Why do liturgical Christians make the sign of the cross?

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If you think that's getting theologically meticulous, you haven't heard the debates over whether to finish the motion with a left-to-right movement (left cross) or right-to-left (right cross). The right cross, still practiced by Eastern Orthodox believers, symbolizes how "Christ descended from the heavens to the earth, and from the Jews (right) He passed to the Gentiles (left)," according to Pope Innocent III. In Roman Catholic practice, the left cross has become standard, showing, (in one of many interpretations) that the believer hopes to be not on Christ's left—with the goats, as in Jesus' parable—at the day of judgment, but on Christ's right.

If these layers of theological density seem out of place with the simple beauty of the two-part motion of the sign of the cross, Andreopoulos explains that all symbols

keep within them a multitude of meanings that they were given intentionally and also unconsciously. Upon reflecting on these signs, the faithful find that these meanings are made available. The sign, as an act, however small it may be, expresses the impetus of crossing the threshold between thinking in theological terms and practicing the Christian life.

And so, both Andreopoulos and Ghezzi urge all Christians to rediscover—or discover for the first time—the ancient, simple, and profound act of making the sign of the cross.

"The spiritual weight of the sign has always been the same," Andreopoulos writes. "In texts from Tertullian and Origen to Kosmas and Aitolos, it is a blessing, a prayer, a proclamation of the Christian identity, a living mystery, and an acceptance of the role that God has given us."

"Whether I sign myself silently or with the invocation [of 'in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit']," writes Ghezzi, "it helps me to look beyond the mundane things I have to do every day … and focus on God and on the greater part of reality, the part that is spiritual and invisible."

Christians of a variety of traditions have begun to discover the beauty and meaning of this ancient act. Protestant objections to the sign of the cross are seldom articulated beyond the vague dismissal, "It's a Catholic thing," but Martin Luther prescribed the sign of the cross in his Small Catechism, and the sign has long been part of Episcopal and Lutheran practice. As both Andreopoulos and Ghezzi show, the sign of the cross is hardly a uniquely Catholic practice; it has deep roots in the early and Eastern churches and clear ties to Scripture.

After reading these two books, this previously ignorant Protestant, for one, has decided to introduce the sign of the cross into his daily prayer, as a link with the early church, a sign of God's claim on me, and a reminder of the mystery of the Trinity.

Whether we practice it or not, the sign of the cross is one manifestation of how physical—how embodied—worship really is. It can be as simple as raising our hands during a praise song, sitting up straight when the first few chords of a hymn are struck, or closing our eyes and folding our hands to pray. All of these motions have become ingrained in our body language of worship. Like the sign of the cross, they contain great potential for physical demonstration and remembrance of a deeper meaning—and also great potential for becoming so routine that eventually we do them out of mere habit—or worse, for show.

From centuries ago, Chrysostom admonishes us to mean what we do. "You should not just trace the cross with your finger," he wrote, "but you should do it in faith."

Nathan Bierma is communications and research coordinator for the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship , and author of Bringing Heaven Down To Earth: Connecting This Life To The Next (P&R Publishing).

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