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Significance of the Sign of the Cross

Bert Ghezzi on the Meaning Behind the Ancient Gesture

LAKE MARY, Florida, NOV. 24, 2004 (Zenit) - The simple gesture that Catholics make thousands of times in their lives has a deeper meaning most of them don't realize.

Now, the multifaceted significance of the sign of the cross has been investigated and explained by Bert Ghezzi, author of "Sign of the Cross: Recovering the Power of the Ancient Prayer" (Loyola Press).

He told us how the sign came about, what six meanings it has and why making it reverently can enhance one's life in Christ.

Q: When did the sign of the cross originate?

Ghezzi: The sign of the cross is a very ancient practice and prayer. We don't have any indication of it in Scripture, but St. Basil in the fourth century said that we learned the sign from the time of the apostles and that it was administered in baptisms. Some scholars interpret St. Paul's saying that he bears the marks of Christ on his body, in Galatians 6:17, as his referring to the sign of the cross.

In the book, I note that the sign originates close to Jesus' time and goes back to the ancient Church. Christians received it in baptism; the celebrant signed them and claimed them for Christ.

Q: How did it become such an important liturgical and devotional practice?

Ghezzi: I speculate that when adult Christians were baptized, they made the sign of the cross that claimed them for Christ on their forehead proudly.

Tertullian said that Christians at all times should mark their foreheads with the sign of the cross. I can imagine that Christians would make a little sign of the cross with their thumb and forefinger on their foreheads, to remind themselves that they were living a life for Christ.

Q: Beyond the words themselves, what does the sign mean? Why is it a mark of discipleship?

Ghezzi: The sign means a lot of things. In the book, I describe six meanings, with and without words. The sign of the cross is: a confession of faith; a renewal of baptism; a mark of discipleship; an acceptance of suffering; a defense against the devil; and a victory over self-indulgence.

When you make the sign, you are professing a mini version of the creed -- you are professing your belief in the Father, and in the Son and in the Holy Spirit. When you say the words and pray in someone's name you are declaring their presence and coming into their presence -- that's how a name is used in Scripture.

As a sacramental, it's a renewal of the sacrament of baptism; when you make it you say again, in effect, "I died with Christ and rose to new life." The sign of the cross in baptism is like a Christian circumcision, which united Gentile converts to the Jewish nation. The sign links you to the body of Christ, and when you make it you remember your joining to the body with Christ as the head.

The sign of the cross is a mark of discipleship. Jesus says in Luke 9:23, "If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me." The word that the Fathers of the Church used for the sign of the cross is a Greek word that is the same as what a slave owner put on a slave, a shepherd put on a sheep and a general put on a soldier -- it's a declaration that I belong to Christ.

Self-denial is not just giving up little things; to be a disciple you are under Christ's leadership and you don't belong to yourself. By doing the sign of the cross, you're saying to the Lord, "I want to obey you; I belong to you. You direct all my decisions. I will always be obedient to God's law, Christ's teachings and the Church."

When suffering comes, the sign of the cross is a sign of acceptance. It's remembering that Jesus became a man and suffered for us and that we participate in Christ's suffering. The sign of the cross says, "I am willing to embrace suffering to share in Christ's suffering."

When you're suffering, when you're feeling like God is not there, the sign of the cross brings him there and declares his presence whether you feel it. It is a way of acknowledging him at that time of trial.

One of the main teachings of the early Church Fathers is that the sign of the cross is a declaration of defense against the devil. When you sign yourself, you are declaring to the devil, "Hands off. I belong to Christ; he is my protection." It's both an offensive and defensive tool.

I've found that the sign of the cross is a way to put to death self-indulgence -- those big problems we have, the stubborn things we can't get rid of. The Church Fathers say if you are angry, full of lust, fearful, emotional or grappling with fleshly problems, make the sign when tempted and it will help dispel the problem.

I began to make it to gain control with a problem with anger. Signing myself is a way of destroying ...

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1 - 10 of 13 Comments

  1. Edward Khoury
    7 months ago

    When making the sign of the cross Catholics use their right hand. Is there any significance to using the right hand. Is it incorrect to use your left hand if you use your left hand for all your activities.

