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Things we do in Church - Crossing ourselves - Printable Version

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Things we do in Church - Crossing ourselves - Fr Simon - 12-07-2010

Continuing our series on what we do in our worship and why we do it, we turn to making the sign of the cross. The sign of the cross is made in the Byzantine Orthodox tradition by bringing together the tips of the thumb and next two fingers, symbolising the Three Persons, the One God, and by bringing the fourth and fifth fingers down together into the palm of the hand, symbolising that God came down from heaven to earth and symbolising the divinity and the humanity, the two natures united together in our Lord. The tradition of the Coptic Orthodox Church is to make the sign of the cross with simply the index finger or forefinger (the finger next to the thumb) – symbolising the Three Persons, the One God (one finger with three joints or ‘hinges’) and symbolising the one united nature, as in the teaching of Saint Cyril the Great (Saint Cyril of Alexandria): “I believe in one nature of God the Word Incarnate.” This way of crossing oneself with one finger is witnessed to by ancient reference in the Coptic Orthodox Church – indeed Byzantine Orthodox also accept “that in the earliest centuries Christians simply traced the form of the cross…with…the index finger…” (Fr Marc Dunaway, 'Orthodox Answers to Frequently Asked Questions')

We touch our forehead with our finger then our chest or stomach, then the left shoulder, then the right shoulder. Oriental Orthodox Christians generally cross ourselves from left to right and our Byzantine Orthodox brothers and sisters cross themselves from right to left – but the important thing is that we all cross ourselves. You will notice that I have written that we cross ourselves from forehead to chest or stomach, then shoulder to shoulder. It is commonly said that we cross ourselves from forehead to chest then shoulder to shoulder but if you are not careful you end up making the sign of the cross upside down which is traditionally seen as a sign of Satanists rather than the Christian sign! So aim for either the stomach or at least the lower end of the chest. Perhaps there is something to be said for the wonderfully definite, almost exaggerated, way in which Russian Orthodox cross themselves, coming right down to the stomach before moving to the shoulders. I certainly commend it as good practice.

When we cross ourselves we are reminded of the first and great commandment: to love the Lord our God with all our mind (forehead), with all our heart (chest) and with all our strength (shoulder to shoulder). When we cross ourselves we pray a wordless prayer, a physical prayer prayed with the hand rather than the mouth – a pleading of the cross of Christ, an identification of ourselves with the cross of Christ, an act of adoration and worship at this most central truth at the very heart of our Orthodox Christian Faith – the crucifixion. “Nothing in my hand I bring. Simply to Thy cross I cling.” (Augustus Toplady, 'Rock of Ages')

“To make the sign of the to do something startlingly beautiful. The beauty and the meaning are united in the act. The horizontal and vertical lines ‘cross’ each other in exact mathematical symmetry. As priestly hands trace that vertical and that horizontal, the soul is imprinted with a full, perfect and sufficient satisfaction. The act has physical grace and heavenly benediction in it. The movement of the hands reverts to a still centre, simultaneously physical and spiritual. We are stilled and centred.”(David Martin, 'Personal Identity and a Changed Church' in 'No Alternative – The Prayer Book Controversy')

As for when we cross ourselves in worship…

Whenever the priest turns and says “The Lord be with you” or some similar expression and makes the sign of the cross either with his hand-cross or with his finger or at certain times just says it without making the sign of the cross or when he censes us, we cross ourselves as we receive the blessing, receiving it with the sign of the cross.

At the beginning of the Lord’s Prayer, as we say “Our Father...”

And generally whenever we hear the words “Father, Son and Holy Ghost” – we cross ourselves at this invocation of the Holy Trinity.

In the three prayers of the Trisagion: “Holy God, Holy and Mighty, Holy and Immortal...”

It is common practice also to cross ourselves as we pray the Kyrie eleison (Lord have mercy) for example in response to the deacon’s prayers in the litanies…

We cross ourselves when we enter Church and as we exit Church, when we kiss an icon, when we kiss a holy relic…

“But God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ…” (Galations 6:14)