The Sign of the Cross: The Gesture, the Mystery, the History
by Andreas Andreopoulos
(Paraclete Press, 2006, 152 pages)
I read this one a couple of years ago. When I picked it up again I was initially looking for a passage or two that I remembered, but I ended up reading through the whole thing again. Andreas Andreopoulos, a Greek Orthodox theologian, traces the history, practice, and symbolism of the devotional gesture known as the sign of the cross. Andreopoulos says this about the way that symbols, icons, and signs operate:
They keep within them a multitude of meanings that they were given intentionally and also unconsciously. Upon reflecting on these signs, the faithful find that these meanings are made available. 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. (111)
The sign of the cross is a simple gesture, but it is also a potent symbol. At different times, depending on whether the church was concerned to emphasize the two natures of Christ or the three persons of the Trinity, the sign has been made with two or three fingers. The movement of the hand from head to chest is indicative of Christ’s descent from heaven, while the left to right movement across the shoulders invokes Christ’s transition from death to the right hand of the Father. It is a silent prayer, a way of preparing to listen to the voice of God. The sign is a way of marking one’s religious identity and reinforcing the cruciform nature of the Christian life. Andreopoulus reflects on these and other meanings that the sign of the cross has carried, looking at the sign from a historical, semiotic, and devotional perspective.
Tracing the history of minute changes in a religious gesture over centuries turns out to be remarkably enlightening. The slight variations that Christians have employed mark the divisions between Eastern and Western Christians, and Russian and Greek believers. Even the proximity of large populations of Islamic believers to the Eastern churches has influenced the way the gesture is formulated. This book effectively makes the argument that religious traditions are best understood when engaged with at the level of practice – an interesting read and even worth a second one.