Today, if we see someone make the sign of the cross, we can be pretty sure that this person is a Catholic or an Orthodox Christian. Even though Protestant Christians place the symbol of the cross upon their Bibles, pulpits, steeples, and car bumpers; most Protestants reject the idea of placing the sign of the cross upon themselves. Some may choose to sign themselves, but all depends on their way of thinking.
So, what is the sign of the cross, why do Catholics do it, and where did it originate from? The sign of the cross arose early in the Church. It corresponds with this biblical passage: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age (Matthew 28:19-20).” In first Corinthians 2:2, St. Paul said he would preach nothing but Jesus Christ and him crucified, and “may it never be that I should boast, except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Gal 6:14). We can look to passages from Scripture such as Ezekiel 9:4, Exodus 13:9, 16, and Revelation 7:3, 9:4, 14:1 shows that a person was set apart by God for a special protection or blessing when the tracing of a “sign” or “seal” was made on the forehead.
“Sign of the Cross”: The ritual gesture whereby we acknowledge the triune nature of God, that is, Three Persons in One God. We profess our faith in the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. With right hand cupped, we make the Sign of the Cross by touching first the forehead, then the breast, and finally both shoulders. This gesture is used privately as a devotional practice and is used publicly when the Church celebrates the Holy Eucharist, for example. The Sign of the Cross is also used in the Rite of Baptism (traced by celebrant, parents, and godparents) and Confirmation (the bishop or priest traces the Sign of the Cross with chrism on the forehead)” (Reverend Peter M.J. Stravinskas, Ph.D., S.T.L. Our Sunday Visitor’s Catholic Dictionary. 1994, Our Sunday Visitor).
In addition to what Stravinskas says about it, it can be said that the Sign of the Cross is a powerful prayer in itself. Miracles have been performed with this simple gesture and parliaments and councils have opened under its sign. From ancient times, Christians have been tracing the sign of the cross on their foreheads. Today, the most common version of signing oneself is forehead, breast and both shoulders. As Catholics, at Mass, once the Gospel reading is about to be read, we trace a small sign of the cross with our thumb on our foreheads, on our lips, and over our hearts. St. Jerome (A.D. 340-420) mentions this ancient custom in various places in his writings.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church says in paragraph 2157: “The Christian begins his day, his prayers and his activities with the Sign of the Cross: ‘in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.’ The baptized person dedicates the day to the glory of God and calls on the Savior’s grace which lets him act in the Spirit as a child of the Father. The sign of the cross strengthens us in temptations and difficulties.”
The Early Fathers of the Church on the Sign of the Cross:
(emphasis in each quote is mine)
Tertullian (c. 160c. 225 AD): “Your pearls’ [including “signing”] are the distinctive marks of even your daily conversation. The more care you take to conceal them, the more liable to suspicion you will make them, and the more exposed to the grasp of Gentile curiosity. Shall you escape notice when you sign your bed, (or) your body; when you blow away some impurity; when even by night you rise to pray?” (To His Wife 5).
Origen (c. 185-c. 284 AD): “This (the letter Tau) bears a resemblance to the figure of the cross; and this prophecy (Ezek. ix. 4) is said to regard the sign made by Christians on the forehead, which all believers make whatsoever work they begin upon, and especially at the beginning of prayers, or of holy readings” (T. iii. Select. in Ezek. c. ix).
St. Hippolytus (c. 170-c. 236 AD): “When she had done as he had directed her, she signed her whole body with the mystic sign (mystery) of the cross, and went forth from the place uncorrupted” (De Viq. Corinthiaca, t. ii).
St. Cyprian (d. 258 AD): The heading of chapter xxii. of the second Book of Testimonies is, “That in this sign of the cross is salvation to all who are marked on their foreheads.”
Until next time, God bless.