The Sign of the Cross, A Short History

The Sign of the Cross, A Short History

Have you watched athletes sign themselves with the Cross and wondered how the sign came about? While no direct evidence exists, it seems clear that this holy gesture had its roots as prayer in apostolic times. Early Christians probably learned to make the sign of the cross at their Baptism when the celebrant marked them with it to claim them for Christ. St. Paul reminded the Ephesians that they received the sign at Baptism when he said: “You have been marked with the seal of the Holy Spirit of the Promise” (Eph 1:13). So the sign of the cross originated among people who were not far removed from Christ himself.

Early Christians used the thumb or index finger to trace a little cross on their foreheads, associating the practice with references in Ezekiel 9:7 and Revelation 7:3, 9:4 and 14:1, all of which describe believers bearing God’s seal on their foreheads. Origen, a third-century theologian, commented on this, saying that “the faithful make this sign when they undertake any activity, especially prayer or reading Holy Scripture.”

By the third century, Christians frequently traced the cross not only on their foreheads, but on their lips and breasts as well, as we do today when the Gospel is announced at Mass. And they made the sign in the air as a blessing over persons and things. Using the sign of the cross as a blessing may have brought about the larger sign that we know today, but that practice did not come into common use until later on.

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