We as Christians have always had always been looking for signs. Signs of remembrance, signs of last days, and signs of faith. One of the most important signs to the Catholics and Orthodox Christians is the sign of the cross. The sign of the cross is a beautiful gesture that reminds the faithful of both the cross of salvation while invoking the Holy Trinity. However, what many may not know is that it was not the first sign that early Christians did nor was it always practiced the same way as it is today.
Actually, the first Christian symbol was not the Cross but it was the fish. Many people have used the fish as a symbol. However, in the early Church, this common symbol provided the ability for the persecuted Christians to recognize each other as well as general enough that the probing eyes of the enemy may not recognize the fact that the symbol was indeed a Christian symbol.
The Greek word for fish is "ichthys." As early as the first century, Christians made an acrostic from this word: Iesous Christos Theou Yios Soter, i.e. Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior. The fish has plenty of other theological overtones as well, for Christ fed the 5,000 with 2 fishes and 5 loaves (a meal recapitulated in Christian love-feasts) and called his disciples "fishers of men." Water baptism, practiced by immersion in the early church, created a parallel between fish and converts. Second-century theologian Tertullian put it this way: "we, little fishes, after the image of our Ichthys, Jesus Christ, are born in the water."
Technically, the sign of the cross is a sacramental, a sacred sign instituted by the Church which prepares a person to receive grace and which sanctifies a moment or circumstance. Along with this thought, this gesture has been used since the earliest times of the Church to begin and to conclude prayer and the Divine Liturgy (Mass).
Several of the early Church Fathers attested to the use of the sign of the cross.
Origen (ad c. 185-c. 284) wrote, “This [letter Tau] bears a resemblance to the figure of the cross; and this prophecy [Ezek 9:4] is said to regard the sign made by Christians on the forehead, which all believers make whatsoever work they begin upon, and especially at the beginning of prayers, or of holy readings” (Selections in Ezekiel. c. ix).
Tertullian (d. c. 250) described the commonness of the sign of the cross: “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” (De corona, 30).
St. Cyril of Jerusalem (d. 386) in his Catechetical Lectures stated, “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” (Catecheses, 13). Gradually, about the ninth century, the sign of the cross was incorporated in different acts of the Divine Liturgy (Mass), such as the three-fold signing of the forehead, lips, and heart at the reading of the gospel or the blessing and signing of the bread and wine to be offered.
St. Augustine (354–430 AD) wrote: “What else is the sign of Christ but the cross of Christ? For unless that sign is applied, whether it be to the foreheads of believers, or to the very water out of which they are regenerated, or to the oil with which they receive the anointing chrism, or to the sacrifice that nourishes them, none of them is properly administered” (Tractates on John 118).
The sign of the cross was routinely done by all Christian believers up to the time of the Protestant Reformation. John Calvin called it "a superstitious rite" (Institutes 4.17.28). The Second Helvetic Confession (1566) Chapter 27, calls it a mere "custom in the ancient church." The Protestants tossed the idea just like they did with the Holy Water, Confessions, and Books In The Bible. At this point maybe some of the reformers or protestors should have read from their own King James Version of the Bible "Let God be true, but every man a liar" (Rom. 3:4, KJV). Since Calvin was not God and since Calvin was the man the only logical conclusion is that he was lying according to Paul who wrote the Epistle to the Romans.
If the sign of the cross was held in such high esteem in the Early Church- what made it so controversial both then (during the Protestant Reformation) and now?
First, the Sign of the Cross provided a very concrete way to teach the parishes about their faith. It reinforced the idea that God was three persons in one- Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The earliest formalized way of making the sign of the cross appeared about the 400s, during the Monophysite heresy which denied the two natures in the divine person of Christ and thereby the unity of the Holy Trinity. The sign of the cross was made from forehead to chest, and then from right shoulder to left shoulder with the right hand. The thumb, forefinger, and middle fingers were held together to symbolize the Holy Trinity– Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Moreover, these fingers were held in such a way that they represented the Greek abbreviation I X C (Iesus Christus Soter, Jesus Christ Savior): the straight forefinger representing the I; the middle finger crossed with the thumb, the X; and the bent middle finger, the C. The ring finger and “pinky” finger were bent downward against the palm, and symbolize the unity of human nature and divine nature, and the human will and divine will in the person of Christ. This practice was universal for the whole Church until about the twelfth century but continues to be the practice for the Eastern Rites of the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Churches.
A second controversy came about with the instructions of Pope Innocent III (1198-1216). Here he told the Church, “The sign of the cross is made with three fingers because the signing is done together with the invocation of the Trinity. …This is how it is done: from above to below, and from the right to the left because Christ descended from the heavens to the earth, and from the Jews (right) He passed to the Gentiles (left).” While noting the custom of making the cross from the right to the left shoulder was for both the western and eastern Churches, Pope Innocent continued, “Others, however, make the sign of the cross from the left to the right, because from misery (left) we must cross over to glory (right), just as Christ crossed over from death to life, and from Hades to Paradise. [Some priests] do it this way so that they and the people will be signing themselves in the same way. You can easily verify this– picture the priest facing the people for the blessing– when we make the sign of the cross over the people, it is from left to right….” Therefore, about this time, the faithful began to imitate the priest imparting the blessing, going from the left shoulder to the right shoulder with an open hand. Eventually, this practice became the custom for the Western Church.
The third controversy came with the advent of the reformation. Here, reformers following the lead of Martin Luther broke away from the Catholic Church. Only recently, since the Reformation, has the Sign of the Cross (along with the Crucifix, holy water, and other visible signs) been rejected as idolatrous by many Protestant traditions. However, even Martin Luther in his Taufbuechlein retained the Sign of the Cross in the baptismal service and used the Sign of the Cross as one of his last gestures before death. However, looking at the word Luther spoke on these subjects you might get a whole idea of Luther’s thoughts on the subject.
In the classic work, The Ceremonies of the Roman Rite by Adrian Fortescue and J. B. O’Connell, the sign of the cross is made as follows: “Place the left hand extended under the breast. Hold the right hand extended also. At the word Patris [Father] raise it and touch the forehead; at Filii [Son] touch the breast at a sufficient distance down, but above the left hand; at Spiritus Sancti [Holy Spirit] touch the left and right shoulders; at Amen join the hands if they are to be joined.” Although this practice may have evolved from the original and still current practice of Eastern Rite, it nevertheless has been the standing custom for the Latin Rite Church for centuries.
No matter how one technically makes the sign of the cross, the gesture should be made consciously and devoutly. The individual must be mindful of the Holy Trinity, that central dogma that makes Christians “Christians.” Also, the individual must remember that the cross is the sign of our salvation: Jesus Christ, true God who became true man, offered the perfect sacrifice for our redemption from sin on the altar of the cross. This simple yet profound act makes each person mindful of the great love of God for us, a love that is stronger than death and promises everlasting life. The sign of the cross should be made with purpose and precision, not hastily or carelessly. Brother and Sisters, we are living in perilous times and we should all be much more mindful of the signs of the times.