'In all our travels and movements, in all our coming in and going out, in putting off 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 foreheads with the sign of the cross' Tertullian AD 204
The sign of the cross has always been an entrenched element of Christian practice. The focal point of this piece of writing is the physical gesture of 'crossing oneself' and understanding it. I will approach the topic from a historical, liturgical and symbolic perspective - with guidance and reference from Andreas Andreopoulos' book 'The Sign of the Cross.'
The Cross in the Early Church:
It is important to remember that Christianity, in the early stages of development, spread through lower 'social circles' : fishermen, carpenters, and slaves. The common people of this era were usually illiterate, and it was therefore through physical gestures and symbols that they were able to express and share their faith. The symbol of the cross can be traced back to Apostolic times, and we see traces of the symbol appearing in the writings of Justin Martyr, Tertullian, and Irenaeus of Lyons. The cross was eventually adopted as a symbol of historic, spiritual, and liturgical significance. In the fourth century, the search for the True Cross led St Helen, the mother of the emperor Constantine the Great, to Jerusalem - where she discovered Christ's Cross, by its miraculous healing power. Then, the discovery and exaltation of the Cross by the Patriarch Makarios of Jerusalem took place - and this miraculous event still remains an important feast day of the Church. However, at the same time - when the veneration of the physical cross was taking place - a more spiritual understanding of the Cross, and Crucifixion was being developed. The desert monastics crucified themselves - in other words, truly followed the example of Christ on the Cross, and gave their whole lives to Him. For the ascetics, the cross was not only a physical symbol - but it highlighted their humility and surrender of the will and the self. This simple symbol was able to fulfil the spiritual needs of the Church, as it was a constant reminder of Christ's historic and sacrificial death for humankind; and equally to us - that we must become humble like the Crucified Lord.
The Early Church, was able to transform the secular world into a spiritual world ( just as it continues to do today ). The Church does this through liturgical practice, as well as signs and symbols. The Divine Liturgy itself developed around the image of the cross. Both in ancient times, and now, the cross is the final image of the Liturgy. This suggests that Christians, after participating in the Eucharist, the sacramental Body and Blood of Christ, should go out into the world and 'bear their cross.' Church buildings have always been built in the shape of the cross, which reflects the way liturgical services are celebrated. The church building in this form, reflects the entire universe. The processions on the west-east axis as well as the antiphons on the north-south axis mark this representation of the universe with the sign of the cross.
All of this emphasises the importance and significance of the cross in Christian Orthodox life; and even though there is deep theological meaning behind making the sign of the cross, it is also something which is personal. As Andreas Andreopoulos writes 'when we trace the cross on our body, we actively invite it - we become the cross.' Apart from anything else, making this simple sign shows that 'I am a Christian', and it invokes the power and mercy of Christ on the Cross. It is a blessing, a sanctification - which also reminds us of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
The origins of the sign of the cross are lost in the unwritten tradition of the Church. How can something be simply written down if it is not of this world, but Divine, and cannot be put into words. The Church's tradition is beyond our words and thoughts, as it is made up of mysteries and of divine revelation. In the fourth century, Basil of Caesarea ( St Basil the Great ) wrote 'the doctrines and the teachings ( κηρύγματα ) that are preserved in the Church are given to us in two different ways: the doctrines are given to us in written teachings, and the κηρύγματα have been given to us secretly, through the apostolic tradition.' St Basil then writes 'who has ever taught us the sign of the cross, which signifies our hope in our Lord Jesus Christ?' Basil, a Bishop of the early Church therefore recognises that the sign of the cross is a custom that nobody had reason to defend or explain - a tradition that is seen as ancient even in the fourth century. The importance was never put in writing, and the sign was rarely an object of study. At the end of the day, our spirituality, church tradition and theology should not be overly discussed - but lived and experienced! And this is why perhaps we do not see much discussion regarding the sign of the cross.
The simplest way to perform the sign of the cross in the ancient church, would have been over the forehead with one finger, most likely the thumb. This sign over the forehead, sometimes in the form of an X is confirmed in early icons and coins, suggesting a standard way to cross oneself. Tertullian also mentions this is one of the earliest testimonies we have about the sign of the cross:
'At every forward step and movement, at every going in and out, when we put on our clothes and shoes, when we bathe, when we light the lamps, on the coach, on the seat, in all the ordinary actions of daily life, we trace upon the forehead the sign.'
However, we may ask ourselves why the forehead, and why the sign has changed since then? The idea of a sign made on the forehead did not originate within Christianity - but from the Old Testament, and pre-Christian civilisations. In the book of Genesis we see God making a mark on Cain's head, and there are several other examples from the Old Testament, illustrating a sign on the forehead.
In the ninth chapter of Ezekiel, where God commanded to 'go through the midst of the city, through the midst of Jerusalem, and set a mark upon the foreheads of the men who sigh and who cry because of all the abominations that are done in the midst thereof.'
