Although the sign of the cross is prayed and practised among the whole Catholic Church, no where is this sacramental sign beloved more than by the Byzantines. Today we are going to look at a bit of the history, how Byzantine Catholics use the sign, and how you can add to your spiritual life through this beautiful but simple sign and prayer.
Before we go on, let’s review what the sign of the cross is. Simply put, it is tracing the pattern of the cross, often while repeating the words “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” The sign can be made over food and other objects, but more often is traced over our bodies (going from forehead to chest, then shoulder to shoulder, or just over our forehead). Typically, Latin Catholics cross themselves from left to right (representing the transition from darkness to the light). Eastern Catholics cross from right to left (with Christ being said while touching the right, for Christ siting at the right hand of the Father). A further exploration of the directions can be found from Aleteia. Saying the Trinitarian formula is also not the only occasion for making the sign of the cross. More about that further down!
Although the sign of the cross is most accurately referring to the action of tracing the shape of a cross with our hands, it is often used to refer a specific prayer. On pamphlets on how to pray the rosary, or explanations of the mass, the sign of the cross is typically referring to the Trinitarian formula. This is not at all accidental or misleading. In fact, the Trinitarian formula is what makes the sign of the cross a sacramental sign! Let’s examine a little of the history
In Matthew 28:19, Jesus commands his disciples to carry out the sacrament of baptism with the words: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” This verse is the biblical foundation of the Trinitarian formula, and also of making the sign of the cross. When we cross ourselves, we are making a visible reminder of the mark of Christ imprinted upon us through our baptism. It is through our baptisms that we died with Christ (the cross) so that we could rise with him to new life, cleansed of all our guilt.
Although the size and form of the cross has changed over the centuries, evidence of Christians using the sign can be found in writing from the Early Church Fathers.
Tertullian, a Christian who was born around 155 A.D., writes in De Corona (Chapter 3) that “At every forward step and movement, at every going in and out, … in all the ordinary actions of daily life, we trace upon the forehead the sign.” Later, in the 4th century, St. Cyril of Jerusalem states in his 23th Catechetical lecture, “Be the Cross our seal made with boldness by our fingers on our brow, and on everything; over the bread we eat, and the cups we drink; in our comings in, and goings out; before our sleep, when we lie down and when we rise up; when we are in the way, and when we are still.”
The Sign of the Cross in the Byzantine Churches
I mentioned earlier that the Trinitarian formula is not the only occasion for making the sign of the cross. Eastern Catholics also use the tracing of the cross at other times, such as when we say “Holy God, Holy and Mighty, Holy and Immortal, have mercy on us” or other variations of that phrase. We cross ourselves before and after the reading the Gospel while saying “Glory be to you, O Lord, Glory be to you.” And, we cross ourselves anytime the Trinity is mentioned in sequence.
In the Latin Rite, Catholic’s make the sign of the cross without discrimination for finger placement. In the Eastern Churches, however, there is a deep symbolism behind hand shape. To form the hand for making the sign, extend your first three fingers, from your thumb to your middle finger. Pinch the three fingers together as if they were holding a coin. These fingers represent the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and are the ones you use to cross yourself. Curl your ring and little finger into your hand, as if you were making a fist. Those fingers symbolism the dual nature of Jesus: his divinity and humanity.
How the Sign Can Enhance Your Spiritual Life
The other day my husband read to me about the previous translation of the Ukrainian Divine Liturgy. One of the things he said from the book (paraphrasing from memory) was, “It is better not to cross yourself than to do it without proper reverence.” This statement got me thinking. We make the sign of the cross A LOT during the Divine Liturgy. And we cross ourselves three times with the Trinitarian formula before and after other prayers. Am I always conscious of the significance of this sacramental.
If I’m being honest with myself… not always. Sometimes I just fly through the action. I decided, after that conversation with my husband, to do more to use the sign of the cross with due reverence. My plan to do this is to find extra occasions in daily life to pause and turn to God through this sacramental action. I am sharing this list with you so that you can chose moments to make the sign of the cross and focus on God in your heart. Feel free to come up with your own as well! (Share those ideas in the comments too!)
10 Times to Make the Sign
- When walking by the icon corner
- Before reading scripture
- Before leaving the house
- When you pause because you forgot what you were about to do
- Before starting a big task (or little ones too)
- When going past a Catholic Church
- When getting up in the morning
- Before starting a recreational activity
- When filling a water bottle/getting a refreshment
- When you see a cross
How Byzantine are You?
A quick test, just for fun. Read the following the phrases aloud to the best of your ability.
In nómine Patris, et Fílii, et Spíritus Sancti, Amen
Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit!
In de naam van de Vader, de Zoon en de Heilige Geest, Amen.
Alright! Now check your score:
- Just tried to read them aloud……. 0 points (Just a linguist)
- Crossed yourself once ………………. 1 point (Traditional Christian)
- Crossed yourself twice ……………… 2 points (Roman Catholic)
- Very tempted to cross yourself but didn’t …. 3 points (Eastern Scholar)
- Crossed yourself three times …… 4 points (Congratulations, Byzantine)!
So what did you get on my mini test? Let me know in the comments. Anyone recognize the third language I included? What languages do you know the Trinitarian formula or the Glory Be in?
The sign of the cross is a beautiful Christian sacramental, reminding us of our Baptism into Christ. Let us remember his mark upon our lives through making this sign throughout our days. All you who have been baptized into Christ, have put on Christ, Alleluia!