Saying a lot, without a lot of words

The sign of the cross has various forms and meanings

What’s your favorite prayer? Or let’s say, what’s the one you use most often?

It’s probably the sign of the cross — and that’s whether you’re Catholic or Orthodox, Episcopalian, Lutheran, or even Methodist.

Ashley Unold, left, from Hales Corners, Wis., shows her church buddy, then-kindergartener Jennifer Bloomer, how to make the sign of the cross as they enter St. Mary Church for an all-school Mass in this 2007 photo. (Sam Lucero | The Compass)

The sign of the cross, which is also a sacramental for Catholics, is not only a prayer and a profession of faith, it is also physical prayer involving the hands, head, shoulders, face and even our torso. (Of course, when I was in grade school, Sr. Joy had us sign ourselves from the top of our head to our knees and from shoulder blade to shoulder blade – just to get the idea down.)

The sign of the cross is also traced on people and over objects and even pets as a blessing.

As a sacramental, the sign of the cross imparts the power and love of God (grace) through the action of the Paschal Mystery (the Passion, death and resurrection of Christ), the work of the Holy Spirit and the prayer of the church.

Using the sign of the cross goes back to the earliest days of the church. As far back as the third century, the Christian author, Tertullian, writing in Africa, noted that Christians made this sign on their foreheads. In the fourth century, St. Cyril of Jerusalem instructed fellow Christians to use this sign of the cross with everything they did: “over the bread we eat and the cups we drink, in our comings and in goings; before our sleep, when we lie down and when we awake; when we are travelling, and when we are at rest.”

How do you make the sign of the cross? Unlike Sr. Joy, for most people in the early church, the gesture seems to have started out small, just on the forehead, using just one finger — either the thumb or forefinger. Then, as heresies about Christ arose, the gesture changed.

For example, when two fingers were used to trace the cross, it was because the church began teaching that the dual nature of Christ – both God and human – needed to be emphasized against heretics known as the Monophysites. This also led to the larger sign of the cross made to include the torso and shoulders, as well as the head. Most of this happened around the fourth and into the fifth centuries. By the fifth century, the church was solidifying its teaching about the Trinity, so the sign of the cross was often made using three fingers joined together, or two fingers and the thumb touching.

This continued to evolve so that, today, you will find various ways to make the same sign of the cross. Each indicates various aspects of our beliefs:

  • One finger or the thumb used to make the sign indicates the oneness of God.
  • Two fingers emphasized the dual nature of Christ – truly human and truly divine.
  • Three fingers for the Trinity.
  • Five fingers indicated the five wounds of Christ, by which our redemption was won.
  • Finally, some people, after making the sign of the cross, kiss their thumb as it rests against their extended forefinger forming a cross. This honors Christ’s cross.

To make the sign of the cross, we say “In the name of the Father…” while touching the forehead; moving the hand to our heart, we say “and of the Son….;” touching one shoulder and then the other, we say “and of the Holy Spirit;” and conclude with “Amen.”

Notice that this didn’t list which shoulder comes first. If you are a western Catholic, you would touch the left shoulder before the right. However, if you belong to the Orthodox church or are an Eastern Catholic, such as in the Byzantine church, you touch the right shoulder first and then the left. (Some Eastern Christians also touch their right side at the end of the sign of the cross to symbolize Christ’s pierced side.)

Why the right to left or left to right difference?

It turns out that, for the first thousand years or so of the church’s history, everyone went from the right shoulder first and then to the left. This mirrors the blessing which the priest imparts over us — with the sign of the cross — at the end of Mass.

The switchover in the west seems to have happened around the 12th century. That’s when we find Pope Innocent III, in “The Sacred Mystery of the Altar,” noting that “The sign of the cross … descends from the upper part to the lower, and crosses over from the right hand to the left because Christ came down from the heaven to the Earth and crossed over from the Jews to the Gentiles.” However, the same pope added that other people at the time also “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.”

A 15th century devotion used by the nuns of the Bridgettine Monastery of Syon in England directed using the right to left form because Christ came from the Father to be a man (forehead to heart) suffered (to the left shoulder) and ascended to God’s right hand in glory (right shoulder.)

Whichever way you make the sign of the cross, you are using something that is basic to our faith. It has been part of our lives from our baptism, when the sign is traced on your forehead, and will continue until our burial, when holy water will be sprinkled on us in the sign of the cross. All through life, this physical prayer professes our belief in the saving love of the triune God for each of us.


Sources: “The Catholic Encyclopedia”;; “Straight Answers” by Fr. William Saunders; “The New Dictionary of the Liturgy”; “Modern Catholic Dictionary”; “Maryknoll Catholic Dictionary”; “Modern Catholic Encyclopedia”; “The Visible Church”;;; “Catholic Answers” at and the Orthodox Church in America at