the sign of the cross
a liturgical note from Fr James Arcadi
A bodily gesture that expresses that we belong to God
As Christians we stand under the sign of the cross. Baseball players wear a logo on their hat, some gangs have hand signs, some countries or clubs have other gestures to show allegiance. Our sign of allegiance is the Cross of Christ. Making that sign over our bodies expresses this truth.
Touch in this order: forehead, torso, left shoulder, right shoulder. Some then bring it back to touch their hearts. Eastern Orthodox reverse the shoulder order.
There were disputes in the tradition about which fingers to use. I like the tradition of using the thumb, forefinger, and pointer finger joined together as a Trinity with the ring and pinky fingers tucked down as the two natures of Christ. Some make a cross with their thumb and forefinger and then kiss that cross (at least that is what those baseball players are supposed to be doing after they hit a home run!)
When to do it?
I tend to think we should not have hard and fast rules about this sort of thing. There are moments in the liturgy where it makes theological sense to express our allegiance to Christ with our bodies. But I can be kinda charismatic, so anytime you’re feelin’ the Spirit go ahead and cross yourself!
But here are some moments in the liturgy at which it seems fitting to acknowledge that we belong to God. It is especially fitting when receiving a blessing, for blessings come to those who belong to God.
- The opening of the liturgy often includes an expression of blessing, and as your first act of worship in the liturgy, it might be a good time to indicate this bodily.
- The Creed is a cognitive indication that we belong to God, we receive and believe those key ideas that God has revealed. So crossing oneself at the end of the Creed is a way to bodily express that which we just orally expressed.
- Some cross themselves during the Prayers of the People when we pray for the faithful departed, a reminder that our bodies, in life and death, belong to God.
- At the Absolution after the Confession, when the priest makes the sign of the cross over the people. Here the sign is a way of expressing your reception of the forgiveness offered.
- During the Sanctus we sing or say the line, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” This comes from Matt. 21:9 when Jesus entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, referencing Psalm 118:26. In Matthew “he” refers to Jesus coming in the name of the Father. Hence, I like to imagine the Sanctus almost like a processional hymn for Christ who will come to be really present with us through the bread and wine. Imagining Jesus processing into our midst, I think bodily showing that I’m with him, under his sign, would be theologically lovely.
- During the Eucharistic liturgy there is a portion referred to as the epiclesis. This is the calling down of the Holy Spirit on the elements of bread and wine. In our liturgies there is also a moment where we call this blessing down on ourselves: “Sanctify us also…” or “…be filled with your grace and heavenly benediction…” this, too, is a good time for the sign of the cross.
- Before and after receiving Communion is a good time to demonstrate our allegiance with Christ, plus the cup is referred to by Paul as the “cup of blessing” and it is a blessing to receive the bread and wine.
- Finally, the blessing at the end of the liturgy is a time for the sign of the cross. It is a blessing, it is done with the Trintarian names, and the priest makes the sign of the cross over the people.
But these are just guidelines as to what might be liturgically fitting, also feel free to cross yourself any time you want to express to God, to others, or to yourself that you belong to God!