We’ve all seen it–people making the sign of the cross over themselves. Most assume these are Catholics and odds are they would be correct. However, there is a subtle difference that can alert you that the person is probably Orthodox. After touching the forehead and abdomen Catholics will go from the left shoulder to the right shoulder. The Orthodox, however, go from the right shoulder to the left. Less noticeable but important is the way in which they hold their hand. In her book, Welcome to the Orthodox Church, (Paraclete Press) Frederica Mathewes-Green offers some helpful guidance to understand this long-standing church tradition.
“In the West, all five fingers are loosely held together, some say this represents the five wounds of Christ. In the East, it’s more complicated. . . . When Orthodox Christians make the sign of the cross, they position the thumb and first two fingers of the right hand together at the tip, to represent the Trinity. This is what you use to touch forehead, abdomen, shoulder, and shoulder. The ring and little finger are held together, to represent the two natures of Christ, they are bent down to touch the palm, to represent his descent to earth. When I first began attending Orthodox worship, I found it very hard to scramble my fingers into this position on short notice. So I would form them correctly at the beginning of the service and just try to keep them that way till the end. I never knew when it was going to be time to make the sign of the cross again, it seemed like we were doing it every few minutes. I grew up thinking of the sign of the cross as something you do at the beginning and end of a prayer, like bookends. But Orthodox Christians cross themselves with great frequency during worship: when entering or leaving a church, when kissing a cross, an icon, or the Gospel book, at each mention of the Trinity or of the cross, before and after a reading from Scripture, during the Nicene Creed, during the Communion prayers, at the end of the Lord’s Prayer, before and after receiving Communion—really, just about any time. Even outside the church I cross myself when I hear an ambulance siren, and when I hear something I should pray about. In such cases it is the gesture that seals a flying prayer: ‘Lord, help.’” (pp. 9-10)
In this short video Fr. Mike Schmitz offers three things you should know about the sign of the cross. He is from the Catholic tradition but does mention the unique manner in which the Orthodox make the sign of the cross.