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Gleanings from a Book: “The Sign of the Cross” by Andreas Andreopoulos

A few weeks ago in this blog1 we discussed the Cross of Christ. Now we have just come through Holy Week and Pascha. As a result, the Cross is in the forefront of our thoughts. We at the Antiochian Orthodox Department of Christian Education decided that this would be an appropriate time to take a look at this book. The Sign of the Cross talks about the sign which we use every day. The sign of the cross is a very practical way in which the Cross is present in our daily lives as Orthodox Christians.

Dr. Andreas Andreopoulos' book The Sign of the Cross is an excellent read for any Orthodox Christian. There are so many reasons the cross is significant to our faith, so many grounds for making the sign of the cross, and so many things we are saying by making that sign. Parents and teachers who have children asking questions about the sign of the cross will especially benefit from reading this book, as it will give them a myriad of answers to those questions!

Dr. Andreopoulos addresses the sign of the cross from many different angles in his book. He looks first at experiencing the sign of the cross; then at the history of the sign; he then addresses why we as people even need symbols and signs; he touches on how the sign of the cross is a prayer; and he finishes with the cosmic significance of the cross. Although the book is only five chapters long, each chapter is full of information and causes the reader to think deeply about the sign of the cross. The reader comes away from the book with a deeper appreciation for this sign.

Here are a few quotes from each chapter which stood out to this reader. Consider them a teaser, if you will. But be sure to read the whole book in its entirety! These quotes are not intended to accurately summarize the chapters, but to simply to offer a taste what is in the book.

Chapter 1, "Experiencing the Sign of the Cross:"

"Here is what is so fascinating about the sign of the cross: its simplicity. A cross is how illiterate people sign a document, because it is the simplest recognizable sign they can draw, symbolizing their acquiescence to an official form. And though the cross is perhaps one of the simplest things in Christian ritual, it clearly connects with some of the greatest Christian mysteries." (p. 4)

"One exceptional factor explains why the cross overshadowed all other symbols of Christianity: The cross could be performed as a simple and immediately recognizable gesture." (p. 6)

"...wherever the gesture is practiced, it says, 'I am a Christian. I invoke the power and the mercy of the Cross of Christ, and I try to sanctify myself and to live keeping in mind the sacrifice of Jesus and the mystery of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.'" (p. 10)

Chapter 2, "The Sign of the Cross: Its History:"

"This sign was a custom of the church that nobody had reason to defend or explain, a tradition seen as ancient by the fourth century, and for this reason most of what is important about it was never put to writing." (p, 11)

(For a long time in the early church, the sign of the cross was performed on the forehead.) "John of Damascus writes in the eighth century, '[The cross] was given to us as a sign on the forehead, just as circumcision was given to Israel. For by it we the faithful are recognized and we separate ourselves from the unfaithful.'" (p. 23)

"The examination of the history of the sign of the cross shows us how the sign developed into a symbol, with every detail having meaning. The sign of the cross... was used rather liberally among early Christians. For many centuries there were no instructions as to the correct way to perform the sign. We can imagine early Christians performing it in different ways throughout the world. Although all testimonies from the early church show that signing one's forehead was the rule, according to the occasion, the believer might sign other parts of their body as well, such as the mouth or the heart. Many Greeks still cross only their heart when they do not want to be conspicuous." (p. 40)

Chapter 3, "The Need for Symbols and Signs:"

"The way we are integrated as a society involves signs, symbols, and codes. Very few of these codes are meant to be secret; rather, these sign codes are generally agreed upon ways to make sense of our own faith, culture, and civilization. We learn them naturally while growing up, with the result that most of our codes are so obvious that we use the without often realizing we use them. Many of these codes are so closely entangled with our thought process, that it is difficult to imagine something such as 'pure thought,' separated from, say, language. More than that, the way we are introduced to these codes or languages shapes our thought and our personality." (pp. 43- 44)

"Why do we need signs? Why do we need to express our religiosity in gestures? How do such gestures help us internalize our spirituality? Gestures and signs are essential to spiritual culture since every gesture upholds its own spiritual meaning. The ancient gesture of lifting one's arms in prayer indicates an invocation, an appeal, and an attempts to communicate with God." (p. 71)

"Throughout history, the sign of the cross has been seen as a mark of Christian identity... [it] is also a self-blessing, a gesture that imitates and reflects the sacramental blessing of the priest..." (pp. 72-73)

Chapter 4, "A Prayer to Christ:"

"...the meaning of the Incarnation becomes a personal and ecclesiastical event and... the meaning connects with prayer. The sign of the cross, a gesture of acceptance, shows acceptance of the will of God. The descending movement of the hand from the forehead to the heart is for many Christians, as we have already seen, a reference to the historical descent of the Word on the earth and inside us. As a symbol of prayer the gesture reverberates with Mary's life of prayer in the Temple, and with her offering herself to God. Similarly, signing or crossing our body, we consign it and our entire selves to God as a temple of the Holy Spirit, so that the Word of God may enter us and be born inside us." (p. 99)

"The sign of the cross on our body symbolizes the Resurrection through the upward movement of the hand. Most accounts suggest that this reflects a movement from the tomb to heaven and the Second Coming of Christ. But we also mark ourselves with the sign of Christ in order to share in spiritual resurrection and liberation from sin. (p. 107)

"The sign, as an act, however small it may be, expresses the impetus of crossing the threshold between thinking in theological terms and practicing the Christian life." (p. 111)

Chapter 5, "The Cosmic Cross:"

"The cross's spirituality is a spirituality of openness, of transforming the world and our actions, such as eating or sleeping. No moments are more spiritual than others if everything is done in the name of God. In addition, since the most usual way to perform the sign of the cross is over our body, we recognize that our body and our entire self may become temples of the spirit of God." (p. 117)

"The sign of the cross, by virtue of its symbolism, is the axis mundi, the axis or center of the world, reflecting further the convergence of the entire cosmos onto the microcosm of the human being." (pp. 120-121)

"What started as an explanation of the sign that was liberally gestured as blessing and consecration in early Christianity, ended with the sign's connection to cosmic spirituality and the mystery of salvation. This is often the case with elements of our liturgical life: we may start with a simple gesture or an iconographic nuance, and in seeking to understand the depth of its symbolism we may be led to profound mysteries of the faith." (pp. 137-138)

Khouria Frederica Mathewes-Green's introduction to the book is a fitting way to finish this blog. "[Dr. Andreopoulos's] book provides us not only with [the sign's] history, but with many insights into the limitless, profound meaning of the sign of the cross... despite its mystery, the sign is a gesture simple enough for a child to adopt. 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... There is hardly a more visible way to 'take up your cross...' than this, and join the company of those who in all ages have borne witness to Christ before the world."