Cecil B. DeMille’s epic movie, The Sign of the Cross, takes place during the time of Emperor Nero. In one famous scene, Claudette Colbert bathes in milk, and although the director claimed it was actual milk from a jennet (female mule), the truth is more homogenized; she bathed in powdered milk.
The plot emphasizes the heartache of the world’s first Christians. While it is true that Ms. Colbert, whose bath turned sour, suffered for her role, the thing to remember is that torment often follows those who are peculiar.
During the first century, persecuted Christians were wary of people they did not know. To protect themselves, they devised signs to confirm identities. The fish symbol inscribed in the walls of Roman ruins may have protected these believers from Nero’s wrath. Possibly, with discretion in mind, one person might hold their open hand, palm up, under their breast, while the other would respond with their open hand under their own breast, palm down. If placed together, the symbol would form a fish. Similarly, one person could, while pressing both thumbs together and crossing their index fingers, form a fish. Alternatively, it might be accomplished with one hand by simply crossing the forefinger over the thumb. Theories abound. But one thing is for sure, many people today still make the Sign of the Cross.
In the air: This form is used by a priest to bless someone or something, and it is accomplished by holding the right hand open, moving it up, then down, left, then right.
Across the body:
Roman Catholic version: with the left hand held under the breast, the right hand touches the forehead, the heart, the left shoulder, and then the right shoulder before ending with both hands placed together. (The position of the fingers is discussed later in this post.)
Protestant version: generally, Protestants do not perform the Sign of the Cross.
Greek Orthodox version: same as above, and using three fingers, but the right shoulder is touched before the left. “Holy God, Holy Strong One, Holy Immortal One, have mercy on us.” The history behind this gesture is fascinating and well worth investigating.
Tracing with the thumb: holding the thumb out, a priest may trace a small cross over the Gospels, over the forehead of a child during the sacrament of baptism, or upon the body of a person who is close to death.
With a kiss: this variant, popular in some European countries, especially Spain, is made, after making the Sign of the Cross, by placing the thumb across the forefinger and pressing it onto the lips in a sign of devotion. There are other versions, but you get the idea.
Position of Fingers
In the west, people may touch their forehead, shoulders, and heart with the tips of their fingers. This position may signify the open hand of Christ: open to the wounds of sacrifice and open to receive believers into heaven.
In other parts of the world, the thumb is placed between two index fingers to form a small cross; the Sign concludes with fingers on lips.
If two index fingers are used, they signify the two natures of Christ: fully God and fully man.
In my book, The Legend of the Kneeling Nun, the protagonist signs herself using three fingers, so as to signify the Trinity. This book is the reason I researched the topic. When did the Sign of the Cross first appear? How was it done? And why? Although I found answers in different places, I found the New Advent site helpful.
“Most of the things we do, we do for no better reason than that our father’s have done them, or our neighbor’s do them . . .” ~ Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.
Wouldn’t it be better to know why we do the things we do? At least I think so.