Self-described “Torah-true Jews” to this day wear tefillin (“phylacteries”) on their foreheads and arms as a sign of their identity and devotion. This practice stems from Deuteronomy 6:4-8:
Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is one Lord. Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with thy whole heart, and with thy whole soul, and with thy whole strength. And these words which I command thee this day, shall be in thy heart: And thou shalt tell them to thy children, and thou shalt meditate upon them sitting in thy house, and walking on thy journey, sleeping and rising. And thou shalt bind them as a sign on thy hand, and they shall be and shall move between thy eyes.
Compare those words with the words of St. Cyril, Bishop of Jerusalem (d. A.D. 386)
“Let us not then be ashamed to confess the Crucified. Be the Cross our seal made with boldness by our fingers on our brow and in everything; over the bread we eat, and the cups we drink; in our comings in, and goings out; before our sleep, when we lie down and when we awake; when we are in the way and when we are still. Great is that preservative; it is without price, for the poor’s sake; without toil, for the sick, since also its grace is from God. It is the Sign of the faithful, and the dread of evils; for He has triumphed over them in it, having made a show of them openly; for when they see the Cross, they are reminded of the Crucified; they are afraid of Him, Who hath bruised the heads of the dragon. Despise not the Seal, because of the freeness of the Gift; but for this rather honour thy Benefactor.”
The Sign of the Cross is absolutely ancient, rooted not only in the Old Testament but the New (The Revelation to St John the Divine speaks of those who have the sign of God in their foreheads — and those who have the sign of the Beast in their foreheads). In the Sacrament of Confirmation, the Bishop seals the sign on our foreheads with holy chrism. St. John of Damascus wrote
This was given to us as a sign on our forehead, just as the circumcision was given to Israel: for by it we believers are separated and distinguished from unbelievers.
Crossing one’s self recalls this seal, and the invocation that is said while making this holy sign calls on our God — the Father, His Son, and the Holy Ghost — and is a sign of our of belief; it is both a “mini-creed” that asserts our belief in the Triune God, and a prayer that invokes Him. The use of holy water (there is a small silver bowl of holy water on the left outside the vestry in church) when making this sign, such as we do when we enter a church, also recalls our Baptism and should bring to mind that we are born again of water and Spirit, thanks be to God.
The Sign of the Cross is the very mark of our salvation – the cross which sets us free. With the Sign, we send a visible sign to the world.
Making the Sign of the Cross
Typically, the right hand is used. The thumb, index, and middle finger are brought to a point. They are then placed on the forehead, then moved down to the sternum. The Western Rite Catholic will then move the hand to the left shoulder or to the area of the left pectoral muscle, and then to the right; the Eastern Catholic and Eastern Orthodox will do the opposite (i.e. right, then left). As one moves through the Sign, one recites, at the forehead, “In the name of the Father”; at the sternum, “and of the Son”; and across the shoulders, “and of the Holy Ghost, Amen.”
The sign is made:
- When the invocation of “In the name of the…” is used
- When a blessing is given
- When the sacred elements are elevated
- When the sacred elements are displayed to the people during the mass or during exposition or benediction.