Why do the Catholics and Orthodox “cross themselves” differently?

Why do the Catholics and Orthodox “cross themselves” differently? July 11, 2016


Why don’t the Orthodox and Roman Catholics cross themselves the same way?


Catholic and Orthodox parishioners make the “sign of the cross” before personal prayers, upon entering a church, at various points during worship, and otherwise. Priests make the sign not only during the sacraments but use it to impart blessings on people or objects. Not to mention the familiar sight of superstitious athletes doing so before free throws or penalty kicks.

Lately, Communist overlords in China have attacked hundreds of churches to demolish exterior crosses considered too prominent, which demonstrates how powerful the symbol has always been, and remains.

Consider for a moment how remarkable all this is. Till the birth of Christianity, the cross was a terrifying reminder of Rome’s imperial power and the humiliation and degradation that awaited troublemakers. As we see in the New Testament, the Christians immediately transformed it into the emblem of God’s love and self-sacrifice in Jesus Christ that leads to salvation and spiritual triumph.

Gail refers to the fact that Roman Catholics make the sign by touching in turn the forehead, breast, left shoulder, and right shoulder. Those Anglicans and Protestants who observe this custom do the same. The Eastern Orthodox, and also the “Eastern Rite” jurisdictions within Catholicism, touch the right shoulder before the left. The Guy found no totally agreed-upon reason for this, but here’s some of what we do know:

Christians were making the “little cross” with a thumb or finger upon the forehead by at least the 2nd Century. The popularity of this devotional practice was cited early in the 3rd Century by Tertullian in “De Corona Militis,” chapter 3: “. . . in all the ordinary actions of daily life, we trace the sign upon the forehead.” The larger “sign of the cross” Gail asks about appeared later.

In terms of architecture and design, the Second Council of Nicea (A.D. 787), the last ecumenical council recognized by both the Orthodox and Catholicism, declared that along with icons “the figure of the precious and life-giving cross” is “to be exhibited in the holy churches of God, on sacred vessels and vestments, walls and panels, in houses and on streets.”

The right-to-left action still used in Orthodoxy was “universal for the whole Church until about the 12th Century,” writes Virginia Catholic priest William Saunders. To this day, Catholic priests and parishioners always make the sign using the right hand, even if they are left-handed. One explanation for this preference is that Jesus depicted the separation of good sheep on the right from evil goats on the left at the Last Judgment (Matthew 25:33).

The 13th Century Pope Innocent III indicated a shift was beginning to occur. He said right to left signified that the faith extended from the Jews (right) to the Gentiles (left). But, he continued, others reverse the order because a Christian moves from “misery” (left) to “glory” (right) “just as Christ crossed over from death to life.” A late medieval explanation said Jesus suffered for us (left) and then ascended to heaven (the preferred right). Theologians have offered other versions.

The casual observer might wonder what difference does this make? An answer at www.orthodox.net typifies Orthodoxy’s attitude on many matters: “We do not have the authority to choose willy-nilly what parts of the Christian Tradition we want to follow. Our fathers, and countless saints, crossed themselves from right to left” as shown in ancient icons. Moreover, “the right side is referred to in a reverential way many times in Scripture and our sacred hymns.”

Another aspect of this tradition is the shape of the hand. The Orthodox place the thumb and first two fingers together to form a point, while the remaining two fingers are placed against the palm. The three represent that the one God exists in the three persons of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Believers usually invoke these names of the Trinity, either audibly or mentally, when they make the sign. For the Orthodox, the two fingers represent the two natures in Jesus Christ, divine and human. In the West, for some reason, that largely changed to use of the full hand.

The specifics of crossing onself were one aspect of a ruinous schism in the great Orthodox Churdch of Russia. The 17th Centuiry Patriarch Nikon ordered various reforms in liturgy drawn from practices in Greece. One change was adoption of the three fingers when making the sign, whereas Russians till then used two fingers for Christ’s two natures.

Millions rejected the changes and went into schism as the “Old Believers” or “Raskolniki,” especially in remote areas of northern and eastern Russia. The dissenters were excommunicated by the church and vigorously persecuted by the Czarist state. The Old Believers lacked bishops to ordain priests; some eventually elevated their own hierarchs while others formed the “priestless” branch. The czar issued an edict of toleration in 1905 and a Russian Orthodox council in 1971 rescinded its anathema against the schismatics and allowed recognition of the older rituals.

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