The sign of the cross has been a part of the Church’s tradition for nearly 2000 years. Constantly depicted in film and art, it has become one of the most recognizable Christian acts of faith worldwide. But that was not always the case.
In the days of the Roman Empire, crucifixion was a punishment reserved for the worst of criminals, and the cross was seen as something shameful; a symbol that incited mockery. For this reason, the early Christians were very careful about depicting the cross.
In fact, a public representation of Christ’s crucifixion doesn’t really occur until the fifth century, when it was carved into the doors of the Church of Santa Sabina, now the home of the Dominicans in Rome.
In some parts of the Christian world, the sign of the cross was originally made on the forehead only. The Christian author Tertullian speaks to this when he writes: “We Christians wear out our foreheads with the sign of the cross.”
Today the sign of the cross is made by touching one’s hand sequentially to the forehead, lower chest, and then both shoulders. In a number of countries it is also customary to kiss one's thumb, or to quickly touch one’s chin or lower lip.
As Catholics, we are called to make the sign of the cross when we enter a church and bless ourselves with holy water, and at various times throughout the Mass and when we pray. Some Christians make the sign of the cross when seeking God’s blessing, as a gesture of thanksgiving, or in response to perceived blasphemy.
While it’s original use was gruesome, today the cross is a symbol of Christ’s victory over sin and death; and the sign of the cross is a visible reminder of our belief in the triune God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.