Updated: Mar 21, 2019
Since we are beginning our school year, now would be a perfect time for a basic review! I thought I'd share this one with you.
"OK Class, How do you hold your hand when you make the sign of the cross?..."
"Oh no, Mrs. Wardach! Not again!!!!"
Yes, again! If my catechism students have learned one thing from me, I know it would be this. (I just know that someday it’ll end up on my tombstone!) This little question and answer game has been recited, almost daily, with every student I’ve ever had for over twenty years. If I had to guess how many students are sick of it I believe there may be hundreds, but I’m quite sure that there are very few of them who can forget it! At some point, I've taught every grade from first through high-school, including five young Byzantine Catholics of my very own, and all them have gone over this (ad nauseum ) for many years and know it well. Still, when I see someone “swatting flies” at Divine Liturgy, it prompts me to give them an encore…here it is…in print…for all of you… (I’ll be watching…) ;)
Here’s how it goes:
How do you hold your hand when you make the sign of the cross?
What do the three fingers symbolize?
The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
Why are they together?
They represent the Trinity, Three Persons in One God.
What do the two other fingers represent which are tucked into the palm of your hand?
The two natures of Christ!
…all together, please...
THE TWO NATURES OF CHRIST!
Very good children! Now begin at the top…in the name…
Now go to your heart…of the Father…STOP!...Why is the Father there?
Because the Father is the center of the universe, as the heart is the center of the body. We love Him very much so we place Him near our heart.
Now continue…and of the Son…STOP!...Why do we go to the right shoulder first?
Because Jesus sits at the right hand of the Father!
Very Good! And of the Holy Spirit…STOP!...Now you are on your left shoulder. What symbol did we just draw on our bodies?
And whose symbol is that? The Yankees?..."no"
The Boy Scouts?..."no"
The Triangle Church’s?..."no"…( giggle, giggle)...
"It’s JESUS’ symbol!"
We draw Jesus symbol upon ourselves when we make the sign of the cross!...But why? We show our allegiance to Him by wearing His symbol. Just as companies adopt a logo to go on all their items, teams have a uniform that they wear to unite them, and fans wear their favorite team colors and symbols to show their support, we wear Jesus symbol to show we belong to HIM!
To whom do we show this devotion to Christ when we make the sign of the cross?
1. Ourselves…Yes, we remind ourselves of our commitment to follow
Christ and take up His cross.
2. Each other…We support our neighbor and give good example of the
3. God…Hey, Jesus, look at me…I’m your girl!
4. Last, and yes, least …you know who…down there…the one whose
name we do not say because we don’t want him to come looking for
whoever says his name...yep, him…by making the Lord’s symbol we
clearly say to him, “STAY AWAY FROM ME, I belong to Christ!”
Very good, children!
Now that we know HOW to properly make the sign of the cross, let’s go a bit further and talk about WHY we do so. Where did this custom start?
Let’s ask some of the earliest Church Fathers:
Tertullian (160-220 AD) wrote, “In all our travels and movements, in all our coming in and going out, in putting off our shoes, at the bath, at the table, in lighting our candles, in lying down, in sitting down, whatever employment occupies us, we mark our foreheads with the sign of the Cross,”
Cyril of Jerusalem (313-386 AD) witnessed the sign of the cross being made often, as well. He wrote, "Let us not be ashamed to confess the Crucified. Let the cross, as our seal, be boldly made with our fingers upon our brow and on all occasions over the bread we eat, over the cups we drink, in our comings and in our goings, before sleep, on lying down and rising up, when we are on the way and when we are still."
St. Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria (296-376 AD) said, "by the sign of the cross...all magic is stayed, all sorcery confounded, all the idols are abandoned and deserted, and all senseless pleasure ceases, as the eye of faith looks up from Earth to heaven."
St. Basil the Great, Bishop of Cappadocia, (330-379 AD) taught that the sign of the cross was a tradition the originated with the apostles, "who taught us to mark with the sign of the cross those who put their hope in the name of the Lord."
St. John Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constantinople, (349-407 AD) said, “at every action, at every step, let our hand make the Sign of the Cross. Keep the door of your heart shut, and frequently defend your forehead with the Sign of the Cross – it repels evil, heals maladies of the soul, is a weapon of adamant strength, an impregnable wall, an impenetrable shield”.
St. Peter Damascene (775 A.D.) wrote in the Philokalia, "The holy Fathers have handed down to us the meaning of this holy sign, in order to refute heretics and unbelievers. The two fingers and the one hand then, represent then the crucified Lord Jesus Christ, who we profess as having two natures in one person. The right hand recalls His unlimited might and His sitting at the right hand of the Father. And one begins to trace it from above because of His decent from the heavens to us on earth. Furthermore, the movement of the hand from the right side to the left drives away the enemies and indicates that the Lord through His invincible might has conquered the devil who is on the left, powerless and gloomy being”.
It is apparent that the entire Church made the sign of the cross with three fingers, in honor of the Trinity, and from right to left, as we in the Byzantine Church do to this day. There are more writings to confirm this.
Aelfric, Abbot of Eynsham in England (died 1020 AD) wrote, “A man may wave about wonderfully with his hands without creating any blessing unless he make the sign of the cross. But if he do the fiend will soon be frightened on account of the victorious token. With three fingers one must bless himself for the Holy Trinity”.
After the separation of the Orthodox Church in 1054, the Latin Church continued to make the sign of the cross from right to left.
Pope Innocent III (1198-1216), made the following declaration: "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, and from the Jews (right) He passed to the Gentiles (left)."
When, you may ask, did the Romans start signing the cross from left to right, and why? This is a difficult question to answer. Some say that it was because the west didn’t want to identify with the east any longer after the Orthodox schism of 1054. This would hardly seem to be the case in light of the above quote from none other than the Roman Pope. Some say that it was because of missionaries from the east who taught the westerners how to cross themselves. Mirroring their teachers, the faithful began to go from left to right as children do when taught by their parents. Again, this is not likely since the westerners clearly knew the tradition as seen in Aelfric’s quote above. What is clear, however is that western Catholics were making the sign of the cross from right to left until some time during the Middle Ages. One of the earliest references to the making of it from left to right, as it is done today, was in a devotion used by the Brigittine Nuns of Sion in Isleworth, England. This book clearly contained instructions for making the sign of the cross from left to right, stating, and please forgive the Middle English as I quote it,
“And then ye bless you with the sygne of the holy crosse, to chase away the fiend with all his deceytes. For, as Chrysostome sayth, wherever the fiends see the signe of the crosse, they flye away, dreading it as a staffe that they are beaten withall. And in thys blessinge ye beginne with youre hande at the hedde downwarde, and then to the lefte side and byleve that our Lord Jesu Christe came down from the head, that is from the Father into erthe by his holy Incarnation, and from the erthe into the left syde, that is hell, by his bitter Passion, and from thence into his Father's righte syde by his glorious Ascension".
This means that, by making the sign of the cross in this fashion, they were saying that Jesus came down from the Father (forehead), was born as man (breast), suffered on the Cross (left shoulder), and ascended into heaven to sit at the right hand of the Father (right shoulder). Somehow, this method became the norm in the western part of the Catholic Church, while the eastern rites remained untouched by this new symbolism.
So, children, next time someone accuses you of making the sign of the cross “backwards”, you’ll have some ammunition!...you know the drill!