Making the sign of the cross (Latin: signum crucis), or blessing oneself or crossing oneself, is a ritual blessing made by members of some branches of Christianity. This blessing is made by the tracing of an upright cross or + across the body with the right hand, often accompanied by spoken or mental recitation of the Trinitarian formula: "In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen."
The use of the sign of the cross traces back to early Christianity, with the second century Apostolic Tradition directing that it be used during the minor exorcism of baptism, during ablutions before praying at fixed prayer times, and in times of temptation.
The movement is the tracing of the shape of a cross in the air or on one's own body, echoing the traditional shape of the cross of the Christian crucifixion narrative. Where this is done with fingers joined, there are two principal forms: one—three fingers, right to left—is exclusively used by the Eastern Orthodox Church, Church of the East and the Eastern Rite (Catholic) churches in the Byzantine, Assyrian and Chaldean traditions; the other—left to right to middle, other than three fingers—sometimes used in the Latin Rite (Catholic) churches, Lutheranism, Anglicanism and in Oriental Orthodoxy. The sign of the cross is used in some denominations of Methodism and within some branches of Presbyterianism such as the Church of Scotland and in the PCUSA and some other Reformed Churches. The ritual is rare within other branches of Protestantism.
Many individuals use the expression "cross my heart and hope to die" as an oath, making the sign of the cross, in order to show "truthfulness and sincerity", sworn before God, in both personal and legal situations.
The sign of the cross was originally made in some parts of the Christian world with the right-hand thumb across the forehead only. In other parts of the early Christian world it was done with the whole hand or with two fingers. Around the year 200 in Carthage (modern Tunisia, Africa), Tertullian wrote: "We Christians wear out our foreheads with the sign of the cross." Vestiges of this early variant of the practice remain: in the Roman Rite of the Mass in the Catholic Church, the celebrant makes this gesture on the Gospel book, on his lips, and on his heart at the proclamation of the Gospel; on Ash Wednesday a cross is traced in ashes on the forehead; chrism is applied, among places on the body, on the forehead for the Holy Mystery of Chrismation in the Eastern Orthodox Church.
Using five open fingers is the most common method by Western Christians, although other forms are sometimes used. The five fingers are often said to represent the Five Wounds of Christ. This symbolism was adopted after the more ancient gesture of two or three fingers was simplified. The West employs the "Small Sign of the Cross" (+), using only the thumb: The priest or deacon, while announcing the Gospel text, "makes the Sign of the Cross on the book and on his forehead, lips, and breast. The people acclaim: 'Glory to you, O Lord'." The Small Sign is also used during the majority of the Sacraments.
In the Eastern Orthodox and Byzantine Catholic churches, the tips of the first three fingers (the thumb, index, and middle ones) are brought together, and the last two (the "ring" and little fingers) are pressed against the palm. The first three fingers express one's faith in the Trinity, while the remaining two fingers represent the two natures of Jesus, divine and human.
Western Christians, including Roman Catholics and Protestants, as well as the Oriental Orthodox (Armenians, Copts, Syriacs, Ethiopians, etc.), touch the left shoulder before the right while Byzantine Rite Christians touch the right shoulder before the left.
The sign of the cross is made by touching the hand sequentially to the forehead, lower chest or stomach, and both shoulders, accompanied by the Trinitarian formula: at the forehead In the name of the Father (or In nomine Patris in Latin); at the stomach or heart and of the Son (et Filii); across the shoulders and of the Holy Spirit/Ghost (et Spiritus Sancti); and finally: Amen.
There are several interpretations, according to Church Fathers: the forehead symbolizes Heaven; the solar plexus (or top of stomach), the earth; the shoulders, the place and sign of power. It also recalls both the Trinity and the Incarnation. Pope Innocent III (1198–1216) explained: "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..."
There are some variations: for example a person may first place the right hand in holy water. After moving the hand from one shoulder to the other, it may be returned to the top of the stomach. It may also be accompanied by the recitation of a prayer (e.g., the Jesus Prayer, or simply "Lord have mercy"). In some Catholic regions, like Spain, Italy and Latin America, it is customary to form a cross with the index finger and thumb and then to kiss one's thumb at the conclusion of the gesture, while in the Philippines, this extra step evolved into the thumb quickly touching the chin or lower lip. Ending the sign of the cross some place the right open hand upon the other (the left open hand), with all the five fingers, like in a prayer, till the height of the face.
