An excerpt from the book “Becoming Orthodox:
A Journey to the Ancient Christian Faith”
by Peter E. Gillquista
Years ago on an Easter Sunday we must have been seven or eight years of age and we went out for dinner after church to a hotel restaurant. About the time we placed our order, I recall looking up and seeing the family at a table across from us bow in prayer before eating and make the sign of the cross. My response was bewilderment. What does that mean? I thought to myself.
Not many years later, at the Minneapolis Auditorium, I attended one of my first Lakers' games. (Yes, the L.A. Lakers used to be the Minneapolis Lakers. Whoever has heard of lakes in L.A.?) At one point in the game, Center George Mikan stepped up to the free-throw line for a foul shot and crossed himself before attempting the free throw. What is this? I thought as he went two for two. Is this some sort of rabbit's foot gesture? What is this sign of the cross anyway?
Or let's ask the question another way. What is the most well-known symbol of all time? Anyone we ask - philosopher, historian, or artist - each would most likely respond, "the cross." This familiar symbol is found in all aspects of the life of each person, from birth to grave.
Besides the impact of the Crucifixion itself, history was also dramatically changed by a visual manifestation of the cross to the Roman Emperor, Constantine. Granted a vision of the sign of the cross in the heavens, he was converted, and in A.D. 312 he brought to an end a long, tortuous period of persecution of Christians.
How could two simple lines that even a child could draw, one horizontal, the other vertical, cause kings to change the course of history, yet give relatives such hope and comfort at the death of their loved ones as they bid farewell? Is it just a symbol? Or is something more powerful and effective to be found within the Christian application of this symbol? There is much more in the cross than most twentieth century Christians were led to understand. I believe a rediscovery of this biblical truth is essential to the spiritual health of each Christian.
A Sign of Triumph
It is the Person of the Lord Jesus Christ that makes the cross so powerful, so meaningful, and so essential to our salvation. Our Lord, who took upon Himself our complete humanity, also, in that flesh, took upon Him' self a common form of Roman crucifixion and made the cross once and for all the glory and victory for all believers.
The Scriptures say that Christ, in His death, "wiped out the handwriting of requirements that was against us, which was contrary to us. And He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross" (Colossians 2:14).
Imagine what incredible power stands between us and death, between us and the clutches of the kingdom of darkness, between us and everlasting hell. Yes, the cross is more than a symbol for earthly decor: It is the weapon of peace that sets us free from being slaves to sin, death, and the devil.
No wonder the Apostle Paul shouted out in faith, "But God forbid that I should glory except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world" (Galatians 6:14). The reality of the cross was sealed on the breast of Paul, who was able to stand against the schemes of the evil one and run the race to the finish. "For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God" (1 Corinthians 1:18).
A Sign for All Centuries
Let's step back for a moment from any prejudice or preconceived ideas we might have about uses of the sign of the cross. Let's go back to the centuries when the Church was not divided and see if those early Christians felt as strongly as the Apostle Paul about the cross.
In Christianity's second century we find Tertullian (A.D. 145-220) saying, "In all travels and movements, in all our coming in and going out, in putting on our shoes, at the bath, at the table, in lighting our candles, in lying down, in sitting down, whatever employment occupies us, we mark our forehead with the sign of the cross" (On the Soldier's Crown, chapter 3).
About a century later, the great Saint Athanasius recorded, "by the sign of the cross ... all magic is stayed, all sorcery confounded, all the idols are abandoned and deserted, and all senseless pleasure ceases, as the eye of faith looks up to heaven from the earth" (On the Incarnation, IV, 31).
Saint Cyril of Jerusalem (A.D. 315-386) was even more insistent on the use of the sign of the cross:
Let us not be ashamed to confess the crucified. Let the cross as our seal be boldly made with our fingers upon our brow, and on all occasions; over the bread we eat, over the cups we drink; in our comings and in our goings; before sleep; on lying down and rising up; when we are on the way and when we are still. It is a powerful safeguard; it is without price, for the sake of the poor; without toil, because of the sick; for it is a grace from God, a badge of the faithful, and a terror to devils; for He displayed them openly, leading them away in triumph by the force of it [Colossians 2:15]. For when they see the cross, they are reminded of the Crucified; they fear Him who had smashed the heads of dragons [Psalm 73:13]. Despise not the seal as a free gift, but rather for this reason honor your Lord all the more. (Catechesis, XIII, chapter 36)
Even Martin Luther, who is called the Father of the Protestant Reformation, called on his flock to use the sign of the cross. For example, in his instructions on morning prayers he wrote, "In the morning, when you rise, make the sign of the cross and say, 'In the name of God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen'" (Martin Luther, Small Catechism, VII, 1).
A Sign Neglected
Astonishingly it was not until the seventeenth century, at the time of King James, that a small group of Puritans began writing and speaking against the use of the sign of the cross. Reacting to the ills of the medieval Roman Church, they believed it to be a human invention which catered to superstition. These same English Puritans, who significantly influenced the North American continent, deserted one of the most powerful and cherished weapons of the entire history of the Church. Romophobia was their mentor.
