch, on a seat, and in all the ordinary actions of daily life, we trace the sign upon our foreheads.” He wanted us to remember that we are Christ’s, and that his cross is upon us at all times.
During our daily lives, many Anglicans make the sign of the cross upon waking up and going to bed, as well as before each meal. When praying, the sign of the cross is customary at the Trinitarian formula (“the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit”) and at a prayer for forgiveness. We can bless our children and teach them by signing them with the cross at bedtime as well.
During worship, the sign of the cross is often used at the Trinitarian formula, at the prayer for absolution, and before receiving communion. Some people sign themselves at the end of the creed, at the name of Jesus Christ, and at the Sanctus (“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord”). As I mentioned above, you can make the “little sign” at the announcement of the Gospel.
No Anglican must make the sign of the cross. Some should. All can.
Here is that video from WhyWeWorship. Its really helpful, check it out.
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