Cyril of Jerusalem (315–386) wrote in his book about the Smaller Sign of the Cross.
Many have been crucified throughout the world, but by none of these are the devils scared; but when they see even the Sign of the Cross of Christ, who was crucified for us, they shudder. For those men died for their own sins, but Christ for the sins of others; for He did no sin, neither was guile found in His mouth. It is not Peter who says this, for then we might suspect that he was partial to his Teacher; but it is Esaias who says it, who was not indeed present with Him in the flesh, but in the Spirit foresaw His coming in the flesh.
For others only hear, but we both see and handle. Let none be weary; take your armour against the adversaries in the cause of the Cross itself; set up the faith of the Cross as a trophy against the gainsayers. For when you are going to dispute with unbelievers concerning the Cross of Christ, first make with your hand the sign of Christ's Cross, and the gainsayer will be silenced. Be not ashamed to confess the Cross; for Angels glory in it, saying, We know whom you seek, Jesus the Crucified. Matthew 28:5 Might you not say, O Angel, I know whom you seek, my Master? But, I, he says with boldness, I know the Crucified. For the Cross is a Crown, not a dishonour.
Let us not then be ashamed to confess the Crucified. 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. Great is that preservative; it is without price, for the sake of the poor; without toil, for the sick; since also its grace is from God. It is the Sign of the faithful, and the dread of devils: for He triumphed over them in it, having made a show of them openly Colossians 2:15; for when they see the Cross they are reminded of the Crucified; they are afraid of Him, who bruised the heads of the dragon. Despise not the Seal, because of the freeness of the gift; out for this the rather honour your Benefactor.
John of Damascus (650–750)
Moreover we worship even the image of the precious and life-giving Cross, although made of another tree, not honouring the tree (God forbid) but the image as a symbol of Christ. For He said to His disciples, admonishing them, Then shall appear the sign of the Son of Man in Heaven Matthew 24:30, meaning the Cross. And so also the angel of the resurrection said to the woman, You seek Jesus of Nazareth which was crucified. Mark 16:6 And the Apostle said, We preach Christ crucified. 1 Corinthians 1:23 For there are many Christs and many Jesuses, but one crucified. He does not say speared but crucified. It behooves us, then, to worship the sign of Christ. For wherever the sign may be, there also will He be. But it does not behoove us to worship the material of which the image of the Cross is composed, even though it be gold or precious stones, after it is destroyed, if that should happen. Everything, therefore, that is dedicated to God we worship, conferring the adoration on Him.
Herbert Thurston indicates that at one time both Eastern and Western Christians moved the hand from the right shoulder to the left. German theologian Valentin Thalhofer thought writings quoted in support of this point, such as that of Innocent III, refer to the small cross made upon the forehead or external objects, in which the hand moves naturally from right to left, and not the big cross made from shoulder to shoulder. Andreas Andreopoulos, author of The Sign of the Cross, gives a more detailed description of the development and the symbolism of the placement of the fingers and the direction of the movement.
Today, Western Christians (including Catholics and Protestants) and the Oriental Orthodox touch the left shoulder before the right. Eastern Orthodox Christians and Byzantine Rite Catholics use the right-to-left movement.
The sign of the cross may be made by individuals upon themselves as a form of prayer and by clergy upon others or objects as an act of blessing. The gesture of blessing is certainly related to the sign of the cross, but the two gestures developed independently after some point. In Eastern Christianity, the two gestures differ significantly. Priests and deacons are allowed to bless using the right hand, while bishops may bless simultaneously with both, the left mirroring the right. Individuals may make it at any time, clergy must make it at specific times (as in liturgies), and it is customary to make it on other occasions.
