Many Christians denominations practice making the sign of the cross. How is it made and how do they explain it?
Orthodox Church. The Orthodox make the sign of the cross with their right hand. The tips of the first three fingers (the thumb, index, and middle ones) are brought together, expressing one’s faith in the Trinity, and the last two (the “ring” and little fingers) are pressed against the palm to symbolize the two natures of Christ. First we touch the forehead with the three fingers and say “In the Name of the Father”, then we press them against the belly and say, “and the Son”, then the hand goes to the right shoulder, at which point we say, “and the Holy”, before moving our hand to the left shoulder and finishing the phrase by saying “Spirit”. Immediately after that, we bow and seal the formula with Amen. All Orthodox Christians use the same Trinitarian formula. We raise our hand and remember the Father who is the Source of the Trinitarian being. Then we remember the Son and, by putting our hand to the belly, we recall his Incarnation in the womb of the most holy Theotokos. As we touch our right and left shoulders, we invoke the Holy Spirit. When we touch our forehead, we ask God to cleanse our mind; when we touch our belly, we ask him to purify our inner feelings. Shoulders are an image of our physical strength and everything we do. We touch the right shoulder first because the right side has always been more honorable than the left side, judging from the Bible. The Lord Jesus Christ sits to the right side of his Father. The good thief was crucified to the right side of Jesus; the Lord will put the sheep to his right side and goats to his left side, etc.
Roman Catholic Church. Catholics make the sign of the cross with an open hand and from left to right, in contrast with the Orthodox. Other Western Christians, e.g., Lutherans, Anglicans, Episcopalians, and some Presbyterians follow the same pattern because they inherited it from the Western Church. Catholics have strict rules concerning the sign of the cross, while many Lutherans don’t feel obliged to use it, although Luther himself recommended to cross oneself every day. The open palm symbolizes the five wounds on the Savior’s body. Aside from the “big” sign of the cross, the Catholics have also preserved the ancient “small” sign of the cross. The cross is made with the thumb first on the forehead, then on the mouth, and finally on the heart. They use this sign before the reading of the Gospel during the mass, as a way of showing that they are ready to receive the Good News in their mind, to preach it with their mouths, and to keep it in their hearts. There is also a tradition in the Catholic Church to dip one’s fingers in holy water upon entering the church and then crossing oneself to remind oneself of one’s baptism and as a remnant of the long-gone practice of washing of hands before the Eucharist.
Ethiopian Church. Ethiopians use their index and middle fingers to make the sign of the cross. This position is called the Cross of salvation. They press the thumb against the tip of the ring finger, while the little finger clings tightly to the ring finger. Fingers crossed in this way symbolize the Most Holy Trinity and resembles the way Old Believers cross their fingers. The Ethiopians touch the forehead and say In the Name of the Father, then the chest and say and the Son, then the left shoulder and say and the Holy Spirit. They add, One God, while touching the right shoulder; then bow and say Amen. They say that the left side symbolizes the Prophets, the Old Testament, the West, the robber on the left side of Christ, the sin, as well as the Exile of the Holy Family to Egypt; while the right side symbolizes respectively the Apostles, the New Testament, the East, the good thief, righteousness, and the return of Jesus from Egypt. Therefore, the left-to-right movement symbolizes rejection of sin and old self and striving for the light of righteousness.
Ancient authors ascribed the notion of holiness to the right side. That is why when Greeks said the words Holy Spirit (Άγιο Πνεύμα), they designated the word Holy to the right shoulder and the word Spirit to the left shoulder. That was why they crossed themselves from right to left. However, Latin has reverse word order, i.e., spiritus sanctus. Possibly, that was why the Latin West, wanting to assign sanctus to the right shoulder, chose left-to-right direction. This attempt to explain the direction of the gesture from the linguistic point of view is interesting but not applicable to all traditions. Thus, the Assyrian Church of the East has right-to-left direction, while the Syriac Jacobite Church has left-to-right direction, in spite of the fact that both churches use Syriac as their liturgical language.
Regardless of how Christians cross themselves and what meaning they attribute to it, let us remember that it isn’t the way we cross that saves us – it is Christ who died on the Cross for us. Let us be thankful to the Lord throughout our lives, bearing in mind the price that He had to pay for our salvation. Let us follow St. John Chrysostom’s advice, “When you make the sign of the cross, may your forehead express living hope and your soul shall become free.”