The Sign of the Cross, or Signum crucis in Latin, is a ritual hand motion made by members of many but not all branches of Christianity. It may be accompanied by the trinitarian formula. For Christians the motion symbolizes the Cross on Calvary by tracing the shape of the cross in the air or on one's own body. There are two principal forms, one followed by Eastern Orthodox Churches, and the other by the Western Churches (Anglicanism, Lutheranism, and Roman Catholicism) and Oriental Orthodoxy. The sign is rarely used by non-liturgical or evangelical Protestants.
The hand. The open right hand is used in the Churches of the West. The five open fingers represent The Five Wounds of Christ. Though this is the most common method of crossing by Western Christians, other forms are sometimes used. The West also employs the "Small Sign of the Cross" in which a small cross is traced with the thumb over the forehead, lips, and breast of the individual while whispering the words "May Christ's words be in my mind, on my lips, and in my heart". This is used at the Proclamation of the Gospel at Holy Mass and also is commonly used when blessing oneself with holy water when leaving or entering a church. In the Eastern Catholic and Orthodox Churches, the thumb, index, and middle finger are brought to a point, symbolizing the Trinity (the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit/Ghost, three persons sharing a single essence), the remaining two fingers (kept pressed together and touching the palm) representing the human and divine natures of Jesus Christ. However, the Russian Orthodox in the past used two fingers brought to a point with the three remaining fingers pressed down. Russian Old Believers still use this form. The Oriental Orthodox (Armenians, Copts, Ethiopians etc.) generally use the "Western" direction as well, though often with the Byzantine finger formation.
In Russia until the reforms of Patriarch Nikon in the 17th century, it was customary to make the sign of the cross with two fingers (symbolising the dual nature of Christ). The enforcement of the three-finger sign was one of the reasons for the schism with the Old Believers whose congregations continue to use the two-finger sign of the cross.
The motion. The sign of the Cross is made by touching the hand sequentially to the forehead, sternum, and both shoulders, accompanied by the Trinitarian formula: at the forehead: In the name of the Father (or In nomine Patris in Latin); at the stomach or heart: and of the Son (et Filii); across the shoulders from left to right: and of the Holy Spirit/Ghost (et Spiritus Sancti); and finally: Amen.
There are several interpretations, according to Church Fathers: the forehead symbolizes Heaven; the stomach, the earth; the shoulders, the place and sign of power. Also, the hand to the forehead may be seen as a prayer to the Father for wisdom; the hand to the stomach as a prayer to the Son who became incarnate; and the hand to the shoulders as a prayer to the Holy Spirit.
There are some variations: for example a person may first place the right hand in holy water. After moving the hand from one shoulder to the other, it may be returned to the stomach. It may also be accompanied by the recitation of a prayer e.g. the Jesus Prayer, or simply "Lord have mercy". In some cultures it is customary to kiss one's hand or fingers at the conclusion of the gesture.
Sequence Pope Innocent III (1198–1216) gave the following instruction:
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).
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 from death to life, and from Hades to Paradise. [Some priests] do it this way so that they and the people will be signing themselves in the same way. You can easily verify this — picture the priest facing the people for the blessing — when we make the sign of the cross over the people, it is from left to right...
Writers such as Herbert Thurston, author of the article Sign of the Cross in the Catholic Encyclopedia interpret this as indicating that at that time both Eastern and Western Christians moved the hand from the right shoulder to the left. However, Thurston confesses that the point is not entirely clear. He quotes another liturgist who inclined to the opinion that in this passage of Innocent III, and in those of Belethus, Sicardus and Durandus, which are usually appealed to in proof of this, these authors had in mind the small cross made upon the forehead or external objects, in which the hand moves naturally from right to left, and not the big cross made from shoulder to shoulder.
Today, Western Christians and the Oriental Orthodox touch the left shoulder before the right. Orthodox Christians use the right-to-left movement. A Greek catechetical textbook attempted to explain the difference between the Latin and the Greek customs by saying that the right side is associated with holiness, and the heart (on the left) with the spirit, so that those who, in mentioning the Holy Spirit, used the Latin phrase "Spiritus Sancti" (noun before adjective) touched left before right, while those who said, in Greek, "τοῦ Ἁγίου Πνεύματος" (adjective before noun) did the opposite.
The Sign of the Cross may be made by individuals upon themselves as a form of prayer, and by clergy upon others or objects as an act of blessing. Priests are allowed to bless using the right hand, while bishops may bless simultaneously with both, the left mirroring the right. While individuals may make it at any time, clergy must make it at specific times (as in liturgies), and it is customary to make it on other occasions (see below).
