In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit [or Holy Ghost]. Amen.
“The Christian begins his day, his prayers, and his activities with the Sign of the Cross: ‘In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.’ The baptized person dedicates the day to the glory of God and calls on the Savior’s grace which lets him act in the Spirit as a child of the Father.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2157)
The Most Common Prayer
The Sign of the Cross is the most popular Christian doxology (hymn of praise to God), and the most constant daily reminder and expression of our Christian Faith. “The most basic Christian gesture in prayer is and always will be the Sign of the Cross.” (Pope Benedict XVI)
This is the most common prayer of Christians, and it has been since the founding of the Church. St. Paul speaks of the cross in almost all his New Testament letters: “God forbid that I should glory except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world is crucified to me, and I to the world. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything; what matters is being a new creature. And whosoever shall follow this rule, peace and mercy be upon them all.” (Gal. 6:14-16) We could fill a book with the early Christians’ testimonies to this practice. It is mentioned everywhere because it was practiced everywhere.
An Act of Faith
Though the simplest gesture, the Sign of the Cross is the richest of creeds. It encompasses the infinite. It proclaims the Trinity, the Incarnation, and our redemption. It is a “summing up and re-acceptance of our baptism. Making the Sign of the Cross means saying a visible ‘yes’ to the One who died and rose for us, to God who in the humility and weakness of his love is the Almighty, stronger than all the power and intelligence of the world.” (Pope Benedict XVI)
As an act of faith, the symbolism contained in the gesture is very rich. Over the centuries the faithful have developed many ways of doing it. In the East, the thumb, index finger, and middle finger of the right hand are joined together, while the fourth and little finger are joined and bent into the palm of the hand. The three fingers are joined together so as to form one entity, which expresses our faith in the Most Holy Trinity: Three in One. The fourth and little finger joined together in the palm also form a unity, which signifies our faith in the Incarnation: the union of God and man in one Person. Then, by the gesture of the Cross, we proclaim our faith in the Redemption: Christ’s crucifixion and death on the Cross for our salvation.
The way this gesture is made is also highly symbolic. After joining our fingers, we lift our hand to our forehead, calling on God the Father to be in our mind, as offering Him the homage of our intelligence. Then we bring our hand to our heart, offering our love to the Son and accepting his love and life. Then, as is done in the Eastern Christian tradition, crossing over to the right shoulder we call on the Holy Spirit to inspire our actions and to be the source of all our life and works, and to the left shoulder to ask forgiveness for our sins. Eastern Christians sign the right shoulder first because in our human language and especially in the Holy Scriptures, right symbolizes good, while left symbolizes evil and death.
In the West, Christians cross themselves with an open hand first to the left shoulder, and then to the right shoulder. Some interpret the five open fingers as a sign of the Five Wounds of Christ. One could argue that Western Christians sign the left shoulder first because one must first acknowledge his sinfulness before being redeemed and saved from evil and death by God’s grace and mercy. Nevertheless, whether we make the Sign of the Cross from right to left or left to right, both are acceptable and true. Some people, in the East and the West, keep the custom of kissing their fingers at the conclusion of the Sign.
An Act of Consecration
Besides being an act of faith, the Sign of the Cross is an act of consecration by which we dedicate ourselves to each Person of the Holy Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Trinity and the Cross: it’s not an accident of piety that these two themes converge in the words and gesture of the Church’s most fundamental and most popular prayer. The cross is an image in time of the Trinity’s life in eternity.
On the cross, Jesus Christ gave himself entirely. He held nothing back. Such is the self-giving of the Son for the Father, the Father for the Son. Each makes a complete and loving gift of his life to the other, and that gift, that life, that love, is the Holy Spirit. The sign of that love in the world is the Sign of the Cross.
At the end of his struggle Jesus, gave up his Spirit (Cf. Jn. 19:30) as he pronounced his work “finished,” accomplished, fulfilled. When we make the Sign of the Cross, we correspond to that grace. We receive the love he gives. We take on that Spirit as we take up his cross. We see Jesus give himself in love, and we say “Amen!” We accept that life as our own. This is the life we received in baptism, when we were marked with the Sign and saved from our sins.
In practical life, many Christians express verbally what the gesture symbolizes. Instead of the words, “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” (or in Latin, “In nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti”), they say, “In the name of the Father Who created me, and of the Son Who redeemed me, and of the Holy Spirit Who sanctifies me,” or “Lord, I give you my reason; Lord, I give You my love; Lord, I consecrate to You all that is good in my life; and I ask forgiveness of my sins,” or simply, “Lord, be in my mind, be in my heart, be in the works of my life, and forgive me of my sins. Amen.”
In the Roman Liturgy, just before the Gospel, we make a small Sign of the Cross in which we trace with our thumb a cruciform on our forehead and lips, and over our heart. The priest or deacon quietly says, “The Lord be in my heart and on my lips that I may worthily proclaim his holy Gospel.” People who use the small Sign in private devotions sometimes offer it with the Latin prayer, “Per signum crucis de inimicis nostris libera nos Deus noster” (“By the sign of the cross, our God, deliver us from our enemies”).
The Mark of the Christian
Since the Sign of the Cross is thus a highly symbolic gesture, and an act of faith and consecration, it should always be made with care. Because it is made so frequently, there is danger of abusing it. St. John Chrysostom (d.407) remarked that a Sign of the Cross made hurriedly and without personal devotion is an empty and ineffective “magical waving of the hand in which the demons rejoice.” St. Cyril of Jerusalem (d.386) gives this exhortation: “Let us not be ashamed to confess the crucified. Let us devoutly make the Sign of the Cross on the forehead, and on everything: on the bread we eat, on the wine we drink. Let us make it when we go out and when we come in, when we lie down to sleep and when we rise up, when we journey and when we rest.”
In a very real sense, the Sign of the Cross is the perfect expression of the theology of the monastic soul. A Christian is a spiritual man, but nevertheless a man who is dependent upon his senses to make contact with realities beyond himself. A spiritual man lives and moves by faith in a world richer and wider than all the material realities he can see with his bodily senses, but these latter are necessary to lift him up to that invisible world. By the use of signs and symbols he draws nearer to the realities they represent, and thus his realization of them becomes life and sources of joy, confidence, and union with God.
Therefore, if we are a disciple of Jesus Christ (Catholic or non-Catholic, Eastern or Western), let us humbly but freely make the Sign of the Cross whenever we perceive the presence of God or whenever we seek to make him present, before and after our prayers, and as a prayer itself. As a sign of faith and true devotion, consecration and abandonment to divine providence, redemption and salvation, communion and divine merciful love, the Sign of the Cross not only identifies one as a Christian before God and man, it makes him one.
“If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me.” (Lk. 9:23) In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Source * Compiled & Adapted: The Face of God, Abp. Joseph M. Raya, p. 211-213, Signs of Life, Scott Hahn, p. 25-29; The Sign of the Cross (The Gesture, The Mystery, The History), Andreas Andreopoulos