The sign of the Cross is one of the most widely recognizable and controversial symbols in the world, as well as the most powerful symbol. It is a symbol that is both revered and hated by Christians and non-Christians alike. To many Jews, it inspires fear because of the long history of anti-Semitism perpetrated by Christians. Protestant positions vary, as on so many matters: some revere the cross, some regard it as not necessary or relevant to their walk with Christ, while still others consider it a form of idolatry. To many Muslims, it is a sign to be defeated, conquered, overcome and dominated. To Satanists and Occultists, it is a sign that must be inverted to symbolize rebellion and mockery. To the faithful Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox Churches, it is the sign of reverence, love, humility before God and a powerful sign of protection and identity. Even among our brothers who share in the Apostolic Succession, there is a bit of variation, for in the West we make the sign of the cross from West to East and in the Eastern Churches, they make the sign of the cross from East to West. Either way, the sign of the Cross is powerful and portable.
History and Method
The earliest use of the sign of the cross was around the third or fourth century. Before that, it was a symbol of torture, an instrument of execution. However, once Christianity began to gain a cultural foothold, the significance of the cross became inseparable from Jesus’ redeeming sacrifice. The cross of Christ was even recognized as the new Tree of Life. The fall of man came about through the fruit of a tree, and the salvation of man came about through the wood of a tree, the Cross, with Jesus as the first fruits.
So how do we make this “sign” on ourselves? The sign of the cross is made by touching the hand to the forehead, lower chest or stomach, and both shoulders, accompanied by the Trinitarian formula: at the forehead, with the words, “In the name of the Father,” (or the Latin In nomine Patris); at the stomach or heart, “and of the Son,” (et Filii); across the shoulders, “and of the Holy Spirit/Ghost,” (et Spiritus Sancti); and finally: Amen. In the Roman Rite, we use the three fingers on our right hand to symbolize the Blessed Trinity. There are variations depending on the Church, but basically, this is what is supposed to be done when making the sign of the cross.
Explanations like this could benefit more people than one might think. Not only those without a religious background but even some Catholics, have no idea how to make a sign of the Cross.
Ignorance among Catholics
I discovered this ignorance firsthand, in my own years of teaching. I loved teaching Catechism when I was a younger man with more time on my hands. I used the Baltimore Catechism and devoted a lot of time to teaching about the Rosary, the Stations of the Cross, Holy Scripture, the Blessed Trinity, the Sacraments, and Sacramentals, but I neglected the most important Sacramental of all: how to properly make the sign of the cross. I think we neglect catechizing on it because it is so ubiquitous. The cross is everywhere.
I often watch people come into the Church before Mass begins. I actually get a kick out of watching the variations of genuflections, ranging from a quick curtsey to some type of weird gyration. Some look like they are giving baseball signals while attempting to make the sign of the cross. It can be entertaining to watch but is sad at the same time.
Equally amusing are people who kiss their fingers. Italians and Spanish people are often seen doing this. I do it too. But there is a reason. Years ago I used to make Communion calls to the homebound. One Sunday morning I brought Holy Communion to an elderly gentleman of Irish descent. As I began the prayers, I made the sign of the cross and kissed my fingers. He had a big smirk on his face. When we finished praying, he said to me, “Can I ask you a question, why do Italians kiss their fingers after the sign of the cross? It looks silly.”
So I smiled and explained that I was making the cross with my fingers using the thumb as the upright and the forefinger as the cross beam. I was not kissing my fingers but the cross. The smirk disappeared from his face and he remarked he never knew that. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that probably 99% of the people that kiss their fingers don’t know why and don’t make the sign of the cross with their thumb and forefinger. But that’s why. The sign of the cross is truly a portable Sacramental that can be accessed anywhere, any time.
Ubiquitous Source of Heavenly Power
Two great influences in my life have taught me this importance of the sign of the cross. One was a homily at a weekday Mass, about 30 years ago, at my home parish in Brooklyn. The presiding priest was an elderly man who was visiting our parish. His homily that day centered around the evils of the world and the sign of the cross. He told us that the sign of the cross is a remedy to evil, instructing us to make it if we encounter any 
I never forgot his words. I became accustomed to making the sign of the cross, along with a quick prayer, when an ambulance passed. I also make the sign of the cross when passing a Catholic Church to reverence our Lord’s true presence in the tabernacle. Every time I saw a tragedy on TV, or otherwise heard something bad, I always made the sign of the cross. It is protection, comfort and a powerful prayer in and of itself.
