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Pray continually, Paul urged the Thessalonians. The early church fathers took this one step further: continually make the sign of the cross.

"In all our travels and movements, in all our coming in and going out, in putting on 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," wrote Tertullian at the turn of the third century, A.D. In the fourth century, St. John Chrysostom (apparently anticipating an American Express slogan) wrote, "never leave home without making the sign of the cross."

How the sign of the cross — the motion of the hand over the torso, up, down, then side-to-side — made its way from the early church to us today is a lesson in church history, as you can see in two new books: The Sign of the Cross: The Gesture, the Mystery, the History, by Andreas Andreopoulos (Paraclete Press, 2006) and The Sign of the Cross: Recovering the Power of the Ancient Prayer, by Bert Ghezzi (Loyola Press, 2006). (The sign of the cross as a benediction, made outwardly rather than towards the self, also has a varied and murky history, but both books focus primarily mostly on making the cross over one's self.)

More importantly, the sign of the cross is a lesson in discipleship. As Andreopoulos, from an Eastern Orthodox perspective, and Ghezzi, from a Roman Catholic perspective, both show, making sign of the cross is a powerful act of daily prayer, dedication, and remembrance. Ghezzi writes that at its heart, the sign of the cross is "a simple gesture and … a simple prayer."

Over time, Christians have imbued this small, simple gesture with volumes of theological meaning. Holding three fingers together ...

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