The symbol of the Christian Faith has been and will always be the Cross, for it is the sign of our Redemption by Our Lord Jesus Christ Who came to earth to suffer for us by being crucified upon the Cross. When people wish to show that something is dedicated to Christ they mark it with a cross. The Cross is placed on church buildings, on the Holy Gospel, on the sacred vestments, on banners, and over the graves of the departed. All Christians wear their baptismal crosses because they are dedicated to Christ.
How to make the sign of the cross
When we are at prayer we rededicate ourselves to God by making the Sign of the Cross on ourselves. First we join the first three fingers of our right hand together (the thumb, the index finger, and the middle finger), and we bend the other two fingers down to the palm. We then trace on ourselves the Cross by touching the three joined fingers of the right hand to the forehead, the breast, the right shoulder and the left shoulder. After forming the Cross on ourselves we slightly bow our heads to express to God our reverence and humility.
When we join our three fingers together it is as if we wanted to say: "I believe in God, One in the Trinity; in God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit; not in one person, but Three Persons; not in three gods, but One God." When we bend the other two fingers of our right hand down to the palm it is as if we were saying: "I believe that Our Savior Jesus Christ, Who is at the same time Real God and Real Man, the God-man, came down to earth for our salvation." We touch our forehead to ask God to sanctify our thoughts; our breast, to sanctify our senses; our shoulders, to strengthen our wills for the doing and keeping of God's commandments. When we make the Sign of the Cross we bear the inscription: "I belong to Jesus Christ"; and we show thereby that we want to live and act not for ourselves but for the Lord our God. As the Cross is being made we say the following prayer (unless we are saying another prayer at the time): "In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen." We say these words to make it clear that we want to belong to God and serve Him alone.
When to make the sign of the Cross
God is always near us because He is everywhere. He always sees us just as He sees everything. But during prayer we are especially close to God: we stand before Him, speak to Him and He listens to us. Because of this, while praying, we sign ourselves with the Cross more often, and especially before and after each prayer in order that we may not be distracted in saying them. We also make the Cross on ourselves when we enter church or approach any sacred object or kiss an icon, and many times during church services. We should make the Sign of the Cross in the morning in order to obtain the blessing of God for the day; in the evening to ask for his protection during the night; at all the important moments of our life: when in danger, in sorrow, in joy; before all important undertakings that they may turn out well; at mealtime to invoke God's blessing and to give Him thanks.
The first Christians used the Sign of the Cross constantly. Tertullian, a writer of the latter part of the second century, says of it: "At every motion and at every step, entering in or going out, when dressing, bathing going to meals, lighting the lamp, sleeping or sitting, whatever we do, or whithersoever we go, we mark our foreheads with the Sign of the Cross."
St. Cyril of Jerusalem writes: "Let us not be ashamed to confess the Crucified Christ; let us boldly make the Sign of the Cross on the forehead, and on everything; on the bread which we eat; on the cups from which we drink; let us make it at our going out, and coming in; when we lie down to sleep, and when we rise, when we journey, and when we rest: It is a great safeguard, given to the poor without price, to the weak without labor. For this is the Grace of God; a token for the Faithful, and a terror for evil spirits."
The Power of the Sign of the Cross
St. John. Chrysostom, a Father of the Church, praised in the fourth century the great veneration in which the Sign of the Cross was held by Christians of his time: "More precious than the universe, the Cross glitters on the diadems of emperors. Everywhere it is present to my view. I find it among princes and subjects, men and women, virgins and married people, slaves and freemen. All continually trace it on the noblest part of the body, the forehead, where it shines like a column of glory. It is made over sick animals, over persons possessed by demons, in war, in peace, by day, by night, in pleasant reunions and in penitential assemblies. It is a question of who shall seek first the protection of this admirable Sign.. What is there surprising in this? The Sign of the Cross is the type of our deliverance, the monument of liberation of mankind, the souvenir of the forbearance of Our Lord. When you make it, remember what has been given for your ransom, and you will be the slave of no one. Make it, then, not only with the fingers, but with your faith. If you engrave it on your forehead, no impure spirit will dare to stand before you. He sees the blade with which he has been wounded, the sword with which he has received the deathblow." This teaches us how we ought to reverence the Cross".
