Welcome back to Church Etiquette 101! Last time, we talked about when to stand, sit, and kneel while in church. In this post, we look at when we should (and shouldn’t) make the sign of the cross during worship.
The Sign of the Cross
The sign of the cross is an outward manifestation of what the Orthodox believe. It illustrates our view of God in Trinity (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit), while at the same time it shows our belief in the two natures of Christ (fully God and fully Man). This physical prayer also conveys the importance of the cross as a symbol of Christ’s victory over death and His Glorious Resurrection.
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, and during personal prayer. The saints and Christ Himself even 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!
Making the sign correctly
If you’ve ever come to an Orthodox service and looked around, you probably saw someone crossing themselves at some point. You may also have noticed people don’t always cross themselves the same way. Some 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. The Orthodox Church does not treat crossing oneself as an issue of dogma, but rather one of personal piety. Aside from the arrangement of the fingers and direction of the movement, all else is up to the individual. 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
As we said earlier, crossing yourself is an issue of personal piety. In other words, 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 consider crossing 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, 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.
*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.
The Orthodox 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.
In our next Church Etiquette 101 post, we explore the different postures we use in Orthodox worship. Have any suggestions for our Church Etiquette 101 series? Let us know in the comments below!