Question: Can you tell us about the history of the sign of the cross since the early Christian times? As far as I know, neither Jesus nor his apostles made the sign of the cross. When did this tradition appear?
The Rev Athanasios Gumerov from Sretensky Monastery: We do not have any worship texts written by the Christians of the Apostolic age. Therefore, we cannot resolve the issue of whether the sign of the cross was used in the primitive Church unequivocally. Absence of definitive knowledge does not mean that we must deny the possibility for the sign of the cross to appear in the earliest Christian communities. Some researchers unambiguously state that “The custom of making the sign of the cross begins in the Apostolic times” (The Comprehensive Orthodox Theological Encyclopedia. Saint Petersburg, published by P.P. Soykin, year n/a, p. 1485). As early as Tertullian’s time, the sign of the cross has already become an established tradition among Christians. Tertullian writes in his treatise De Corona (ca. 211) that we guard our forehead with the sign of the cross in all circumstances of our daily lives: when we enter a house or leave it, when we put on our clothes, when we kindle lights, when we go to bed or begin to do something.
The sign of the cross isn’t just a part of a religious ritual. First of all, it’s a mighty weapon. There are many examples in the collections of sayings by the Holy Fathers and the lives of the saints of the real spiritual power that the image of the Cross possesses. Didn’t the God-enlightened Apostles know it? We find an interesting testimony in The Spiritual Meadow by John Moschos. When a priest named Conon from the monastery of Pentucla left the monastery, he met St John the Baptist who meekly implored him to return to the monastery, promising to make the monk free from temptations. Abba Conon refused. St John made him sit on a hill, opened his garment and made the sign of the cross three times. (See Chapter 3). The great John the Forerunner descended from Heaven. Could he have learned to make the sign of the cross from people?
This story indirectly points at the fact that the sign of the cross was used since the beginning of Christianity. Here is another argument in favour of this assertion. Saint John of Damascus writes, referring to the cross, “It is given unto us as a sign, similar to the circumcision of the Israel.” (An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, Book 4, Chapter XI). Who gave it unto us? God. He bequeathed to us the circumcision through Abraham (Genesis 17:10) and apparently the sign of the cross through the apostles.
Translated by The Catalog of Good Deeds