2019-06-12
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Making the sign of the cross seems like such a simple action. It takes less than a minute to complete. And, as Catholics, we do it so often that it’s all too easy to take it for granted and do it without giving it much thought.

But, in reality, it is the simple things that have the greatest impact on our lives. It’s also those simple things that can either empower us or weaken us as we deal with the more complex things in life. The former is true of the sign of the cross.

In September 1984, Saint John Paul II gave a homily to Canadian Catholics. To honor the solemn celebration for the Feast of the Triumph of the Cross of Christ, he spoke about what the cross means to all of us. “The Cross contains in itself the mystery of salvation, because, in the Cross, Love is lifted up,” the then holy pontiff said to the crowd. “This is the lifting up of Love to the supreme point in the history of the world: in the Cross Love is lifted up and the Cross is at the same time lifted up through Love. And from the height of the Cross, love comes down to us.”

Whenever we make the sign of the cross, we testify to the salvation found in that love. But there are many things that most of us don’t know about this sacramental. Here are just seven facets of the sign of the cross that you may not be aware of.

1. It has been important since the early church.

The sign of the cross has been made before and after praying and at the beginning and at the end of Mass since the early years of the Church. Not only that, but in the 4th Century, Saint Cyril of Jerusalem reiterated what the early Church fathers – including Terullian – had said about the importance of making the sign of the cross in all things, even in those parts of our daily lives that seem mundane.

In his Catechetical Lectures, the saint powerfully wrote about how vital it is to purposefully make the sign of the cross every day. He wrote “Let us then not be ashamed to confess the Crucified. Be the cross our seal, made with boldness by our fingers on our brow and in everything; over the bread we eat and the cups we drink, in our comings and in our goings out; before our sleep, when we lie down and when we awake; when we are traveling, and when we are at rest."

2. Originally the sign of the cross was made from right to left.

Around the 400s, a formal way of making the sign of the cross was instituted. But while it is still the way that Eastern Rites and Orthodox Catholics follow, it is different from the gesture that Catholics in the Western Church use to make the sign. Through around the 1100s, the sign was made with the thumb and fingers held together in a specific manner that symbolized two incredibly important aspects of our faith. It steadfastly affirmed our belief in the Holy Trinity, which also refuted heretics’ belief that Jesus wasn’t both God and man. And the positions of the thumb, forefinger and middle finger represented the Greek abbreviation IXC (Iesus Christus Soter, Jesus Christ Savior).

And it was made from the right shoulder to the left shoulder. Around the beginning of the 1200s, Pope Innocent III explained why. He said “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, and from the Jews (right) He passed to the Gentiles (left).”

3. It's now made from left to right.

From around the beginning of the 1200s onward, the formal way of making the sign of the cross changed for Catholics in the Western Church. Even though making the sign reminds us that Jesus is our Savior, we no longer hold our fingers and thumb in a specific way to form the Greek abbreviation IXC (Iesus Christus Soter, Jesus Christ Savior). Instead, we now use our open hands to make the sign, since we are blessing ourselves (mind, body and soul). And although our hands are open, we still affirm our belief in the Holy Trinity when we say “In the Name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.”

The other distinctive difference for Catholics in the Western Church is that we now make the sign from left to right. Pope Innocent III also documented how this change occurred – due to priests beginning the tradition – and what it symbolizes. He wrote “Others, however, make the sign of the cross from the left to the right, because from misery (left) we must cross over to glory (right), just as Christ crossed over from death to life, and from Hades to Paradise. [Some priests] do it this way so that they and the people will be signing themselves in the same way. You can easily verify this — picture the priest facing the people for the blessing — when we make the sign of the cross over the people, it is from left to right...."

4. The sign of the cross is made with purpose.

Despite the fact that Western Church Catholics make the sign in a different way than the Catholics in the Eastern Rites and Orthodox Churches, we should be united in the sanctity of the action. We should allow the holy action to deepen our commitment to our faith. We should also offer our love and gratitude to the Holy Trinity when we make the sign of the cross.