Tuesday, May 15, 2012

On the Sign of the Cross

     One of the distinctive features of Orthodox Christianity that is almost entirely missing in the West (with the exception of the Church of Rome) is the making of the Sign of the Cross. It is really a very simple action, so simple a child of three can be taught to do it. Touch the thumb of the right hand to the first two fingers, then with those three digits touch in succession the forehead, the chest, the right shoulder and the left. There are many variances in how this is done, which are left to preference. Some make very broad, slow, expansive movements, others do it quickly and very close to the body. Some will come back and touch the chest again at the end, while others do not. Some bow the head while making the sign, others do not. We make the Sign on many occasions - upon entering a church, when we approach an icon, or the Eucharist, when we pray, when the Name of the Holy Trinity is invoked. When I tuck my children into bed, I bless them with a kiss and the Sign of the Cross. Priests bless their parishioners with the Sign, both corporately and individually.

     Given that in American churches, particularly in Evangelical, Pentecostal and Charismatic settings, hand gestures of all kinds are common and unremarkable, it seems odd to me that this one is so conspicuously absent. Perhaps it is because most of these gestures (raising or waving of hands, clapping) are symbolic, whereas the sign of the Cross goes deeper - it is an invocation. By the sign of the Cross we invite the Lord to be present with us, to manifest himself in our midst. This is why the Sign can drive away the demons - they don't want to be in the presence of the One who has defeated them. Another reason may be that Western Christianity seems to have relegated God to the purely spiritual realm. In contrast, Orthodoxy is incarnational, that is, we believe that Christ came not only to save and heal our souls, but also our bodies, and all of creation. So the physical world is significant, and physical actions, like making the sign of the Cross, can be a conduit for God's grace. 
     The other significance of the Sign, and this is my view, not formal doctrine, is that it self-identifies one as a Christian. The point is not to draw attention to one's self -  "Hey, look how spiritual I am, I make the sign of the Cross!"  - but to remind one's self that we are bought with a price, and we are not our own any more. It is an action of reverence.
     This article shares some of the sayings of the Church Fathers on the appropriateness and importance of making the Sign of the Cross.

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