The sign of the universe

sign of the cross

Human beings are creatures of gesture.

We are constantly repeating old ones and inventing new ones. We all know and use unconsciously dozens, if not hundreds of gestures each day. Gestures of greeting, leave-taking, apology, query, insult, incredulity, empathy, sympathy, amusement etc.

Just about every emotion a human being can feel, has a range of gestures which make that feeling visible, communicable.

We use these gestures so easily and so naturally, that they become an unconscious part of our communication. So much so that even when we are trying to hide our feelings, or to deceive others, our unconscious gestures often give us away. There is a whole since of reading ‘body-language’ which seeks to exploit this reality.

Given that gestures are such an intrinsic part of our humanity it would be exceedingly odd, if not unnatural, if gestures were not part of the repertoire that we use to express our faith.

One of the most ancient gestures in Christian spirituality is the sign of the cross.

In this gesture the sign of the cross is traced with the hand from the forehead to the stomach and from shoulder to shoulder.

The cross is obviously the pre-eminent symbol of the Christian faith, highlighting as it does Christ’s redemptive death on the cross for humankind. However, beyond this primary reason for the use of this gesture there are some secondary elements that are worthy of interest.

A strong case can be made that the sign of the crops is also an expression of one of the key biblical texts summarizing the gospel;

‘If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.’ (Acts 10:9 NIV)

This verse can be ‘acted out’ by tracing a small cross over the mouth (mouth), the forehead (believe) and the heart (heart). As such it is a powerful re-statement of the central tenets of Christian belief. Indeed, this gesture may well have been the original of the liturgical gesture in which a small cross is traced over forehead, lips and heart before the gospel reading; a gesture which is made as a prayer that Christ’s life-giving word might guide and guard our minds, mouths and hearts.

It is easy to see how this gesture would be simplified over time into the simpler and more natural sign of the cross typically used.

However when it comes to the sign of the cross as used normally we see a difference in practice in East and West branches of Christianity. The Eastern tradition follows the more ancient tradition of crossing oneself from right to left, whereas in the Western tradition it is done from left to right.

The Western innovation dates from somewhere around the 13th century but it is interesting to understand its history and significance.

It’s interesting to note that in the 13th century, Pope Innocent III (contemporary with St. Francis of Assisi) instructed the faithful on the meaning of the sign of the cross in these words:

“The sign of the cross is made with three fingers,

because the signing is done together with the invocation of the Trinity. …

This is how it is done: from above to below, and from the right to the left, because Christ descended from the heavens to the earth,

and from the Jews (right) he passed to the Gentiles (left)”.

Note that Pope Innocent is describing what the custom was in the West.

In the 13th century the East and the West still made the sign of the cross in the same way.

The pope goes on to say:

“Others, however, make the sign of the cross from the left to the right,

because from misery (left) we must cross over to glory (right),

just as Christ crossed over Paradise.[1]

So Pope Innocent was aware of a Christian group who had started signing themselves in this ‘backwards’ way in order to communicate something very profound. That in Christ we pass from the misery side (left), to the glory side (right).

Without speaking prejudicially of left-handed people, the predominance of right-handedness amongst human beings has meant that the left side has always been symbolic of negative aspects.

This is natural in that, at least for most people, their left hand is the weaker, the less skilful, the more awkward.

This led in turn to the association of the left side with misfortune, unfavourableness. This was reflected in the use of the Latin word ‘sinister’ meaning ‘left, on the left side’ as a word signifying ill-omens.

The adaptation of the sign of the cross to reflect this is therefore meaningful. It is a powerful statement of our conviction that in Christ we believe that we are in transition from all that is lesser, weaker, unfavourable towards the perfection that the Indwelling Spirit is birthing in us.

The position of the hand is also significant in the Eastern tradition. The sign of the cross is made with the thumb, forefinger and middle finger held together and the last two fingers held together against the palm.

‘The three fingers symbolize the Trinity,

and the two fingers symbolized the double nature of Christ: divine and human.

Making the sign of the cross then, becomes a mini-catechesis,

a self-reminder of the most basic mysteries of our faith.’[2]

Such a simple gesture, one that is capable of being performed by a child; yet one which has the strength to carry and express almost something inexpressible, something of incalculable significance.

Such as gesture is worthy to be performed often, and always as an act of deep worship and faith.

“When we cross ourselves, let it be with a real sign of the cross.

Instead of a small cramped gesture that gives no notion of its meaning,

let us make a large unhurried sign, from forehead to breast,

from shoulder to shoulder, consciously feeling how it includes the whole of us,

our thoughts, our attitudes, our body and soul, every part of us at once,

how it consecrates and sanctifies us.

It does so because it is the sign of the universe and the sign of our redemption.

On the cross Christ redeemed mankind.

By the cross He sanctifies man to the last shred and fibre of his being.”[3]

The sign of the universe and the sign of our redemption – think about that!

[1] ‘Sacred Signs and Active Participation at Mass – What Do These Actions Mean, and Why Are They So Important?’ – Rev. Cassian Folsom, OSB, address to the Adoremus Conference held in Los Angeles on November 22, 1997

[2] ibid.

[3] Romano Guardini, Heinz R. Kuehn, The Essential Guardini: An Anthology of the Writings of Romano Guardini, LiturgyTrainingPublications, 1997, p160f