The sign of the cross is one of the first gestures we learn to make as Catholics, and yet for all of its simplicity, the gesture is often unintentionally bungled. Although for many of us the gesture has become a deeply ingrained practice, we frequently overlook its symbolism, even as we bless ourselves at the beginning and end of our prayers, when entering and leaving a church, and before the Blessed Sacrament, as well as numerous other times throughout the day. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit: Undoubtedly these fifteen words are recognized almost universally. But what are we really saying by our words and actions when we make the sign of the cross?
According to the Baltimore Catechism, the sign of the cross is the Church’s chief sacramental. When we bless ourselves thoughtfully and intentionally, we become more properly disposed to receive God’s grace. With these words—In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit—we also profess our belief in the mystery of the Holy and Undivided Trinity, one God in three Divine Persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Using the right hand, the outline of a cross is formed by tracing from forehead to breast and then across the shoulders from left to right. Either three fingers may be used to represent the Trinity, or the whole hand to represent Christ’s five wounds. Both offer the opportunity to reflect on the mysteries of our faith and redemption.
The gesture may be simple, but even so, we cannot fully comprehend it. Its symbolism is also not limited to a single interpretation. According to the most popular explanation, when making the sign of the cross we begin with the forehead to symbolize that all things begin with God the Father. Next we invoke the Son (the chest) because He proceeds from the Father. By this motion we profess the mystery of the Incarnation. The Holy Spirit, who proceeds from the Father and the Son and is the love between the Two, is represented in the crossing from left shoulder to right. The entire gesture forms a cross, in which we affirm Christ’s sacrificial offering of Himself on the Cross on Good Friday. Alternatively, a fifteenth-century devotion from England attributes slightly different symbolism: Christ came down from the Father (forehead), was born a Man (breast), suffered on the Cross (left shoulder) and ascended into Heaven to sit at the right hand of the Father (right shoulder). Regardless of the interpretation followed, the Church grants a partial indulgence to those who make the sign of the cross properly, with due reverence and sorrow for past sins.
Although the gesture is almost universally recognized in its current form, it began quite differently. Early Christians made the sign of the cross using just one finger, usually the thumb, similar to the way in which Catholics today trace the cross on the forehead, lips, and breast before the Gospel is proclaimed. At the time, the cross was only traced on the forehead and symbolized that the person was a baptized Christian who professed a belief in Jesus Christ and His sacrifice on the Cross. The gesture continued to evolve in response to various assaults on the faith from heretics.
One such heresy, Monophysitism, arose in the fifth century. Its proponents claimed that Christ had only a single nature (monos meaning “one” and physis meaning “nature” in Greek). Monophysites maintained belief in this synthesis of the human and divine in a single nature in the second Person of the Trinity, rather than in the union of His separate human and divine natures. In response, Christians began signing themselves with two fingers (either thumb and index finger or index and middle fingers), representing the two natures of Christ. They also traced a much larger cross, which eventually extended from the forehead to the chest and across the shoulder, becoming the gesture we use today.
Increased emphasis on the Holy Trinity in the next few centuries eventually led to the use of three fingers to cross oneself. It likely also contributed to the use of the words we say today—In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit—through which we proclaim our belief in the Triune God. Around the time of the ninth century, the sign of the cross was incorporated into various acts of the Mass, on the part of both the priest as well as the laity.
Today, the sign of the cross continues to be used both liturgically and devotionally: priests make the sign of the cross in blessings within and outside of the Mass, and the faithful make the sign of the cross in prayer. In spite of the different forms used throughout history as well as the possible variations within the gesture itself, however, the underlying significance remains the same: we make the sign of the cross to identify ourselves as Christians and to profess of our belief in the greatest mysteries of our Catholic faith.