[Foreword to The Sign of the Cross by Andreas Andreopoulos, Paraclete Press, 2007]
At my Orthodox church every Sunday I see families arrive at church and go up to the iconostasis, to greet the icon of the Lord. The parents stand before his searching gaze and make the sign of the cross fluidly: the right thumb and first two fingers together to recall the Trinity, and the last two fingers together and pressed down to the palm, to recall Christ’s two natures and his descent to the earth. They touch forehead, abdomen, right shoulder, left shoulder, then sweep the right hand to the floor with a deep bow. After making two of these “metanias,” they kiss Christ’s hand, then make one more sign of the Cross and a last bow.
With practice, what sounds like a very complicated ballet becomes second nature. Behind the parents come their children, who execute the same moves but have a shorter trip to reach the floor. And then there are the toddlers. If you’re seated to the side, you can see a look of stern concentration come over the chubby face. Then there’s a blur, as a tiny fist flies from ear to elbow to knee to nose, or just makes quick wobbly circles over the tummy. If these gestures were literally analyzed as to their symbolic meanings, they might be signaling heresies not yet imagined. But all this commotion is concluded by the little one stretching up on tiptoe to kiss the hand of the all-compassionate man in the painting. That hand is giving a blessing; it is making the sign of the Cross.
These children are doing what we all do to some extent: we take part in mysteries we can only partly comprehend. We do it within the safety of our Father’s home, following in the footsteps of our elders.
In this case, the footsteps go back further than history can discover. It was perhaps 204 AD when the brilliant North African writer, Tertullian, composed his essay “The Crown.” He begins with a story then in the news: the Roman emperor had given laurel crowns to a band of victorious soldiers, but in the procession it was seen that one went bareheaded. When challenged by his tribune, he responded that he was not free to wear such a crown, because he was a Christian. At the time of Tertullian’s writing the soldier was in prison awaiting martyrdom.
Some local church members criticized the soldier for rocking the boat; they had been enjoying a period of peace, and feared such boldness would provoke another bout of persecution. (Tertullian observed tartly that they were no doubt already preparing to flee from one city to the next [Matthew 10:23 ], [LC1] “since that’s all of the gospel they care to remember… [T]heir pastors are lions in peace, deer in the fight.”) But some retorted that nowhere is it written that Christians are forbidden to wear ceremonial crowns.
It is in responding to that challenge that Tertullian gives us a very intriguing glimpse into the daily lives of early Christians. There are many things we Christians do, Tertullian says, that don’t have a written mandate. In the Orthodox tradition, at baptism a person is immersed three times, after renouncing the devil, his pomp, and his angels. He makes a profession of faith “somewhat ampler…than the Lord has appointed in the Gospels.” Christians receive the Eucharist only from the hand of the one presiding over the assembly. “If for these and other such rules, you insist on having positive Scripture injunction, you will find none…The proper witness for tradition [is] demonstrated by long-continued observance”.
Among the items that had had “long-continued observance,” even at the dawn of Christian history, was the sign of the Cross. “In all our travels and movements, in all our coming in and going out, in putting off our shoes, at the bath, at the table, in lighting our candles, in lying down, in sitting down, whatever employment occupies us, we mark our foreheads with the sign of the Cross,” Tertullian wrote.
It seems that the sign of the Cross was such an entrenched element of Christian practice that a believer would not consider refraining from it. Tertullian [LC2] believed it to be universal, and already ancient in 204 AD.
I will leave Fr. Andreas to fill in the story of how this sign came down to us today, and how its expression varied with time and place. His appealing book provides us not only with this history, but with insights into the limitless, profound meaning of the sign of the Cross. The sign of the Cross is a prayer in itself, one that is easy to include in the busy day – at the sound of an ambulance siren, as an expression of thanksgiving, as preparation for a difficult task, or on learning of a need for prayer. And, despite its mystery, the sign is a gesture simple enough for a child to adopt.
It is my hope that this small book will acquaint many readers with a Christian custom that has roots deeper in the common history of our faith than anyone knows. The action may at first seem awkward; it may take time to acquire the gracefulness of those who have woven it through their prayers for decades. But there is hardly a more visible way to “take up your cross,” as the gospel of Matthew says, than this, and join the company of those who in all ages have borne witness to Christ before the world.