When you enter an Orthodox Church, one of the first things you’ll notice is someone making the sign of the cross. They may do this as they venerate an icon, or as they pass into the main area of the church, or as the priest censes the congregation with sweet incense. You may also notice that the way the Orthodox make the sign of the cross is a bit different. In this post, we explain the sign of the cross, its origins, and when, how, and why the Orthodox use it in their worship.
What is the sign of the cross?
The sign of the cross serves as a ritualistic symbol in the Orthodox Church. Orthodox Christians also view it as a prayer in its own right, as it conveys love for God with all our hearts, souls, minds, and strengths. The sign of the cross is an outward, physical manifestation of what we believe. It conveys the importance of the cross as a symbol of Christ’s victory over death and His Glorious Resurrection.
Where did it come from?
The first mention of Christians making the sign of the Cross dates back to the 2nd Century. In the early Church, sources explain that the sign was only made upon the forehead and other objects, with only one finger, until at least the fourth century. Around this time, Christians used two fingers to make the sign of the cross, each finger representing one of the natures of Christ – fully God and fully Man. Historians believe they made the sign this way to guard against the heresy of Monophysitism, which rejected the Council of Chalcedon (451) and claimed that Christ had only one divine nature. We still do not know if this was a universal custom, or something confined to the region of Antioch, the location from which these primary sources came.
Around the ninth century, the practice of using three fingers appeared to become prevalent in most of the Orthodox East and West. The exact point of origin for the three-fingered sign of the cross remains a mystery. However, we do know it was present prior to the Great Schism (1054) because of the writings of Pope Leo IV, who reposed in 855 A.D., nearly two-hundred years before the schism between the Orthodox East and Latin West. Others including Aelfric, Abbot of Eynsham in England, and Pope Innocent III have also described the sign of the cross in the same way as Pope Leo IV.
By the twelfth century, most churches in the East (with the exception of the Russian Church, which accepted the practice in the 1600s) adopted the practice of making the sign of the cross with three fingers. Interestingly, the Monophysites, Copts, Syrians, Armenians, and Ethiopians also adopted this practice.
When do the Orthodox make the sign of the cross?
In Orthodox tradition, we cross ourselves whenever the name of the Holy Trinity (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) is invoked or alluded to. Many Orthodox may make the sign of the cross at the beginning and end of a prayer. We also make the sign upon entering and leaving the church, when venerating (kissing) icons or the cross itself, before receiving communion, when crossing in front of the altar in the temple, and on many other occasions. During any given liturgy, we may cross ourselves more than one hundred times!
How do the Orthodox make the sign?
Orthodox Christians cross themselves with the right hand. We join our thumb, index, and middle fingertips and rest the ring and “pinky” fingers against our palm. First we touch the joined fingertips to our foreheads, then our abdomen. After this, we touch our right shoulder, and then the left.
This practice is the opposite of Roman Catholics and some Protestants, who often go from left to right. Roman Catholics also typically use all five fingers to cross themselves. This practice follows a decree set forth by Pope Pius V in 1569 A.D. Protestant practice in making the sign of the cross, much like Protestantism itself, varies. They do not expressly prohibit it, but they do not encourage it either, because there is no Biblical command to use the sign of the cross.
Why make the sign of the cross this way?
The arrangement of the fingers while making the sign of the cross is incredibly important. The three fingers joined together symbolize the Holy Trinity (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit), while the ring and “pinky” figure represent the two natures of Christ. These two fingers come down to touch the palm of the hand, which symbolizes Christ descending to earth.
The Orthodox follow an impulse to make everything we do reinforce the Faith. The sign of the cross is no exception.
The sign of the cross means everything to the Orthodox Christian. It symbolizes a crucial event in the story of mankind’s salvation. And it allows the faithful to commune with God in a way that transcends understanding. So don’t be surprised if you see the sign of the cross being used the next time you visit an Orthodox parish.
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