Today, many American Christians have been deceived by the actions of a vocal minority and have become ashamed of the glory of the cross signed upon their breasts. But hungry for a way to physically express their allegiance to Christ, many of those who reject making the sign of the cross have ended up creating their own Christian hand signs.
The "one-way" sign did help Christians to identify with each other. But it didn't last. I still see it used by a few die-hards, but it will soon be gone. Why? It wasn't Orthodox; it wasn't the Church's sign. It wasn't the sign of the cross. The insignia of Jesus is not a raised index finger, but the cross: the true sign of every Christian.
Making signs on one's person is not a distinctly Christian activity. The American government adopted a ceremony from a patriotic magazine called Youth's Companion in 1892 and soon after required by law that every student in the public education system salute the American flag. Until just recently students were expelled from their classrooms if they refused to honor their country in this way. Even today, most Christians in America would suspect the loyalty of anyone who rejected the patriotic demonstration of placing the hand over the heart as the salute to the flag. Yet many of these same Christian people are bothered and ashamed to use the sign of the cross on their breasts. They refuse to use it, writing it off as some Roman or pagan holdover. How great the loss they suffer!
A Sign with Power
Although some may say signs have no real power, signs have always been significant to the people of God. Remember the occasion of the first Passover as recorded in the Old Testament? God instructed the Israelites to "take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and on the lintel of the houses where they eat it" (Exodus 12:7). He promised, "For I will pass through the land of Egypt on that night, and will strike all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both man and beast; and against all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgment: I am the LORD. NOW the blood shall be a sign for you on the houses where you are. And when I see the blood, I will pass over you; and the plague shall not be on you to destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt." (Exodus 12:12-13).
What is remarkable in this is that the sign of the blood on the doorposts was no mere symbol. It was a symbol with power so much so that it kept the death angel from destroying the firstborn children of Israel. Imagine, then, the power of the living cross which bore our Saviour's death as we apply it to our hearts.
Recall the time in the wilderness when the children of Israel were perishing from the bite of poisonous snakes because of their rebellion. God told Moses, "Make a fiery serpent, and set it on a pole; and it shall be that everyone who is bitten, when he looks at it, shall live" (Numbers 21:8). As incredible as that sounds to modern man, the people who looked lived. That is what Jesus was teaching the Pharisee, Nicodemus, when He said, "And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up" (John 3:14).
Lifted up on what? The cross! Physicians still use the symbol of Moses' staff and serpent as their sign for healing. How much more healing will come to those who bear the Christian sign of the cross? That's why the Apostle Paul glories in the cross.
A Sign on Ourselves
By the cross of Christ, Satan was defeated, our sins were canceled out, our debt was paid in full. By identifying ourselves with the cross, we flash our new identification cards, as it were, before sin, death, and the evil one. And when temptation comes, or when our bodies want to take control with their passions, physically making a cross on our bodies brings the power of the cross into action like an arrow released from a bow.
Let's face it! We Christians put the cross on our steeples, Bibles, neck chains, tombstones, and everything else. How about using this sign on ourselves?
And how is the sign of the cross traditionally made by Orthodox Christians? We hold our thumb and first two fingers of our right hand together. This speaks of the three persons in the Holy Trinity. Then, the last two fingers are held against the heel of our hand. These speak of the two natures of Jesus Christ: His full Divinity and full humanity. With our hand held in this manner we touch it in succession to our forehead, middle chest, right shoulder, and finally to our left shoulder. We thus apply the cross to our mind, our heart, and our strength.
On our journey to Orthodoxy, Jack Sparks wrote an article entitled "The Sign of the Cross." He summarized the centrality of the sign of the cross as follows:
1. It has been, and still is the practice of the overwhelming majority of your fellow Christians, many of whom died for the faith to help preserve the Gospel of Jesus Christ for you to believe. If we truly believe our Lord's words in John 17 that the Church is to be one, then why should we not utilize the sign of the cross as our forefathers have done?
2.а We freely use the symbol of the cross atop our church buildings, on our lecterns, altars, bulletins, and imprinted on our Bibles. Why not use it on ourselves, the people for whom Christ died as well?
3.а Using the sign of the cross gives us a personal, physical, and visible means to glory in the cross. Apart from actually doing something specific, one is hard-pressed to glory in the cross of Christ mentally. We use our voices and lips to tell others of the cross. Why should we withhold our hands and arms, which God has also given us, from doing the same? This is all part of glorifying God in our bodies. (Jack Sparks, "The Sign of the Cross," New Oxford Review, January-February, 1982)
If we will but use the sign to express reverence for the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, to remind ourselves of God's presence, this will go a long way toward helping us both to do good and to avoid sin. For the cross is our weapon of peace and our power to live holier lives. Satan and his demons fear the cross. Its sign, therefore, can be a means of protection for the children of God.
The fourth century saint, John Chrysostom, said, "When therefore you sign yourself, think of the purpose of the cross, and quench any anger and all other passions. Consider the price that has been paid for you" (Commentary on Matthew, Homily 54).
The sign of the cross is for all Christians!