Although the sign of the cross dates to ante-Nicene Christianity, it was rejected by some of the Reformers and is absent from some forms of Protestantism. It was commended and retained by Martin Luther and remains in use by Lutheran clergy, but its use is not universal by the laity. In Anglicanism, its use was revived by the Oxford Movement and is fairly common. It is required by the Book of Common Prayer for the priest to use it when administering Baptism and this was codified by the canon law of the Church of England in 1604. In the Reformed tradition, such as Presbyterianism, especially the mainline Presbyterian, its use would be during baptism, communion, confirmation, benedictions and sometimes with the creeds. Ministers and some laity in Methodism, on very rare occasions, will use it. Other Protestants and Restorationist Christians do not use it all.
Some, particularly Roman Catholics and Eastern Christians, might make the sign of the cross in response to perceived blasphemy. Others sign themselves to seek God's blessing before or during an event with uncertain outcome. In Hispanic countries, people often sign themselves in public, such as athletes who cross themselves before entering the field or while concentrating for competition.
The sign of the cross is a prayer, a blessing, and a sacramental. As a sacramental, it prepares an individual to receive grace and disposes one to cooperate with it. The Christian begins the day, prayers, and activities with the Sign of the Cross: "In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen." In this way, a person dedicates the day to God and calls on God for strength in temptations and difficulties. John Vianney said a genuinely made Sign of the Cross "makes all hell tremble."
In the Roman or Latin Rite Church it is customary to make the full Sign of the Cross using holy water when entering a church. The first three fingers of the right hand are dipped into the font containing the holy water and the Sign of the Cross is made on oneself. However, in response to health concerns arising during the SARS-CoV2 pandemic, many Catholic churches have replaced the Holy Water stoups that have customarily been present just inside the entrance doors with automatic, motion activated Holy Water dispensers. The person entering the church activates the dispenser by placing a hand under the spigot, and several drops of Holy water are then dispensed. The person then makes the Sign of the Cross with the Holy Water in the usual manner. This gesture has a two-fold purpose: to remind one of one's baptism and the rights and responsibilities that go with it and to also remind one that one is entering a sacred place that is set apart from the world outside.
Roman Catholicism draws a distinction between liturgical and non-liturgical use of the sign of the cross. The sign of the cross is expected at two points of the Mass: the laity sign themselves during the introductory greeting of the service and at the final blessing; optionally, other times during the Mass when the laity often cross themselves are during a blessing with holy water, when concluding the penitential rite, in imitation of the priest before the Gospel reading (small signs on forehead, lips, and heart), and perhaps at other times out of private devotion. In the ordinary form of the Roman Rite the priest signs the bread and wine at the epiclesis before the consecration. In the Tridentine Mass the priest signs the bread and wine 25 times during the Canon of the Mass, ten times before and fifteen times after they have been consecrated. The priest also uses the sign of the cross when blessing a deacon before the deacon reads the Gospel, when sending an Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion to take the Eucharist to the sick (after Communion, but before the end of the Mass), and when blessing the congregation at the conclusion of the Mass.
Ordained bishops, priests and deacons have more empowerment to bless objects and other people. While lay people may preside at certain blessings, the more a blessing is concerned with ecclesial or sacramental matters, the more it is reserved to clergy. Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion do not ordinarily have a commission to bless in the name of the Church, as priests and deacons do. At this point in the liturgy, their specific function is to assist the clergy in the distribution of holy Communion. Extraordinary Ministers of Communion blessing those who do not wish to or cannot receive communion can speak or raise the hand but not make the sign of the cross over the person.
A priest or deacon blesses an object or person with a single sign of the cross, but a bishop blesses with a triple sign of the cross. In the Catholic organization the Legion of Mary, members doing door-to-door parish surveys bless the homes of those not home by tracing the sign of the cross on the door.
In the Eastern traditions, both celebrant and congregation make the sign of the cross quite frequently. It is customary in some Eastern traditions to cross oneself at each petition in a litany and to closely associate oneself with a particular intention being prayed for or with a saint being named. The sign of the cross is also made upon entering or leaving a church building, at the start and end of personal prayer, when passing the main altar (which represents Christ), whenever all three persons of the Trinity are addressed, and when approaching an icon.
When an Eastern Orthodox or Byzantine Catholic bishop or priest blesses with the sign of the cross, he holds the fingers of his right hand in such a way that they form the Greek abbreviation for Jesus Christ "IC XC". The index finger is extended to make the "I"; the middle finger signify letter "C"; the thumb touches the lowered third finger to signify the "X" and the little finger also signifies the letter "C".
