Sign of the Cross

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Signum Crucis
Sign of the Cross

“Going therefore, teach ye all nations; baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.” (Matt. xxviii: 19)

IN nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti. Amen.

IN the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

The Sign of the Cross is not only an action, but a statement of faith itself. In this simple gesture one is not only making a sign of our redemption, the Cross, but is also expressing faith in the Blessed Trinity. It was with this simple action that the faithful of the early Church fortified themselves despite difficult times. Tertullian, writing in the third century, tells us that Christians made the Sign of the Cross upon rising, as they were dressing, upon entering or leaving their houses, on going to the bath, on sitting down at the table, on lighting their lamps, in fact, at the beginning of every action. St. Augustine tells us that “It is by the sign of the Cross that the Body of the Lord is consecrated, that baptismal fonts are sanctified, that priests and other ranks in the Church are admitted to their respective orders, and everything that is to be made holy is consecrated by the sign of our Lord’s cross, with the invocation of the name of Christ.” (Serm. LXXXI).
The original Sign of the Cross was likely a “mini-cross” made by tracing a cross on the forehead, lips, or breast with the thumb, much like the custom today of doing so before the Gospel is read. It is difficult to determine exactly when the current custom of blessing oneself with a large cross going forehead to breast and then from shoulder to shoulder came about. Historical records in this regard are open to multiple interpretations and Church historians have divergent views on the subject. That the written record is unclear on the subject is to be expected, since such a custom would more likely be taught by example than by written instruction. It is likely that this large cross was first used in formal blessings by the clergy starting sometime during the Arian controversy of the fourth century and then eventually adopted by the laity. Clearly written instructions for using the large cross form to bless oneself appear by the 12/13th century, by which time it is also clear that the custom had been in use in some form or another for a long time, possibly since the 8th century.

As noted by various Medieval authors, this large Sign of the Cross is rich in symbolism. When Christ came to redeem the world, He descended from the Father, was born of the Virgin Mary, died, was buried, and descended to the dead. He then rose from the dead and ascended into heaven where He sits at the right hand of the Father. Thus when making the Sign of the Cross, one uses the right hand, which symbolizes Christ who sits at the right hand of the Father. Starting at the forehead, which symbolizes the Father, the Creator and source of all things, one then descends to the lower chest. This symbolizes the Incarnation, for Christ came down from heaven from the Father and became flesh in the womb of the Virgin Mary through the power of the Holy Ghost.

In the West, one then proceeds from the left shoulder to the right shoulder to finish the Sign of the Cross. The left in this case is usually associated with death and darkness, while the right symbolizes truth and light. Thus the action represents the transition from misery to glory, from death to life, and from hell to paradise. As Christ passed from death to life and sits at the right hand of the Father (left to right), so too may we pass from death to life in Christ through the sanctification of the Holy Ghost. In Eastern Christian traditions, the opposite direction is taken. One proceeds from the right to the left, so the symbolism is somewhat different.

A partial indulgence is granted to the faithful who devoutly make a sign of the cross.

The Exaltation of the Holy Cross of Our Lord Jesus Christ

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The Exaltation of the Holy Cross of Our Lord Jesus Christ


In the year 627, during the reign of the emperor Heraclius I of Constantinople, the Persians conquered the city of Jerusalem and removed from its venerable Sanctuary the major part of the true Cross of Our Lord, which Saint Helen, mother of the emperor Constantine, had left there after discovering it on Calvary. The emperor resolved to win back by combat this precious object, the new Ark of the Covenant for the new people of God. Before he left Constantinople with his army, Heraclius went to the church wearing black in the spirit of penance; he prostrated himself before the altar and begged God to sustain his courage. And on leaving he took with him a miraculous image of the Saviour, determined to combat with it even unto death.

Heaven visibly assisted the valiant emperor, for his army won victory after victory. One of the conditions of the peace treaty was the return of the Cross of Our Lord, in the same condition as when it was removed. Heraclius on his return was received in Constantinople by the acclamations of the people; with olive branches and torches, they went out to meet him. And the true Cross was honored, on this occasion, in a magnificent triumph.

The emperor wished to give thanks to God by going in person to Jerusalem to return this sacred wood, which had been in the power of the pagans for fourteen years. When he reached the Holy City, he placed the precious relic on his shoulders, but when he came to the gate leading out to Calvary, it became impossible for him to go forward. He was greatly astonished, and those in attendance were stupefied. Take care, O Emperor! said the Patriarch Zachary to him. Certainly the imperial clothing you are wearing does not sufficiently resemble the poor and humiliated condition of Jesus carrying His cross. Heraclius was touched on hearing this; he removed his shoes and his imperial robes, adorned with gold and jewels. Wearing a poor man’s tunic, he was able to go up to Calvary and depose there his glorious burden. To give greater brilliance to this triumphant march, God permitted several miracles to occur by the power of the Cross of Christ. A dead man returned to life, four paralytics were cured; ten lepers recovered their health and fifteen blind persons their sight; many possessed persons were delivered from the evil spirit, and a large number of sick persons were completely cured.

In those days the greatest power of the Catholic world was the Empire of the East, and that bulwark against the eastern pagans was verging toward its ruin, before God put forth His hand to save it in this way. The re-establishment of the Cross at Jerusalem, by means of the emperor’s Christian valor, was a sure pledge of its protection. It was after these events that the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross was instituted, to perpetuate their memory in the Church.

Reflection: It is not necessary to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem to venerate and exalt the Holy Cross: we can do so by meditating upon it daily and exalting it in our own lives.

Vie des Saints pour tous les jours de l’année, by Abbé L. Jaud (Mame: Tours, 1950); Les Petits Bollandistes: Vies des Saints, by Msgr. Paul Guérin (Bloud et Barral: Paris, 1882), Vol. 11