In the name of the Father
and of the Son
and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
What is the sign of the cross, and why do we make it?
Not all prayers are made with words. Prayers may also be made by gestures. Christians, like followers of all other religions, practically always pray by the position of the body—say, kneeling or standing—and of the arms and hands—for example, praying with hands outstretched or folded in front. Because we are both body and soul (a human being is not one or the other; a human being is both! We are not angels or simply spirits), we pray with both.
Now, all religions have gestures that express a devout attitude before the divine or heavenly beings they invoke, but the gesture that is most expressly Christian, and used only by Christians, is the sign of the cross. By making it, we profess the central truths of our faith: that God became one of us, with a human body and soul; that he died on the cross to save us; and that our own bodies and souls share in the same power of the Savior whereby we are freed from sin and death and brought to the resurrection and the life of heaven.
From the earliest times Christians have made the sign of the cross. St. Basil the Great tells us that the apostles themselves taught the sign of the cross. This is shown by the fact that the earliest mentions of the sign of the cross speak of it as an already established custom and simply encourage the faithful to make it correctly.
The sign of the cross was made simply with the fingers (the index or the thumb) on the forehead or lips or breast (as Latin-rite Catholics do at the beginning of the Gospel lesson) or with the whole hand over the torso. There are slight differences in how it is made between the various rites of the Church, but they are all legitimate. Those who are in holy orders bless by making the sign of the cross in the air toward the persons or things to be blessed, but layfolk bless others only by using their finger, usually the thumb. This “lay blessing” is common in Catholic cultures, made by parents on their children before bed or before going out or on a trip. It would be great if this custom could be revived.
Words often accompany the sign of the cross, but they are not essential. In a way, when we combine this gesture with a vocal prayer, we make two prayers. So, let us recognize the power of what we do when we pray, “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” It affords us powerful protection against the demons and our own weak nature. As Hispanic Catholics say when they make the sign of the cross, “By the sign of the holy cross, from our enemies, deliver us, O Lord!”