When a priest blesses in the sign of the cross, he positions the fingers of his right hand in the manner described as he raises his right hand, then moves his hand downwards, then to his left, then to his right. A bishop blesses with both hands (unless he is holding some sacred object such as a cross, chalice, Gospel Book, icon, etc.), holding the fingers of both hands in the same configuration, but when he moves his right hand to the left, he simultaneously moves his left hand to the right, so that the two hands cross, the left in front of the right, and then the right in front of the left. The blessing of both priests and bishops consists of three movements, in honour of the Holy Trinity.
In Russia, until the reforms of Patriarch Nikon in the 17th century, it was customary to make the sign of the cross with two fingers (symbolising the dual nature of Christ). The enforcement of the three-finger sign was one of the reasons for the schism with the Old Believers whose congregations continue to use the two-finger sign of the cross.
Among Lutherans the practice was widely retained. For example, Luther's Small Catechism states that it is expected before the morning and evening prayers. Lutheranism never abandoned the practice of making the sign of the cross in principle and it was commonly retained in worship at least until the early 19th century. During the 19th and early 20th centuries it was largely in disuse until the liturgical renewal movement of the 1950s and 1960s. One exception is The Lutheran Hymnal (1941) of the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod (LCMS), which states that "The sign of the cross may be made at the Trinitarian Invocation and at the words of the Nicene Creed 'and the life of the world to come.'" Since then, the sign of the cross has become fairly commonplace among Lutherans at worship. The sign of the cross is now customary in the Divine Service. Rubrics in contemporary Lutheran worship manuals, including Evangelical Lutheran Worship of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and Lutheran Service Book used by LCMS and Lutheran Church–Canada, provide for making the sign of the cross at certain points in the liturgy. Places approximate the Roman Catholic practice: at the Trinitarian formula, the benediction, at the consecration of the Eucharist, and following reciting the Nicene or Apostles' Creed.
Devotional use of the sign of the cross among Lutherans also includes after receiving the Host and Chalice in the Eucharist, following Holy Absolution; similarly, they may dip their hands in the baptismal font and make the sign of the cross upon entering the church.
The sign of the cross can be found in the Methodist liturgy of the United Methodist Church. It is made by some clergy during the Great Thanksgiving, Confession of Sin and Pardon, and benediction. John Wesley, the principal leader of the early Methodists, prepared a revision of The Book of Common Prayer for Methodist use, called The Sunday Service of the Methodists in North America, which instructs the presiding minister to make the sign of the cross on the forehead of children just after they have been baptized. Making the sign of the cross at baptism is retained in the current Book of Worship of The United Methodist Church, and is widely practiced (sometimes with oil). Furthermore, on Ash Wednesday the sign of the cross is almost always applied by the elder to the foreheads of the laity. The liturgy for healing and wholeness, which is becoming more commonly practiced, calls for the pastor to make the sign of the cross with oil upon the foreheads of those seeking healing.
Whether or not a Methodist uses the sign for private prayer is a personal choice, but it is encouraged by the bishops of the United Methodist Church. Some United Methodists also perform the sign before and after receiving Holy Communion, and some ministers also perform the sign when blessing the congregation at the end of the sermon or service.
In some Reformed churches, such as the PCUSA and the Cumberland Presbyterian Church, Presbyterian Church in America, the sign of the cross is used on the foreheads during baptism or during an Ash Wednesday service when ashes are imposed on the forehead. The sign of the cross is on rare occasions used during Communion and during the Confession of Sin and the Creeds. In instances during a Benediction, when the minister concludes the service using the Trinitarian blessing, a hand is extended and a sign of the cross is made out toward the congregation, but this is also quite rare.
It is common practice in the Armenian Apostolic Church to make the sign of the cross when entering or passing a church, during the start of service and at many times during Divine Liturgy. The motion is performed by joining the first three fingers, to symbolize the Holy Trinity, and putting the two other fingers in the palm, then touching one's forehead, below the chest, left side, then right side and finishing with open hand on the chest again with bowing head.
The Assyrian Church of the East uniquely holds the sign of the cross as a sacrament in its own right. Another sacrament unique to the church is the Holy Leaven.