The Sign of the Cross, A Short History

The Sign of the Cross, A Short History


By the 9th century, Christians in the East were making the larger gesture with thumb and two fingers displayed, symbolizing the Trinity, and with the ring and little finger folded back into the palm of the hand, symbolizing Christ’s two natures, then crossing their shoulders from right to left, as decreed by emperor Leo IV.

In the West, it is less clear how the larger sign was adopted; but apparently by the 9th century Western Christians started imitating the Eastern practice of signing themselves with a large cross, although moving their hand from the left shoulder to the right shoulder instead, even if at the time there was no preference indicated.

A late-fifteenth-century document, however, taught to cross from left to right, and explained that the movement from forehead to breast meant that Christ came down from heaven to earth in his Incarnation, and the movement from the left to right shoulder indicated that Christ at his death descended into hell and then ascended to heaven to sit at the Father’s right hand.

By the end of the Middle Ages, most Western Christians were making the sign of the cross as we do today, accompanied with various invocations, such as “In the name of Jesus”, and “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit”, which is the formula we use today.

Regardless of how we do it, all those who sign themselves with faith are opening themselves to the Lord.

Adapted from The Sign of the Cross by Bert Ghezzi
© 2021 by Word on Fire Catholic Ministriies, Park Ridge, IL