  2. Benedict
    8 months ago

    It was really helpful.I have been doing the sign of the cross for 17 years without knowing what it signifies.I hope that the modern catholic youths of nowadays will read this article to enlighten themselves.Thanks

  3. Grace Ediang
    2 years ago

    i could not believe her information. this article enlightened me thank God, if we put red heart on our dresses to signify love, why not sign the cross to signify Christ.

  4. john
    2 years ago

    The sign of the Cross is the sign of the Trinity. It is a powerful sign. Invoke it often. Keep it ever before you as you make your escape from godlessness to God. When you are asked what kind of god is your God, use the sign of the Cross to explain us to them:

    When you name the Father and point to the head of Jesus crowned with thorns, tell them that your God is an omnipotent King who is ever willing to sacrifice Himself for you.

    When you name the Son and point to the feet of Jesus pierced by a nail, tell them that your God is a humble God whose feet trod the desert of suffering, not above you as God, but with you and as one of you - an equal to you in your humanity - an equal to you in your suffering.

    When you name the Holy Spirit and point to the right and left arms of Jesus pierced by nails, tell them that the arms of your God are open wide and ready to embrace you in a great bear hug of overwhelming love.

    When you say Amen and touch your hands together to end the Sign of the Cross, tell them that this word of truth and gesture of gratitude are all we require from you in return.

  5. rheine
    2 years ago

    this is very helpful. Thank you first of all.. I am a catholic and my bf is a catholic also, but sad to say, he don't like to make a sign of the cross.. I don't know why because I don't want him to question his views, but I realize,how can he not make a simple gesture to make the sign of the cross if we are already married and we have childrens? what would be the teaching that we will taught to them. He is making a retreat right now, and I don't know what to do if he's going to change his belief or perception about us catholic. He is on a born again christian right now. I don't know what to do anymore. But I hope afer reading this article I am going to read it to him and write some important words to give him if someday he will realize what his doing. I hope it will help.

  6. winnie
    2 years ago

    just this morning, i heard a preaching from a non catholic where he blatantly stated that the sign of the cross was rubbish and i almost believed him, but then i realized i had no deep understanding of the meaning but after reading this, i know he can't be right

  7. Richard Norgah
    3 years ago

    Thanks very much for this article.

    I am a non-Catholic (a Methodist), married to Catholic. I first learned to make the sign of the Cross when we started counseling before our wedding and I have kept to it. Though I made the sign of the Cross till date with all seriousness, I didn't know so much of its meaning or significance until today 26/08/2012, some three years after our marriage, when I decided to look it up. What I found is amazing and I've never been ashamed to make the Sign of The CROSS.

    Thank you.

  8. Norma Duhon
    3 years ago

    I attended the first class in a series of lessons about the changes in the Mass, and the sign of the Cross was brought up in an informal discussion. It was mentioned that the proper way to make the Sign of the Cross is with 3 fingers, representing the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Some attendees use their thumb, index, and forefinger; others use the index, forefinger, and ring finger. Is there a "correct" way?

    I am learning a lot from the class, and am so very glad to be able to attend.

  9. Beatrice Balli
    4 years ago

    I wanted to know what the double cross means.I know that for one cross is, in the name of the father the son and the holy spirit and what is the meaning for it.
    there are also blessings that are given at the time of someone leaving for the day or trip.

  10. Danielle
    4 years ago

    I'm hoping the author can respond to my message. My husband and I were having a dispute over the meaning behind the Sign of the Cross and Holy Water in the Catholic Church. I read an article in a publication titled "Forward in Christ" A Lutheran Voice/WELS June 2011 edition. Author, Forrest L. Bivens. He writes that crossing oneself is more than simply a pervasive custom for Catholics, it is a Sacrament that earns indulgences. Extra indulgences are earned if holy water is used. Can you please comment on this. I was raised Catholic and I don't remember ever being taught that the sign of the cross was for indulgences nor Holy Water. I think of it as everything you stated in your article. Thanks for your comment on this.

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