During rituals such as the Roman Catholic Mass the Sign is required at certain points: the laity sign themselves at the beginning of the Eucharist, at the Gospel and at the final blessing; additionally, the celebrant makes the Sign over the bread and wine before the Words of Institution (i.e. words of Christ). In the Tridentine Mass the priest signs the bread and wine 25 times during the Canon of the Mass, ten times before and fifteen times after they have been consecrated. In the Mass of Paul VI the priest signs them once only and before the consecration. Roman Catholic bishops make the Sign of the Cross three times when they are blessing a large group of people, at the names of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
In the Eastern traditions, both celebrant and congregation make the Sign of the Cross much more frequently than in Western Christianity. It is customary in some Eastern traditions to cross oneself at each petition in a litany, and to closely associate oneself with a particular intention being prayed for or with a saint being named. The Sign of the Cross is also made upon entering or leaving a church building, at the start and end of personal prayer, when passing the main altar (which represents Christ), whenever all three persons of the Trinity are addressed, and when approaching an icon.
When an Eastern Orthodox or Eastern Catholic bishop or priest blesses with the sign of the cross, he holds the fingers of his right hand in such a way that they form the Greek abbreviation for Jesus Christ "IC XC". The little finger is extended to make the "I"; the index finger and middle finger are also raised, with the middle finger bent slightly so that the two fingers together form the "X"; the thumb touches the lowered third finger to signify the two "C"s. When a priest blesses in the sign of the cross, he positions the fingers of his right hand in the manner described as he raises his right hand, then moves his hand downwards, then to his left, then to his right. A bishop blesses with both hands (unless he is holding some sacred object such as a blessing cross, chalice, Gospel Book, icon, etc.), holding the fingers of both hands in the same configuration, but when he moves his right hand to the left, he simultaneously moves his left hand to the right, so that the two hands cross, the left in front of the right, and then the right in front of the left. The blessing of both priests and bishops consists of three movements, in honour of the Holy Trinity.
Some Christians make the Sign of the Cross in a way that may seem idiomatic: for example, in response to perceived blasphemy. Others sign themselves to seek God's blessing before or during an event with uncertain outcome. In Latin countries people often sign themselves in public. Athletes can be seen crossing themselves before entering the field or while concentrating for competition.
In societies with constant Christian observance the Sign of the Cross is employed during everyday activities. For example the spoon crosses the newly poured mixture before stirring, housewives bless food when placing it in the oven, potters bless the clay before creating a vessel, and one slicing bread crosses the bread with the knife before cutting, as bread is considered to represent the body of Christ.
During persecutions, such as in Communist Romania, some believers would hide the gesture by moving their tongues in a cross pattern inside their mouths.
The Christian sign of the cross was originally made with the right hand thumb and across the forehead only. The custom is attested to as early as the second century.
Vestiges of this practice remain: some Christians sign a cross on their forehead to hear the Gospels during Mass; foreheads are marked with an ash cross on Ash Wednesday; holy oil (called chrism) is applied on the forehead for the sacrament of Confirmation. Around year 200 in Carthage (modern Tunisia, Africa), Tertullian says: "We Christians wear out our foreheads with the sign of the cross". It is thought that by the end of the second century Christians signed the cross on their forehead before taking any risk, such as embarking on a journey.
By the fourth century, the sign of the cross involved other parts of the body beyond the forehead. By the sixth century, these variations of smaller signs across the body became the one larger sign used now.
Although the Sign of the Cross dates to early Christianity, it was generally rejected by the Reformers and is mostly absent from Protestantism. Since the Reformation it has generally been rejected by Protestants and some Low-Church Anglicans as being a Catholic practice.
Among Lutherans the practice was widely retained. For example, Luther's Small Catechism states that it is expected before the morning and evening prayers. In addition, the sign of the cross is customary in the Divine Service. Rubrics in Contemporary Lutheran worship manuals, including Evangelical Lutheran Worship, Lutheran Service Book, Lutheran Book of Worship and Lutheran Worship provide for making the sign of the cross at certain points in the liturgy. Although Lutheranism never abandoned the practice of of making the sign of the cross in principle, it was largely in disuse until the liturgical renewal movement of the 1960s and 1970s. Since then, the sign of the cross has become more commonplace among Lutherans at worship.
The United Methodist Church is essentially a product of the Protestant Reformation and consequently tends to be iconoclastic — that is rejecting statues, icons, and many other practices which it sees as being "Catholic". Currently the sign of the cross is made regularly by few Methodists, but on Ash Wednesday it is almost always applied by the elder on the laity.