|“Let us not then be ashamed to confess the Crucified. Be the cross our seal made with boldness by our fingers on our brow and in everything; over the bread we eat, and the cups we drink; in our comings in, and goings out; before our sleep, when we lie down and when we awake; when we are traveling and when we are still. Great is that preservative; it is without price, for the poor’s sake; without toil, for the sick, since also its grace is from God. It is the sign of the faithful, and the dread of evils; for He has triumphed over them in it, having made a shew of them openly; for when they see the cross, they are reminded of the Crucified; they are afraid of Him, Who hath bruised the heads of the dragon. Despise not the seal, because of the freeness of the gift; but for this rather honor thy Benefactor.”
– St. Cyril of Jerusalem, A.D. 315 – 386
In both the Catholic (east and west) and Orthodox Churches, we find the presence of the “sign of the cross”. Its practice dates from the early Fathers, and is both a beautiful and powerful expression of those faithful in Christ Jesus. In the earliest times, all Christians made the sign of the cross within the same formula of movement of the right hand, from forehead to chest (or abdomen), and then from right shoulder to left shoulder. The right hand is kept in a particular way, with the thumb, forefinger, and middle fingers held together- this symbolizes the Holy Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The ring finger and pinky are closed against the palm, representing the unity of the divine and human nature within Christ, as well as the unity of the divine and human will within His person. Holding the fingers against the palm is sometimes explained as a reminder that Christ descended from Heaven to bring salvation to mankind, or as a reminder of the wounds He endured on the cross for our sake. As noted above, some extend the downward motion toward the abdomen instead of the chest- this is done to elongate the “body” of the cross being signed, so that in the whole, the visual doesn’t give the mistaken impression of an inverted cross.
Around the twelfth century variations began to appear within the Latin Churches, which reversed the movement along the shoulders, going from left to right instead of right to left. Eventually, even the manner in which the fingers were held was likewise changed- the formula and its deep and holy symbolism would be lost in the Western practice, which to this day employs and open palm instead of the joined / folded fingers.
In a manner of speaking, the way in which Eastern Christians (Catholic and Orthodox) make the sign of the cross “mirrors” the motion which the priest uses in blessing the faithful, whereas the Latins essentially imitate the exact sign being made. That is, for Eastern Catholics and Orthodox, our hands follow the motion of the hand of the priest (or bishop)- as his moves left, ours moves to the right (and so, in the same position as the one bestowing the blessing).
I don’t mean to come off critical of our Latin brothers and sisters or to somehow imply that they are “wrong” in their practices. I do think, however, something is a bit lost in the Western example- I do love and appreciate both the longstanding heritage and deep symbolic significance inherent in the original formula. But in either case, the sign of the cross should be made reverently and deliberately, with awe and in faith of the promise of salvation that the very cross represents. As we are reminded by St. John Chrysostom, “When you make the sign of the cross on the forehead, arm yourself with a saintly boldness and reinstall your soul in its old liberty; for you are not ignorant that the cross is a prize beyond all price.
Consider what is the price given for your ransom, and you will never more be slave to any man on earth. This reward and the ransom is the cross. You should not then, carelessly make the sign on the forehead, but you should impress it on your heart with the love of a fervent faith. Nothing impure will dare to molest you on seeing the weapon, which overcometh all things.”