Why do some Christians (Roman Catholics, Orthodox, Lutherans and Anglicans) make the sign of the cross before and after they pray? What is the origin and significance of this act?
THE phrase “sign of the cross” refers to various liturgical or devotional acts which trace the two lines intersecting at right angles, indicating symbolically the figure of Jesus’ cross.
For evangelical Protestants, whose devotional and liturgical experience does not emphasise the use of gestures, the sign of the cross may appear rather strange and unnecessary. Is it not enough to simply say “Our Father” at the start of our prayer and “Amen” at the end?
As a devotional or liturgical practice, the sign of the cross has a very long history in Christian spirituality.
Its origins can be traced to the writings of the theologians in the first 500 years of the Church’s history.
There are many different ways in which the sign of the cross may be made, the most common of which is to trace a large cross from forehead to breast and from shoulder to shoulder. This gesture is often accompanied by the words “In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Sometimes, the believer may trace a little cross, generally using the thumb, on the forehead.
In the Roman Catholic Church, believers trace small crosses over their forehead, their lips and their hearts before listening to the Gospel reading. In some Anglican and Lutheran services, the priest or bishop makes the sign of the cross in the air when pronouncing the benediction.
There are different ways in which the fingers can be positioned when making the sign of the cross. Some would trace the cross with their index finger and middle fingers held together. This is meant to symbolise the two natures of Christ – that the incarnate Son is very God and very man. Others would hold the index and the middle fingers together (with the thumb pressing down the last finger) while making the sign of the cross, thus symbolising the Holy Trinity.
Sometimes the priest holds his third and fourth fingers down with his thumb while keeping his index and middle fingers straight. This position has the advantage of signifying both the two natures of Christ and the Trinity.
What is the place of such gestures in Christian worship and devotion? Theologians maintain that physical gestures are important in worship and that something is lost if the Church has lost sight of them.
Even Protestants who use gestures only very minimally are used to standing, sitting or kneeling in worship. Some also raise their hands in prayers or when they sing a hymn. Some Lutherans also genuflect (kneel on one knee) as a gesture of reverence. Ministers in Protestant churches often raise their hands when pronouncing the benediction.
It is the nature of physical movements that they involve the mind as well as the body and thus produce a greater sense of participation. Gestures used at different points in the worship service can produce greater intensity in the act of worship.
When these gestures are symbolic, that is, when they point to particular truths, they can inject meaning and value in worship. Of course just as words can be cheap, actions can also be performed mechanically and thoughtlessly. But when used properly and reverently, significant gestures can introduce depth to our worship.
The different postures, for example, could indicate the attitude of the worshipper at different points in worship.
Kneeling expresses humility, and is the appropriate posture for prayer, particularly the prayer of confession.
Standing brings to expression other attitudes, and therefore may be more appropriate for other acts of worship – singing, prayers of thanksgiving, praise and adoration. Sitting is less expressive and indicates that attention is directed at what someone else is doing. Thus, in most Western churches the congregation sits to listen to the homily or sermon.
The sign of the cross is an important liturgical gesture because the Cross is the central symbol of the Christian faith.
To make the sign of the cross is to recall the salvation that God has made available through the life, death, resurrection and ascension of His Son, Jesus Christ. It is therefore a reminder of the divine love, which is not only found in a past event, but which continues to abide with us.
The sign of the cross therefore becomes a wonderful daily expression of our relationship with God. It recalls our baptism, for all Christians are baptised in the Name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
Tracing the cross on our forehead, heart and shoulders reminds us that we are to love God with our mind, heart, soul and strength – indeed, with every fibre of our being.
Dr Roland Chia is Dean of Postgraduate Studies and Lecturer in Historical and Systematic Theology at Trinity Theological College. He worships at the Fairfield Preaching Point.