Gestures and Meaning

Posted on January 1, 2007

There are assortments of liturgical gestures in our multifarious Christian faith traditions. If you belong to the African Methodist Episcopal church, chances are you move to the beat of praise and worship with a bit more fluidity and feeling than your brothers and sisters down the road at First Presbyterian Church. Messianic Jews rise up to the balls of their feet when they utter “kadosh” (“holy”), while the Orthodox church kneels as a sign of penitence during much of the Lenten season. Pentecostals can’t seem to keep their limbs to their side when expressing their adoration of God, while your average Southern Baptist seems quite content to remain composed with hymnal in hand. Even your most Protestant of Protestant evangelical, non-denominational, bible-church-Christian fellowships sit, stand, and clap according to the prescribed order of service.

All of these liturgical movements are imbued with meaning. They serve as public displays of the Gospel—stories without words. They are curious and beautiful, functioning to form the bodies of believers in the worship of their Creator with expressive movements both ancient and spontaneous. They are animated recognitions of our “embodiedness,” hopeful intimations which yearn for the perfection of our bodies in the resurrection. They are mysterious, visible signals which give credence to a reality beyond what “meets the eye.”

Among these multifarious signs of devotion and worship lies “the sign of the cross” - one of the most ancient and widely practiced gestures in all of Christian history. Dating back to at least the second century, the gesture was referenced by many church leaders and theologians in their writings. For example, Tertullian (prolific theologian and ecclesiastical writer ca. 155-230), had this to say: “In all our travels and movements, in all our coming in and going out, in putting of our shoes, at the bath, at the table, in lighting our candles, in lying down, in sitting down, whatever employment occupieth us, we mark our foreheads with the sign of the cross.”1 While its genesis is not entirely certain, there remains no doubt regarding the prevalence and predominance of the gesture as an invocation of God’s presence and blessing.

But what does this sign signify? What relevance -  if any - does it have, say, to the practice of modern Western bio-medicine?

Well, first, the sign of the cross is distinctly Trinitarian. Universally, when the sign of the cross is made, the tri-fold name of God is invoked: “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” The sign of the cross, then, is a reminder that when the name and blessing of God is evoked, the evocation is made to the triune God. It is a confession of belief in God as Trinity - a central tenet of Christian theology.2 Though the precise relationship of Father, Son, and Spirit has been a hotly contested issue throughout the history of the church, Christians have - since the earliest catholic councils - consistently pointed to the “Trinity” as the most fitting description of the divine mystery.

On this dogma, the Catholic Church teaches:

“The mystery of the Most Holy Trinity is the central mystery of Christian Faith and life. It is the mystery of God in himself. It is therefore the source of all the other mysteries of faith, the light that enlightens them. It is the most fundamental and essential teaching in the ‘hierarchy of the truths of faith.‘ The whole history of salvation is identical with the history of the way and the means by which the one true God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit reveals himself to men "and reconciles and unites himself with those who turn away from sin.’”3

While it would be Foolish to presume that the entirety of Catholic doctrines and dogmas would find universal acceptance among Christians, this is one teaching on which we can find wide consensus. For our purposes, we will focus on two emergent themes in the dogma of the Trinity: mystery and relation.

We must confess that God can never be fully comprehended or known by human minds - descriptions of God’s being are always only approximations. Mystery is of essence when describing God. Yet, we are not left entirely in the dark. God, in his mercy, has seen fit to reveal himself to humankind that we might know him and love him. These revelations take many forms, it is true. The most mundane has, at various points, become the most sacred means of revelation, from burning bushes to whispers in the wind. Yet, the myriad of revelations all have this in common-they all bear witness to that fact that God is (somehow) relational.

The way Christians read the Scriptures, God has always and everywhere acted out of the fullness of the relation between Father, Son, and Spirit. Indeed, so begins the Gospel of John: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning.Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of men.” (1.1-4, NIV) As scripture and tradition have shown us, God is a relational God.