The mark on the forehead therefore highlights God's sign, presence and symbol on each and every person individually - even though they are filled with humiliation and sin. Without going too deeply into this, the sign on the forehead in it's Jewish context was certainly viewed as a symbol of God - even though it was connected to sin, it was a sign of the Lord. Many people have connected this sign with the Christian sign of the cross. The early church writer Origen studied the Hebrew tradition extensively and came to the conclusion that the letter Tau in Hebrew was the symbol of God. This letter bears a great resemblance to the sign of the cross - and this comparison makes sense as the letter Tau was viewed as the completion and perfection of all things, therefore God's sign and symbol. Furthermore, Origen connects this symbol with the similar Greek letter 'Χ' , the first letter of 'Χριστός' (Christ). The early Christians, by placing the sign of the cross on their heads, were reminded of the fact that they were living a crucified life - a life of persecution and humility. Every action, would be done in the name of the Crucified Christ. As for the sign that we are familiar with today, no one knows exactly when the transition to it occurred - from the mark on the forehead, to the longer sign of the cross. Several articles and writers suggest that the transition took place as a response to heresies regarding the true nature of Christ. St John Chrysostomos writes 'you should not just trace the cross with your finger, but you should do it in faith.' The early Church fathers do not seem to place too much emphasis on the way in which we make the sign of the cross - and it is probable that at their time, the mark on the forehead was still common practice. However, perhaps there was no need to discuss the matter - as opposed to the later fathers, such as St Peter of Damascus. He highlights the importance of symbolism in making the sign. The two fingers represent the two natures of Christ ( fully God, and fully man ). This is a proclamation of faith, and in his writing St Peter emphasises that the sign should differentiate the faithful Christians, from the unfaithful ( which in their context, were Muslims, who traditionally would raise one finger when seeking mercy from God ). So the use of two fingers not only professed the holy Christian faith, but also formed a call to preserve Christian identity. One of the most turbulent periods in the life of the Church, occurred in the eighth and ninth centuries when there were theological disputes regarding the significance of icons, the veneration of Saints and angels, and so on. Furthermore, the theology of the Trinity arose. The east and the west began to argue about the nature of the relationship of the three persons of the Holy Trinity ( and consequently the western church has had an alternative Creed ). This is where the three fingers was introduced, when making the sign of the cross. This highlights the invocation of the Holy Trinity , while still proclaiming Christ's two natures.
Early Christians, through the ages of persecution, gave their whole lives to Christ - and the sign of the cross was performed over everything, in order to consecrate it - their food, their pillow, and each other. It was a necessary blessing - the blessing of Christ in every aspect of their daily lives. As St Cyril of Jerusalem writes 'it is a powerful safeguard.' We have now briefly seen where the sign of the cross has come from, and how it has evolved through the Holy Church, into what we have today as an action that reveals to us the mysteries of our faith.
The Symbol and Sign
'The most complete religious symbol as a concept, bringing together the spiritual and the material realms, is Christ Himself. In His person, Jesus united the divine and the human. The church, as the body of Christ, maintains the connection between the spiritual and the material world in a similar way. Theologically and liturgically the Church expresses the union of the spiritual and the material, a union understood through a highly symbolic expression.' ( Andreas Andreopoulos )
I think before we examine the symbolic importance of the sign of the cross, we should ask ourselves what the Church is in the first place and why we partake in it's liturgical life and traditions. It is not accidental that we read the Lord's prayer beginning with 'Our Father', not 'My Father.' The Church is a eucharistic community - in other words, we are all united as one body under Christ. The greatest and clearest experience of God for Orthodox Christians, is the mystery that unites us all; the Eucharist ( Holy Communion ).
The sign of the cross is what identifies us as a body of people - a communion of love. It expresses the ineffable, and consists of rich theology, and symbolism. The symbolism of the church have a great effect on us, at levels far deeper than the conscious mind. 'The symbols and rituals turn our soul toward God and invite His grace and the operation of the Holy Spirit.' (Andreas Andreopoulos) This certainly applies to the sign of the cross as it expresses the experience of God. Gestures and signs are essential, as every gesture holds its own spiritual meaning. For example, the ancient gesture of lifting one's arms in prayer ( which of course is still practiced in the Orthodox Church - lifting our hearts up to the Lord ) is an appeal to communicate with the almighty God.
A Blessing, a prayer and a submission
While we profess our faith by making the sign of the cross, we are also inviting God Himself to accept us and cleanse our body and entire being - so that our body may be a temple for God to dwell in. 'Do you know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God?' ( 1 Corinthians 6:19 ). Firstly, by making the sign, we accept Christ's sacrifice on the Cross, and we must accept our need of our own 'crucifixion' and humility. 'If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.'( Matthew 16:24)
The cross is a submission of the self, to the holy will of God. As St Paul says in Galatians 'I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.' Kosmas Aitolos, an eighteenth century monk of Mt Athos, highlights that the sign of the cross is a prayer. It is an aid in the spiritual ascent towards unity with God - a wordless prayer. In many ways this is what prayer should be - beyond our words and images, but a simple and humble submission, confession, and glorification. St Silouan said something which is very moving, in an encounter with a fellow passenger on a train. The passenger offered him a cigarette, and St Silouan surprisingly accepted it and thanked the passenger. He then asked the passenger to join him in making the sign of the cross, and he replied ( looking rather puzzled ) 'it is not proper to make the sign before smoking is it?' The saint then replied 'an action that does not agree with the sign of the cross should not be done at all!'
The most striking, and unique characteristic of this act is that it connects theology with practice - gesture with prayer, and confession with blessing and glorification. The sign of the cross could perhaps for this reason, be the greatest thing that we have through our daily lives. It is very personal, but yet includes the whole body of the Church, and connects all aspects of our spiritual life into one. It is a reflection of the medicine given to us by Christ - a sign of contemplation of our sins and unworthiness before God, but also the prayer and wish to triumph over sin and temptation; leading to unity with the Risen Christ.