I was a Third Order Franciscan (I say was because I am no longer active as one). During my formation, I read a lot about St. Francis and his devotion to the cross. Every time he would see one, man-made or appear in nature in some way, he would pray, “I adore Thee, O Christ, and I praise Thee because by Thy Holy Cross Thou hast redeemed the world.” That is another practice I have adopted. If you look around and take notice, the sign of the cross is everywhere. I see the sign of the cross in telephone poles, tree branches, the plus sign on the calculator, clouds, sidewalks, you name it. I am constantly praising, adoring and thanking the Lord for His great Sacrifice on the Cross.
I pray all month long about what I am going to write about for the next month’s essay. I had a few topics but the sign of the cross kept coming to me, so I thought perhaps the Lord placed that in my heart. I could write an essay a month on the sign of the cross for the rest of my life and if I live to be 110 I wouldn’t run out of things to write about it. It is such a powerful, mysterious sign, of which the depths could never be adequately plumbed. Before Mass. I began writing the essay. Now while it’s obvious that the sign of the cross is Trinitarian, it was not my focus as I began writing. During Mass today, Trinity Sunday, my pastor gave a beautiful homily on the mystery of the Trinity and said he was taught in seminary that not even the Blessed Mother in heaven can understand it. He said that he always thought that when he dies if he went to heaven all these mysteries would be opened to him. I thought the same thing. Apparently not. I have a beautiful statue that I bought from Autom and it depicts the Holy Trinity. We have devotional candles lit before it all night long. I gaze on the depiction of the Triune Godhead often and ponder the great mystery of the Three in One. Our knowledge of God is so limited. His love for us so vast and immense we may never know the fullness of it but we have His sign of love. The greatest symbol of love is the sign of the cross. I love the expression people use to describe God’s love for us. How much does God love you and people open their arms wide as Jesus’ arms were stretched on the wood of the cross? This much.
Apologia for the Cross
To my Jewish brothers and sisters and aboriginal peoples who have been victimized by misguided Christians throughout the centuries I say, try and forgive the injustices of the past and read Pope St. John Paul II’s writings and apologies. Also, take a good look at how Pope Francis is expressing the love of Jesus and His invitation to all people. The sign of the cross is not a symbol of terror now, it is a sign of love. Folks who mistakenly believe that Jews killed Christ are so far off the mark because they fail to imbibe what Jesus actually said. Jesus stated emphatically and with authority that He laid down His life willingly. Nobody took His life from Him and He raised it up. No person can kill God. So the sign of the cross is not a sign of hate but a great sign of love. It is an invitation, not an edict. People are always invited; God does not impose Himself on anyone, nor should we. We are saved by Jewish blood. We who were last will be first and they who are first will be last, but they will be there with us all together.
To my Muslim brothers and sisters: Yes, there is only One God in Three Divine Persons, but don’t make the mistake of claiming Three cannot be one, for when it comes to God no person can understand or fathom His essence. Our Scriptures describe the creation of humanity. God proclaimed We will create them in Our Likeness and Image. This is the beginning of the unveiling of the mystery of the Trinity. Jesus is not a prophet among many, He is God, the Son of God, the Word of God made flesh and if He is not then He would be a liar, but He is not a liar or simply a prophet or apostle, He is God. The Cross of Christ could never be defeated or subjugated. His invitation is to you as it is to all people. It is an invitation to life and love.
To my Protestant brothers and sisters who refuse to make the sign of the cross before and after praying. Respectfully, I say you are omitting a most powerful form of evangelization and benediction. All forms of non-Catholic churches have their origins in Catholicism. Put away old prejudices and avail yourselves of the power of the sign of the cross. Teach your children the sign of the cross. It is a powerful symbol and the best way to bless oneself.
To those who falsely believe that the enemy of their souls is their friend or that nature worship is the true religion of all peoples, I say smarten up. Your enemy will never be your friend. The enemy of God mocks Him. His desire is for the destruction of souls. He hates what God loves. God loves you and wants you. I say look upon the sign of the cross with reverence. Turn back to your Creator who died for love of you. Embrace the greatest sign of love and power, the sign of the cross.
Praised be the most Blessed and undivided Trinity, God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Spirit. Amen.