With good reason has the Sign of the Cross been so highly venerated by the Holy Martyrs and Confessors of all times, for by their own experience they have learned that it is a symbol of power. Armed with this sacred Sign, the Martyrs went forth to battle with the wild beasts in the amphitheater, walked calmly to the stake to be burned, bowed their necks to the sword or exposed their bodies to the last. They braved the terrors of the dungeon or went willingly into exile. Even tender virgins and children defied the power of the tyrant and suffered death in its most terrible forms. Many other Christians went alone into the desert wastes to practice lifelong penitence, sustained and encouraged by the same never-failing source of supernatural strength. It will be our strength also in times of trial, our victory in temptations, our pledge of perseverance.
What the sign of the Cross means to us.
For Orthodox Christians the Sign of the Cross is a wield and a safeguard against temptations and dangers that threaten the life of the soul. Whenever we are oppressed by temptations we may repulse them by the Sign of the Cross. St. Cyril of Jerusalem says: "Let us make the Sign of the Cross boldly and courageously. When the demons see it, they are reminded of the Crucified; they take to flight; they hide themselves and leave us."
The Sign of the Cross is also a source of knowledge revealing to us the chief mysteries of our Holy Faith, both by the words uttered in making it and by the action itself. The words "in the Name" instead of "in the names" express the fundamental truth of tri-unity of God; while the mention of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit declares that in this One God there are Three Persons, thus teaching the mystery of the Holy Trinity.
The Sign of the Cross is likewise a prayer. It is an appeal to heaven made in the Name of Him who in submission to the will of His Father, "humbled Himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross" (Phil. 2:8); of Him who declared, "If you ask the Father anything in my name He will give it to you" (John 16:23). Hence we begin and end our devotions with the Sign of the Cross in order that our petitions may be more acceptable at the Throng of Grace.
When we are assured by Christians of all ages, but especially by those of the first centuries, that we have at our command so powerful a weapon in the Sign of the Cross, it is much to be regretted that we do not make better use of it in our times. Never did the world array before the child of God enemies so numerous or so insidious as at the present time. They assail him on every side, not only with sword and fire, but also with false philosophies, with pride of intellect, with religious indifference, with materialism, with denial of God. It is more difficult to combat for a lifetime against these enemies than it would be to gain the Martyr's crown in a momentary struggle in the amphitheater. If for the first Christians, trained in the school of the Apostles and their immediate successors, the frequent use of the Sign of the Cress was so necessary, is it not also indispensable to us? Let us then follow the pious custom of our Fathers in the Faith and make the Sign of the Cross more frequently.
Make the Sign of the Cross Reverently
Still more deserving of censure are those Christians who indeed make the Sign of the Cross, but make it carelessly. It is true there is a tendency to do mechanically what a person does often, but for that very reason, if for no other, particular attention should be bestowed upon such things. It is seriously to be doubted whether persons who make the Sign of the Cross carelessly receive the graces attached to the proper use of the sacred Sign. To those who make the Sign of the Cross hurriedly, without due deliberation, with the whole hand, or simply wave their hand in the air fanning their breast, St. John Chrysostom says: "The demons rejoice in this frantic waving." On the other hand the Cross traced correctly, with faith and reverence, dispels demons, calms sinful passions, attracts Divine Grace, and gives us the strength to do good and expel that which is evil.
We must never be ashamed of the Sign of the Cross lest Christ be ashamed of us. The devil rejoices when be sees anyone neglect to make this sacred Sign for he knows that the Cross is his destruction and a Sign of victory over his temptations. When circumstances require it, one should not hesitate to sign himself with the symbol of Redemption. The Sign of the Cross inspires self-respect by teaching the true dignity of man. It is a reminder that we were purchased with the infinite price of Christ's Precious Blood, that we are brothers of Jesus Christ. It sanctifies our members with the sanctification they derive from His. It stamps the unity of God on our forehead, the seat of the mind; it seals our heart and breast with the remembrance of the love of the Father; it strengthens our shoulders to bear the Cross of the Son; and it maintains an unbroken union of love with the Three Divine Persons by means of the Holy Spirit.
Excerpt from The Orthodox Companion by Rev. David F. Abramtsov published by Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America, Englewood, New Jersey, 1994
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