As people created in the image of God, then, we are created to be a relational people. Human flourishing is not achieved in a vacuum - “life abundantly” is lived in relation to other human beings. This, then, brings us to the importance of community. If we are, as philosopher Alasdair Maclntyre claims, “dependent rational animals,” then community is necessary for human existence and flourishing. Even more than this, if we are created in the image of God, our created need for community is itself a reflection of the mystery of God. And if we are created as relational creatures meant to flourish in communion, then the wellbeing of our fellow humans matters. The flourishing of our neighbor is not something that should concern us; it is something that does concern us, something that must concern us. Concern for the wellbeing of our neighbors is at the core of what it means to be human.

This brings us to another understanding of the sign of the cross - its vertical and horizontal dimensions. Now, you won’t necessarily find this in the “Catechism of the Catholic Church” or the “Westminster Confession” or any of the great articulations of Christian doctrine throughout the centuries - at least not explicitly. But I wish to maintain the sign of the cross, in addition to being an invocation of blessing in the name of the Trinity, is also a reminder that our faith has both vertical and horizontal dimensions. Both are necessary, neither are sufficient.

On the one hand, we must have a “personal relationship” with God. To sustain our faith in times of trial, we must have had some sort of encounter, some sort of conversion, some time of wrestling with God. We need personal prayer lives, open communication. We need to search the scriptures for ourselves and, with help from the great teachers and saints that have gone before us, learn to discern what the word of God says to us in our particular location in time and space. At times, we need to withdraw from the crowds and go to the mountain to pray. We need the vertical dimension. But we cannot stay atop the mountain. Our encounters with God and our relationship with him must - and will - drive us towards re-engagement with society - with our neighbors who enable us to give meaning to the stories we tell by the lives we live in relation to them. We need the horizontal dimension as well.

All of this has ramifications for the practice of health care. If we understand our lives as one long litany of liturgies, then the gestures we perform on Sunday will, in turn, form our lives for engagement with “the world” on Monday through Saturday. The sign of the cross - one such liturgical gesture - can help us to see the fundamental connectedness of all of God’s creation, not the least of which being the connection of one human to another, us to our neighbor, I to thou. A recognition of this reality - itself a reflection of the Creator - will help us to see that the health of the “other” is integral to our own well being and human flourishing. This will help us to overcome the estrangement that often rides on the coattails of disease. This will help us to see that when 47 million neighbors have little to no access to health care, we are not well. This will help us to see the importance of “community” in “Christian Community Health Fellowship.”

It will also help us to see the importance of “Christian” in “Christian Community Health Fellowship,” for our motivation for engagement andstruggle with and among those that society forgot comes not from some vague, altruistic impulse, but from the sign of the cross and the story it represents - God’s solidarity with us. Seeing the world liturgically will help us to overcome our proclivity to live our faith in isolation from others. Seeing the world liturgically will also remind us how necessary it is for us to be connected - deeply and profoundly - to the Source and Author of life. Seeing the world liturgically - through the sign of the cross - will help us to recall that neither the vertical nor the horizontal aspects of our faith are sufficient; both are necessary.

So, in the light of this ancient gesture, let us “go, heal the sick and tell them the kingdom of God has come near to them” - in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Joseph Wolyniak is the Advocacy Coordinator in the Franciscan Coalition for Justice and Peace—a ministry of the Catholic Community of St. Francis in Raleigh, NC. There he helps lead a team of parishioners and health-care practitioners devoted to addressing the conditions that create inequality in the US health-care system. He can be contacted at Joseph.Wolyniak [at] stfrancisraieigh [dot] org.


1 De cor. MiL, iii

2 With a few notable exceptions, that is. Unitarians, Oneness Pentecostals, Mormons, and Jehovah’s Witnesses are some faith traditions that reject Trinitarian theology. The relation of these faith traditions to “orthodox Christianity” and the majority of Christian denominations that do confess belief in a triune God is, however, far beyond the focus of this present inquiry.

3 Catechism of the Catholic Church. New York:

Doubleday, 1995, §1324,, #234.

Tags: H&D, Biblical Principles


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