The Sign of the Cross: What It Is and Why It Matters

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This post about the sign of the cross originally appeared on August 06, 2014. Updated on August 22, 2018.


Why do Anglicans make the sign of the cross? When do they do it? How do they do it? I serve in the South, so usually, the question goes: “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 it’s 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 to answer those kinds of questions, so here we go…

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What is the sign of the cross?

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 of the cross?

Here are some reasons why we make the sign of the cross.

Signing 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 Cyril, it was important to make the sign of the cross as a profession of faith.

Signing the cross is an act of sanctification.

Sanctification means “setting apart.” Our souls, our bodies, and our lives are sanctified—set apart for Christ, under and in his cross. For example, many people sign themselves before receiving communion. They are set apart to 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.

Making the sign is a prayer in itself.

It is often accompanied by a prayer, either aloud or in one’s own mind and heart. Usually, the spoken prayer is “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” Which brings me to my next point.

Singing the cross is a marker of belief in the Triune God.

Because the sign of the cross has been so associated with this Trinitarian formula, when we sign ourselves, we are also marking ourselves as orthodox Christians who worship and love the Triune God.

There is nothing superstitious or rote about signing 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 of the Cross?

OK, so much for reasons why we make the sign of the cross. How do you make the sign?

The Starting Hand Position

First, place your hand in the following position as pictured. You’ll notice that this groups three fingers together, with two fingers folded down toward the palm. The three fingers together symbolize the three Persons of the Trinity—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And the two fingers together symbolize the divine and human natures of Jesus Christ. (This hand position is, perhaps, the briefest summary of the key points of Christian theology! See the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, and the Athanasian Creed for more on Christian belief in the Triune God. See the Chalcedonian Definition for more on Christian belief in the two natures of Christ.)

The Motions

With your hand in position, trace Christ’s cross upon your

  • head (center of forehead),
  • heart (center of chest),
  • left shoulder,
  • right shoulder.

Variations

In the East (as in Eastern Orthodoxy), it is the right shoulder, then left shoulder. In some traditions, people kiss their hand after making the sign. Other times, people return their hand to their heart after the second shoulder. 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, on the forehead, mouth, and heart. This sign is used at the reading of the Gospel during the liturgy. It’s meant to signify the sanctification of our thoughts, speech, and affections for God. 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 also signed, as well as other articles set apart for a sacred use. It’s actually very simple, really. The sign of the cross 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).

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 (perhaps as a part of the Daily Office), as well as before each meal. As a tangible form of catechesis, we can bless our children and teach them by signing them with the cross at prayertime, bedtime, and mealtime as well. During worship and prayer, we often make the sign of the cross

  • whenever we say the Trinitarian formula (“the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit”),
  • before the Gospel reading (with the “little” sign of the cross on our foreheads, mouths, and hearts),
  • at the prayer for absolution/forgiveness,
  • and before receiving the bread and wine at communion.

Some people also sign themselves at

  • the end of the creed (usually when we mention the resurrection),
  • the name of Jesus Christ,
  • and the second part of the Sanctus (“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord”).

(To learn more about the structure and parts of an Anglican worship service, go here.)

Do Anglicans Have to Make the Sign of the Cross?

No. No Anglican must make the sign of the cross. However, some should. And all can. The sign of the cross is a powerful and tangible reminder that we are Christ’s. To learn more about the sign of the cross, check out the following helpful video from WhyWeWorship.

Also, if you’d like to learn more, check out New Advent’s Catholic Encyclopedia entry on the sign of the cross, as well as Wikipedia’s “Sign of the Cross” page.

If you have questions about the sign of the cross, please ask them in the comments below!

Published on

August 22, 2018

Author

The Anglican Pastor

A classic resource from the founding team of Anglican Compass.

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