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

A few weeks ago in this blog 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.”

Following are additional quotes from the book, along with suggestions of how to apply their concepts with children:

***

Tertullian, a writer from the second and third century wrote, “ At every forward step and movement, at every going in and out, when we put on our clothes and shoes, when we bathe, when we sit at the table, when we light the lamps, on the couch, on the seat, in all the ordinary actions of daily life, we trace upon the forehead the sign.” (As quoted in “The Sign of the Cross” by Andreas Andreopoulos, p. 13.) So, already in the early centuries of the church, the sign of the cross was part of Christians’ lives. Talk together with your children about the sign of the cross. Think of one more way to add it into your life, and begin to practice making the sign of the cross when that opportunity arrives. Read “Every Time I Do My Cross” by Pres. Angela Alatzakis with young children, to enhance this discussion. (See this blog about the book: http://goodbooksforyoungsouls.blogspot.com/2014/03/mid-lent-finding-comfort-in-cross.html.)

***

“John Chrysostom… writes that ‘you should not just trace the cross with your finger, but you should do it in faith.’” (“The Sign of the Cross” by Andreas Andreopoulos, p. 24) Help your children learn what they are doing when they trace the cross on their bodies, so that they can do so with even more faith. One way you can begin to teach them about the sign of the cross is by teaching them this song by Khouria Gigi Shadid: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8Wljk5aYq0Y

***

“By crossing or ‘sealing’ ourselves, as one traditional expression calls it, we designate our own selves as the locus of a spiritual struggle, a spiritual battle. Such symbols as the sign of the cross remind us that the spiritual salvation is a personal, as well as an ecclesial affair. We bear the sign or ‘seal’ of God, reminiscent of the people marked by angels in the battle in the book of Revelation… The monks of the desert usually named the demons as their enemies, but it is inside their own minds and hearts that they fought them. They often refer to the sign of the cross as one of the most powerful weapons against demons and temptations…” (“The Sign of the Cross” by Andreas Andreopoulos, p. 61) We can teach our children that the sign of the cross is a powerful weapon by helping them learn to sign themselves with the cross in times when they are afraid (such as after a nightmare) and by signing them with the cross when they are going out to do something away from home (playing or going to school).

Here is an idea of how to help young children learn how to hold their fingers while making the sign of the cross: https://s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/originals/24/5b/f4/245bf4ef5bf23eb5b83eec7a0bf7b110.jpg

***

St. Kosmas Aitolos was an 18th century monk on Mt. Athos who planted a simple wooden cross wherever he went to do missionary work. He died as a martyr. One of the many things he is well-remembered for is the simple but faith-filled sermons he preached. One of them tells us how to perform the sign of the cross:

“Listen dear Christians, how the sign of the Cross should be performed and what is its significance. The Holy Gospel tells us that the Holy Trinity, God, is glorified in heaven more than the angels. What do you have to do? You bring together the three fingers of your right hand and, since you cannot ascend to heaven to venerate God, you place your hand on your head, because your head is round and signifies heaven, while you say : ‘as your angels glorify the Holy Trinity in heaven, so do I, an unworthy servant, I glorify and venerate the Holy Trinity. And as these fingers are three–together and separate– so is the Holy Trinity, God, three persons and only one God.’ You take your hand off your head and you bring it to your belly while you say: ‘I adore and venerate you my Lord, because you accepted to be incarnated in the womb of the Theotokos for our sins.’ Then you place it on your right shoulder and you say: ‘I beseech you, my God, to forgive me and put me on your right, with the righteous.’ Placing your hand on your left shoulder you say: ‘I beg you, my Lord, do not put me on your left with the sinners.’ Then falling to the earth you say: ‘I glorify you, my God, I venerate and adore you, and as you were put into the grave, so will I.’ And when you get up you signify the Resurrection and you say: ‘I glorify you my Lord, I venerate and adore you, because you were raised from the dead to give us eternal life.’ This is what the holy sign of the cross means.” (As quoted in “The Sign of the Cross” by Andreas Andreopoulos, p. 84)

Read more about St. Kosmas Aitolos and see one of his crosses here: http://www.johnsanidopoulos.com/2013/08/the-cross-of-st-kosmas-aitolos-in.html

***

“…early Christians in particular insisted on making the sign of the cross at every action, in this way consecrating every part of their lives. This is shown vividly in an account by St. Silouan, who lived in the early twentieth century. He was traveling by train when another passenger in the same car offered him a cigarette. St. Silouan accepted it, thanked the passenger, and asked him to join him in making the sign of the cross before they smoked it — in the same manner one makes the sign of the cross before a meal. The passenger was puzzled by this and said that it is not usual, or rather it was not proper, to make the sign of the cross before smoking a cigarette. The saint then replied that an action that does not agree with the sign of the cross should not be done at all.” (“The Sign of the Cross” by Andreas Andreopoulos, p. 93-94.) Tell your children this story, and challenge each other to remember the saint’s reply. Each time you are going to do something, ask yourself if this action agrees with the sign of the cross and therefore you should do it, or if it would be odd to cross yourself before doing it, in which case you should not be doing it at all.

 

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