The Cross is perhaps the most well-known symbol within all of Christendom. Even non-Christians recognize it. And we all understand and agree on what the Cross means (on the surface, at least). But the way Christians make the sign of the Cross differs depending on which Christian community you encounter. So, in this post, we explain specifically how and when Christians in the Orthodox Church make the sign of the Cross.
A symbol of victory
As the instrument Christ chose to bring about His ever-memorable and life-creating death, the Cross holds a special place in the heart of every Orthodox Christian. We understand that this symbol, once a primitive means of torture and capital punishment, now reminds us of Christ’s victory over death. Orthodox Christians make the sign of the Cross because it affirms what we believe about Christ as the Incarnate Son of God and all that He did for us. Put another way, the sign of the cross is an outward manifestation that illustrates our view of God in Trinity (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) and our belief in the two natures of Christ (fully God and fully Man). It is, in essence, a physical form of prayer.
Because of our love for the sign of the Cross, the Orthodox use it daily. Not only do we use it during worship, but also before and after meals, during personal prayer, and in moments of worry or need. The saints, and Christ Himself, make this sign in holy icons. We love the cross perhaps just as much as we love the Theotokos, if not more. Because Christ used it to bring about our salvation. To show our love and devotion to Christ, during any given service or liturgy, the faithful may cross themselves close to one-hundred times!
How to make the sign
If you’ve ever come to an Orthodox service and looked around, you probably saw someone crossing themselves at some point. To newcomers and inquirers, this can be a bit strange, since we cross ourselves differently than other Christians. Let’s walk through the Orthodox way of making the sign of the cross, step by step.
Time needed: 1 minute.
How to Make the Sign of the Cross
- Join the thumb, index, and middle fingers of your right hand.
- Rest the other two fingers of your right hand down against your palm.
After steps 1 and 2, your right hand should look like this:
- Take that hand and touch your joined fingertips to your forehead.
Let your fingers rest there for a moment.
- Then bring your fingertips down to your abdomen.
Again, let your fingers rest here a moment. Some people bring their fingers only as far as the chest, while others reach down to their navel. Either of these is acceptable.
- Move your fingertips to touch the front of your right shoulder.
- Finally, touch your fingertips to the front of your left shoulder.
If your movements match the bishop in this .gif, you did it correctly! Keep in mind the .gif is mirrored, so your arm should move in the opposite direction of the bishop’s.
Note a couple differences between the Orthodox sign and that of Roman Catholics and Protestants. First, Roman Catholics cross themselves from left to right and typically keep all five fingers straight. Secondly, Protestant practice in making the sign of the cross, much like Protestantism itself, varies. Protestantism does not prohibit it, but they do not necessarily encourage it either, because there is no Biblical command to use the sign of the cross.
Variations of the sign
You may also have noticed some people make the sign three times in a row, while others only do it once. Some make large sweeping motions, while others keep things simple and small. All these variations! But, which way is the right way?
Put simply, there isn’t one. Crossing yourself is not an issue of dogma (belief necessary for salvation) in Orthodoxy. Instead, it is a matter of personal piety. In other words, aside from the arrangement of the fingers and direction of the movement, all else is up to you. If you feel moved to always make the sign of the cross in three’s, you may do so. If you wish to venerate icons in a slightly different manner than another parishioner, you can. Each Orthodox Christian can express his or her faith in whatever physical ways they feel necessary, as long as they do so out of love for God. (If you do things instead to bring attention to yourself and feed your pride, you should consider reflecting upon that.)
When to make the sign of the cross
Because crossing yourself is an issue of personal piety, the Orthodox do not have strict guidelines about when you should and should not cross yourself. In the Orthodox tradition, we cross ourselves on many occasions. Below is a list of times when you should cross yourself:
- Whenever the priest, chanter, reader, or choir invokes or alludes to the name of the Holy Trinity
- At the beginning and/or end of personal (and communal) prayer
- Upon entering and leaving the church
- When venerating holy icons, relics, the cross, or the Gospel
- Before receiving Communion*
- Whenever you pass in front of the Holy Altar, whether the doors are open or closed
This is by no means an exhaustive list! We cross ourselves many other times as well. Again, it all comes down to personal choice. If the Holy Spirit moves you to express your piety in a particular way, no one will judge you or look at you strangely for it.
When NOT to make the sign of the cross
Though the Orthodox make the sign of the cross rather liberally, there are a couple times when we should not make the sign of the cross during services:
- At the chalice before or after taking Holy Communion*
- Whenever a bishop or priest blesses the congregation with his hand and says, “Peace be to all.” Here, we merely give a slight bow and receive the blessing.
In summary, the Orthodox cross themselves the way Christians have for millennia. Additionally, we have guidelines for when we should and should not cross ourselves during worship. However, we do not force them upon anyone who decides to come and worship with us. If you are not Orthodox and do visit a local parish, please do not feel as if you must make the sign of the cross. We make the sign out of love for God, as a way of expressing with our bodies our faith in Him. You need not make the sign until you, too, feel such conviction.
*Notice I mentioned Communion in both lists? Here’s why! If you cross yourself too close to the chalice, you might hit the chalice with your hand, or cause some of the Body and Blood of Christ to spill. However, it is okay for you to cross yourself before approaching the chalice and after backing away to receive blessed bread.
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